Tag Archives: urbanism

the captured city

Seems like Jathan Sadowski (previously) is doing pre-promo for a new book on the “smart city” memeplex:

The “smart city” is not a coherent concept, let alone an actually existing entity. It’s better understood as a misleading euphemism for a corporately controlled urban future. The phrase itself is part of the ideological infrastructure it requires. As the cliché goes: Who wants to live in a dumb city? But if we focus on the version of smart urbanism on display in corporate brochures and concept designs, even if critically, we may miss the real impact of the underlying transformations in urban governance they foretell […]

These technologies treated the city like a battlespace, redeploying information systems originally created for military purposes for urban policing. Sensors, cameras, and other networked surveillance systems gather intelligence through quasi-militaristic methods to feed another set of systems capable of deploying resources in response. In reality, the urban command centers — or, the sophisticated analytics software that create relational networks of data, like that produced by the CIA-funded Palantir — are built primarily for police, not planners, let alone the public.

Contrary to the suggestions of “smartness” shills, these systems are not used by the general public but on it.

I was sold even before I hit the Haraway citation.

The secret theft of private experience

All these images are illusions of progress or spaces where progress can be hosted. Just as suburbs were sold to postwar America as an idea of living, the smart city is a vehicle to sell a focus-grouped future. But these marketing images aren’t selling smart cities to you and me—they’re made to demonstrate that the city is a place where profits stand to be made. The smart city isn’t a technological utopia, or an environmental lifeboat. It’s a few PowerPoint slides in a conference room demonstrating that there’s money to be made. And it’s coming to you soon.

Kevin Rogan at CityLab

Markets in human futures compete on the quality of predictions. This competition to sell certainty produces the economic imperatives that drive business practices. Ultimately, it has become clear that the most predictive data comes from intervening in our lives to tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes. Data scientists describe this as a shift from monitoring to actuation. The idea is not only to know our behaviour but also to shape it in ways that can turn predictions into guarantees. It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. As one data scientist explained to me: “We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way … We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”

Shoshana Zuboff at Teh Graun

I’m not sure what there is left to say about “smart cities” and predictive algos that hasn’t been said a few thousand times already by people both wiser and better placed to say them than myself. But nonetheless: the “smart city” is a zombie paleofuture, the pinnacle of the Californian Ideology, a sterile dream of an impossible tomorrow that amplifies an already untenable present. By this point, the mere sight of the moniker causes in me the same dull rage engendered by the sight of Jehova’s Witnesses stood chatting piously by their rain-jacketed booklet stands, peddling their thrice-failed but durable eschatology.

The comparative mainstreaming of these critiques is some cause for hope, however, as is the high-profile resistance to the Toronto Sidewalk project. The “smart city” has always been a metonym for the very worst aspects of solutionism and computational thinking (see Bridle’s New Dark Age). That it is increasingly understood as such is encouraging, though the gravy train of funding attached to the term is sustaining the religion in consultancy and certain sections of the academia-policy interface — the same spaces in which the “driverless car” still commands a reverent and unquestioning obeisance, funnily enough (though there are signs to suggest that particular fetish is failing to deliver on its own hype to investors).

As for panopticon urbanism, if there’s any upside to the ugly and opportunistic (re)positioning of China as the West’s Big Other de siècle, that regime’s enthusiastic embrace of the “smart city” as a buildable project will likely provide some illustrative examples of the perils of authoritarian-solutionist governance… heck, if you’re paying attention (and haven’t already succumbed to the totalising dehumanisation-of-Muslims narrative), they already are.

“The very parameters of global urbanism”: Easterling (2014), Extrastatecraft

  • Easterling, K. (2014). Extrastatecraft: The power of infrastructure space. Verso Books.

This book is basically a condensation of all Easterling’s work preceding it – which isn’t entirely surprising, but worth noting nonetheless. In the context of the task at hand at time of taking these notes, the main point to be made is that the “smart city” is basically just a rebadging of what Easterling identifies as “the zone” (note that her list of examples are all cities which have been described as being “smart”: KAEC in Saudi, Songdo, Cyberjaya, HITEC Hyderabad – p. 15); this means that we can get away from the notion that “smartness” is anything to do with any specific technology or policy (or suite thereof), and think of it instead as an iteration of the “spatial softwares” designed to produce a space in which extrastatectraft might be performed. In this way, we can see data as both the means and the end of control: urban space as an economic and ideological Taylorist panopticon.

The shared standards and ideas that control everything from technical objects to management styles also constitute an infrastructure. Far from hidden, infrastructure is now the overt point contact and access between us all – the rules governing the space of everyday life.

(p. 11; note that Easterling kinda undermines that “far from hidden” point later, modifying it to something closer to “hidden in plain sight” – its ubiquity makes it invisible, in other words. This is a continuation of Easterling’s multi-book riff on “spatial products”, which is a dominant feature of her magisterial Enduring Innocence (2005), but which in turn has its origins in Organisation Space (1999), both from MIT Press.)

Now not only buildings and business parks but also entire world cities are constructed according to a formula – and infrastructural technology […] Manifest in these stock specifications, infrastructure is then not the urban substructure but the urban structure itself – the very parameters of global urbanism.

(p. 12; “technology” being used here in the broader original sense of practices, rather than the more recent false specificity of devices)

Infrastructure space has become a medium of information. The information resides in invisible, powerful activities that determine how objects and content are organised and circulated. Infrastructure space, with the power and currency of software, is an operating system for shaping the city.

(p. 13)

[Riffing on McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”, and his observation that content is mere meat to distract “the watchdog of the mind”]: … the activity of the medium or infrastructural matrix – what it is doing rather than what it is saying – is sometimes difficult to detect.

(p. 13; triumph of surface over substance, marketing rhetorics, the prestidigitation of infrastructural magic – the latter being a riff from a talk I gave in Munich back in 2017, the video of which I’m trying to get the conference organisers to reinstate to Y*ut*be)

… dynamic systems of space, information, and power generate de facto forms of polity faster than even quasi-official forms of governance can legislate them […] As a site of multiple, overlapping, or nested forms of sovereignty, where domestic and transnational jurisdictions collide, infrastructure space becomes a medium of what might be called extrastatecraft – a portmanteau describing the often undisclosed activities outside of, in addition to, and sometimes in partnership with statecraft.

(p. 15)

[The] dominant software for making urban space: the free zone […] typically provides premium utilities and a set of incentives – tax exemptions, foreign ownership of property, streamlined customs, cheap labour, and deregulation of labour or environmental laws – to entice business.

(p. 15)

Both urban space and telecommunications are technologies and mediums of information.

(p. 17; cf. Mattern, 2018, on the always-already “smart” city)

If law is the currency of governments, standards are the currency of international organisations and multinational enterprises. ISO (the International Organisation for Standardisation) is an extra-state parliament of this global standard-making activity [and] standards create a “soft law” of global exchanges.

(p. 18)

[ISO9000] promotes the ritualised incantations of something called “quality” […] management guidelines for a process or quality system that addresses everything from the environment to government itself […] that often resembles the hilarious, upbeat argot of self-help gurus. [It is] a perfect conduit of undeclared activities and intentions with potentially dangerous consequences.

(p. 19; consequences come from the “pre-cleared” status of anyone who has hustled their way to being accredited by ISO, after which point they’re assumed to be the proverbial safe pair of hands; bonus points for the scare-quoting of “quality”, which is one of the great enduring suitcase words, as poignantly illustrated by Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

Political and economic data come cloaked in the rationality of science even though they may really present false logics or systems of belief.

(p. 20; against econometrics, and Easterling’s signature bugbear, the McKinsey consultant – a loathing which makes more sense as the years pass by)

Disposition is the character or propensity of an organisation that results from all its activity. It is the medium, not the message […] It is not the shape of the game piece but the way the game piece plays. It is not the text but the constantly updating software that manages the text. Npt the object form, but the active form […] Detecting and developing the active forms that shape disposition is an essential skill of the urbanist in infrastructure space…

(p. 21)

Examining the power of the stories, persuasions, or ideologies that accompany a technology also helps in detecting disposition […] Well-rehearsed theories, like those related to Capital or neoliberalism continue to send us to the same places to search for dangers while other concentrations of authoritarian power escape scrutiny […] shaping and managing the story is then also a crucial skill in infrastructure space.

(pp. 21-2; note that the skill with story that Easterling describes here is already well developed in the organisations that peddle the spatial products with which she is concerned; e.g. McKinsey give great story, and therein lies the problem, in that we have to learn to subvert and rewrite those stories)

“Aesthetic & ethical urbanisms”: Dobraszczyk (2019), Future Cities

  • Dobraszczyk, P. (2019). Future Cities: Architecture and the Imagination. Reaktion Books.

Good, passionate arguments here from my friend Dobraszczyk, making a case for future urban imaginaries as a necessary component of our collective coping with an uncertain future. Note his explicit disavowal of the predictive mode, and the arguments in favour of the imagination as not only (ultimately, eventually) productive of more realistically liveable cities, but also as a kind of ideological prophylactic against totalitarian ideologies. (Thus we might see Paul’s proposals here as a defence mechanism to be deployed against the totalising and black-boxing corporate narratives of “smartness” described in Sadowski & Bendor, 2019.)

Cities are always a meld of matter and mind, places that we are rooted in both physically and mentally […] rather than cleave the imagination from reason, should we not explore how the two are entangled – how together they can open up rich possibilities in terms of how we think the future?

(p. 8)

Here Dobraszczyk realises what has become a familiar truism of science fiction criticism: “Images of the future [as in science-fictional cities], no matter how fantastical they may be, are really about the present” (p. 8); I’d go further, and argue that the more fantastical the vision, the closer to the zeitgeist are the deep truths contained within.

… we now experience London as a product of Dickens’s texts [thanks to many years of Dickensian tourism opportunities… a] similar transference of imagined to real is now happening in the Blade Runner tours currently being offered to tourists in Shanghai.

(p. 10)

Against the hoarding render and the maquette: “Architectural visualization – especially in the digital age – relies upon images as tools of persuasion that effectively present something that is essentially a speculation, a fiction” (p. 10); Dobraszczyk notes that there’s often an absence of affect or feeling in these images, as they attempt to paper over “the gap between fantasy and reality”, but that absence “alerts us to the difference between fiction and fact, between the world as we find it and the world as we wish it to be.” (p. 11)

Noting the way in which the Burj Khalifa echoes an old Frank Lloyd Wright proposal for Chicago from the grand era of USian skyscrapers: “Past precedents will always be important because they almost always form the basis for more recent urban plans, no matter how unprecedented they may seem” (p. 11); see also, IMO, the way in which the “smart city” with driverless cars recapitulates the classic Futurama exhibit, in function if not in aesthetic.

“We must recognise that the imagination is key in how we ‘pre-experience’ alternative futures – how we can prepare ourselves for what might be coming. [These efforts] will not be primarily predictive – believable outcomes based on what we know already – but rather a range of stories that allow us to feel what it might be like to live in the future.”

(pp. 13-14)

“… humans need narrative to make sense of a whole range of possible outcomes that can never be predicted with any degree of certainty”; here, Dobraszczyk is advocating a “story-based approach to imagining the future [which] encompasses the metaphorical, the ethical, the aesthetic and the speculative.”

(p. 14)

Linking out to Latour, A-NT and flat-ontology positions more broadly, in the context of ecological crisis: “In thinking of buildings and cities as primarily about connections, we can open our minds to an almost infinite array of possibile futures for them – futures that will be defined by how we connect up all manner of things […] such futures can never be predictive, but they can empower us because they will release us out into worlds beyond ourselves.” (p. 15) That last phrase being perhaps the most concisely poetic argument in favour of object-oriented thinking I’ve encountered in quite some time.

Finally, an argument for the imagination amid the shared contexts of fictions and imaginaries as capable of fostering a radical resilience beyond the banal socioeconomic and/or post-disaster “bounce-backability” that the term tends to devolve to in planning discourses: a shared narrative of futurity, even when contested, “forges a link between how we imagine the future city and how we relate to it as a real place”; promoting and defending an “ecology of the human mind”, which is “vital in resisting the tendency of contemporary capitalism – or any dominating worldview – to constrain the human imagination […] imagination is already politicised because, as a faculty that only flourishes when set free, it inherently resists such subjugation”; the result is a radical conception of urban resilience that extends to a sort of plural political collectivity, akin to an ideological immunisation against totalitarian/authoritarian visions. The shared notion of the very possibility of possibility acts against its pre-emptive foreclosure by fascism, sort of thing… though I should probably note that Dobraszczyk doesn’t actually drop the f-bomb himself, here.

Sadowski & Bendor (2019), Selling smartness: Corporate narratives and the smart city as a sociotechnical imaginary

This one’s a doozy; does exactly what it says on the tin, on the basis of a deep and comparative dive into “smart city” documentation from IBM and Cisco. A useful extension of Jasanoff & Kim’s “sociotechnical imaginary” concept into the corporate mythmaking space, too.

… while some definitions identify the smart city with its technical infrastructure, the smart city is not equivalent to any single technology or collection of technologies. The sensors, networks, and algorithms associated with the smart city could be deployed in other settings and contexts. What makes them “smart city technologies,” therefore, is neither strictly technical (pertaining to functionality, instrumental causes, or driven by efficiency) nor entirely social (produced by specific actors, reflecting particular incentives, or embraced by certain institutions). Smart city technologies become smart city technologies only by association with the idea of the smart city and the narratives, logics, practices, and symbolism of which it is constituted. As a consequence, the smart city can be seen as both a container for innovation and a yardstick for evaluating innovation.

(p. 541)

… these documents [from IBM and Cisco] comprise a narrative according to which the smart city appears inevitable, the only reasonable response to an impending urban crisis. At the same time, since the smart city as an “actually existing” sociotechnical assemblage is still nascent, we argue that the smart city is an anticipatory vision—even a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a set of orienting assumptions and operationalizable propositions about urban planning and development.

(p. 542)

… the smart city is a field of struggle over the political imagination. We should think of these corporate discourses as tools for directing and delimiting what we can imagine as possible. As this paper shows, IBM and Cisco do not set out a suite of scenarios that represent radically different visions and politics. There are variations of the services they offer, but rarely do they deviate from reflecting and reinforcing the technocratic and neoliberal precepts that motivate this vision of smart urbanism [… their] aim is to establish their version of smartness as the future—the only one available or possible.

(p. 544)

By seeking to dominate the discursive field and capture the imagination of city leaders, IBM and Cisco aim to ensure that alternative smart city imaginaries remain effectively closed off. It follows that if we are to open the space for alternatives and counter-imaginaries, then we first need to understand the principles and attributes of the dominant imaginary as a way of better knowing what needs to be challenged and how.

(p. 545)

Given this overall crisis-based framing, we can read the smart city as a reactionary story, and not only the ultimate manifestation of techno-utopian thought. To be sure, those utopian elements are still present, especially in the dreamscapes of smart cities that are built from scratch on empty plots, networked and sensored from the outset. Yet, when we consider the smart city as a piecemeal project of securing against an impending catastrophic future, it begins to take shape as a conservative project in which the best course of action is to pragmatically maintain stability and to technically control uncertainty…

(p. 550)

For tech corporations and city leaders, the sociotechnical imaginary of smart urbanism promises control over myriad urban dynamics and then outlines ways to make that dream come true [… ] the city ceases to be a messy, unknowable, and uncontrollable place. Urban elites can imagine themselves possessing a panoptical power…

(p. 552)

It is important to recognize that the language of “solutions”—like that of “smartness”—is more than just an idle label. [refs out to Bogost and Morozov re “solutionsim”; cf. also James Bridle’s “computational thinking”] By recasting everything as a problem waiting for a techno-fix, especially issues that are social in nature, the space for philosophical reflection and political contention shrinks. Furthermore, in effect, the solutionist language works backward: for those in the business of providing solutions, solvable problems are essential. The crises are tailored to justify the solutions, and the latter come in different forms and guises.

(pp. 552-3)

Three main implementation styles of the “smart city”:

By far, the most common “actually existing” smart cities are those that are retrofitted and renovated with upgrades that transition them from “dumb” to “smart.” This usually starts with one or a few initiatives meant to address a specific problem, such as parking or public safety.


Then, there is the “shock therapy” method of implementation—or what we call smart shock—in which a city undergoes a quick, large-scale integration of smart urbanism ideals, technologies, and policies into an existing landscape. In these cases, the smart city transition happens to a greater degree and over a short time period. Smart shocks are much rarer than retrofits because they require much more financial and political capital. [e.g. Rio de Janeiro]


Perhaps the most idealistic models for the smart city are built-from-scratch projects that are being constructed where nothing existed before. A canonical case is New Songdo in South Korea […] These model cities are more like showcases for the technology’s potential: why just tell customers about the smart city with a pamphlet, when you can show them the imaginary in tangible form?

(p. 554-5)

The smart city is a dynamic future-in-the-making. It is an exemplary case of how corporations, not just state actors, actively construct sociotechnical imaginaries to advance their own ends. While it is true that the corporate model is an offshoot of a deeply rooted political economic regime, we must not mistake a contingency for inevitability, despite IBM and Cisco’s efforts. In this vein, reframing and reimagining smart urbanism must involve creating counter-narratives that open up space for alternative values, designs, and models…

(p. 557)