27 October 2014

charging a car, powering a city

A Tesla electric car charging on John Street in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, across from ConEdison’s Farragut Substation. The personal mobility offered by the electric vehicle is offset by both the need to park and charge the car’s batteries and the material presence of the electricity substation in the urban landscape, a visual reminder of the energy infrastructure that powers cities.

27 August 2014

The Actually Existing Smart City

The smart city under construction in Philadelphia's Navy Yard, October 2012.

The Cambridge Journal of Region, Economy, and Society recently accepted "The Actually Existing Smart City" for publication in an upcoming special issue on the smart city. Taylor Shelton of Clark University, University of Kentucky's Matt Zook, and I co-wrote the essay this spring between Lexington, Tallinn, and Worcester harnessing online, communicative "relatives" of those very technologies that ostensibly build out the smart city. The pre-press essay submission is available in the Social Science Research Network's scholarly essay repository, and I have posted the abstract and introduction below. Speaking for the three of us, we are happy with the results and the argument we make. 

The 'Actually Existing Smart City'


This paper grounds the critique of the ‘smart city’ in its historical and geographical context. Adapting Brenner and Theodore’s notion of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’, we suggest a greater attention be paid to the ‘actually existing smart city’, rather than the exceptional or paradigmatic smart cities of Songdo, Masdar and Living PlanIT Valley. Through a closer analysis of cases in Louisville and Philadelphia, we demonstrate the utility of understanding the material effects of these policies in actual cities around the world, with a particular focus on how and from where these policies have arisen, and how they have unevenly impacted the places that have adopted them.
Smart Cities and Urban Governance in the 21st Century:
With the majority of the world’s population residing in urban areas for the first time in human history, cities are emerging as key sites of social experimentation and problem solving in the twenty-first century (Lehrer 2010; Glaeser 2011; Katz and Bradley 2013; Grabar 2013). This demographic pressure, coupled with the twin crises of a rapidly warming global climate and lingering economic instability has led to a range of new conceptualizations of the city and concomitant policy prescriptions that place cities at the center of solutions to these problems.

One of the more significant examples is that of the ‘smart city’, a somewhat nebulous idea which seeks to apply the massive amounts of digital data collected about society as a means to rationalize the planning and management of cities (cf. Townsend 2013). According to IBM, one of the major corporate players promoting this particular vision of the future city, policy makers should approach cities as a “complex network of interconnected systems” (IBM 2010), constantly creating new data that can be used to “monitor, measure and manage” urban life by “leveraging information to make better decisions…anticipating and resolving problems proactively… [and] coordinating resources to operate more efficiently” (IBM 2012). This relatively simplistic imaginary of the smart city has been roundly critiqued on a number of fronts, especially around the entangling of neoliberal ideologies with technocratic governance and the dystopian potential for mass surveillance (Hollands 2008; Sennett 2012; Greenfield 2013; Halpern et al 2013; Kitchin 2014; Vanolo 2014). There is, however, a tendency within these critical accounts to see the smart city as a kind of universal, rational and depoliticized project that largely plays out according to the terms of profit-maximizing, multinational technology companies. Ironically, this account has a good deal in common with the celebratory marketing literature produced by the likes of IBM, Cisco and Siemens, among others, which in effect reifies the vision of the smart city they wish to promote (Greenfield 2013).

In contrast, we argue that the assemblage of actors, ideologies and technologies associated with smart city interventions bears little resemblance to the marketing rhetoric and planning documents of emblematic, greenfield smart cities, such as Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, Songdo in South Korea, and Living PlanIT Valley in Portugal. Therefore, rather than focusing on new cities built from scratch in such peripheral locales, many of which have as-of-yet failed to materialize, we find it more productive to examine how the smart city paradigm is becoming grounded in particular places, especially in the more mature cities and economies of the global north. Rather than constructed on tabula rasa according to the centralized plans of multinational technology corporations, smart city interventions are always the outcomes of, and awkwardly integrated into, existing social and spatial constellations of urban governance and the built environment. Far from paradigmatic, greenfield smart cities are the exception rather than the rule, and provide little insight into the ways that an increasing attention to data is affecting the tangible outcomes of urban governance in existing cities.

This paper represents an attempt to ground the critique of smart cities in the historical and geographical context from which these ideas have arisen, connecting the ways these problems are conceived to the material effects of data-driven policy initiatives in actual cities around the world. Adapting Brenner and Theodore’s (2002) notion of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’, we seek to understand the ‘actually existing smart city’, rather than the idealized but unrealized vision that often dominates the social imaginary and critique of what a technologically-mediated city might look like in the 21st century. Rather than valorizing or demonizing the smart city, we demonstrate the complexity of this idea and the ways it is implemented in particular places, in order to counter the notion that the large technology companies are inherently ‘bad’ actors who have despoiled the ‘good’, righteous cities adopting these policies. We instead point toward a more nuanced, situated understanding of how and from where these policies have arisen, and how they are taking root in particular places around the world.

To read the rest of the essay, download it here.

14 August 2014

Call for papers: Politicizing the fabric of the city

Saint Petersburg, Russia in July 2012. Photo by Alan Wiig.

Call for Papers – Politicizing the fabric of the city: rethinking material politics in urban studies

Critical Geography Conference 2014, Philadelphia, 7-9 November 2014

As our planetary condition is increasingly an urban condition,  calls to rethink the ontology of the city are common (Brenner 2013, Merrifield 2014, Scott & Storper 2014). Indeed, references to our urban age have become “an all pervasive metanarrative” analogous to ‘modernization’ in the 1960s or ‘globalization’ in the 1990s (Brenner & Schmid 2014, p 4). Many of these attempts at reframing the definition of the planetary urban condition seek to re-engage with urban materiality, looking towards urban assemblages (McCann & Ward 2011), metabolisms (Heynen et al 2006), or networked ecologies/infrastructures (Graham & Marvin 2001). This work has produced innovative frameworks for re-thinking the territoriality of urban materials: spatial extension/concentration, translocal networking, (un)boundedness, and (non)contiguity. This session asks contributors to not only re-territorialize urban materialities, but also to politicize the ‘fabric’ of urban space: the multiple layers of land use, infrastructure, and technology which are co-present in the built environment (cf. Gandy 2014, McFarlane & Rutherford 2008). In doing so we seek to reframe interpretations of urban inequality. We explore the geographical-historical dimensions of land, infrastructure, and technology with recognition that the ‘mega’ projects and lasting material legacies which characterize the urban built environment are particularly adept at reproducing inequality at broad scales and over long temporal horizons. We seek to build conversations across critical geography paradigms, considering pathways by which political economic logics and drivers are assembled, performed, and reproduced through urban fabrics. We invite papers which explore strategies in pursuit of more progressive cities by engaging the urban fabric. This includes papers which consider topics like, but by no means limited to:

The impact of translocal assemblages and mobilities on and through urban materialities

The political economic logics and drivers which assemble/reproduce urban fabrics

Politics of the more-than-human dimensions of the urban fabric

Points of engagement between historical materialism of the city and the increasingly complex forms of urban territoriality

Diverse, ordinary, and comparative geographies of urban fabrics

Abstracts of 250 words should be sent to John Lauermann (jlauermann@clarku.edu) and Alan Wiig (alanwiig@temple.edu) by 3 September 2014. More information about the conference is available at tucriticalgeography.org

Works cited:

Brenner, Neil. (2013). Theses on urbanization. Public Culture, 25(1), 85-114.

Brenner, Neil, & Schmid, Christian. (2014, online early). The ‘Urban Age’ in question. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. doi: 10.1111/1468-2427.12115

Gandy, Matthew (2014 forthcoming). The fabric of space: water, modernity, and the urban imagination. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Graham, Stephen, & Marvin, Simon. (2001). Splintering urbanism: networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition. London; New York: Routledge.

Heynen, Nik, Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw (eds.) 2006. In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism. London; New York: Routledge.

McCann, Eugene, & Ward, Kevin (eds) (2011). Mobile urbanism: cities and policymaking in the global age. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McFarlane, Colin & Rutherford, Jonathan (2008) Political infrastructures: Governing and experiencing the fabric of the city. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32(2): 363-374.

Merrifield, Andy. (2014) The new urban question. London: Pluto Press.

Scott, Allen J., & Storper, Michael. (2014, online early). The nature of cities: the scope and limits of urban theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. doi: 10.1111/1468-2427.12134

05 May 2014

Scripts for acting like a 'smart city'

Looking for the 'smart city' in Philadelphia in the Market East shopping district.
The following piece is part of a larger project--my dissertation--on the 'smart city' in Philadelphia that is approaching completion. As the edits are worked through, I will post more in the coming months. I argue below that Keller Easterling's work, while more adapted to architectural criticism and design, still offers the most appropriate means of critiquing and understanding the 'smart city' and smart urbanism as a particularly urban concern.

Technology, Script, Disposition: Building a spatial grammar for analyzing the 'smart city'


Cities operate under various manifestations of networked urbanism, as a multi-layered assemblage of spaces, infrastructures, policies, and industry. A new spatial grammar has been developed by architectural scholar and urbanist Keller Easterling that offers a means of exploring the active potential of space to do things, such as through the widespread, ubiquitous computing technologies found in cities today. This grammar in turn to considers the expectations placed onto this potential as well as the spatial ramifications that then arise. Via the meshing of software code and networked devices, spaces within cities achieve an “active form” (Easterling 2012a) that in essence is the goal of ‘smart city’ initiatives; this mix of technologies and scripts for acting a particular way—such as ‘smart’, innovative, or competitive, whatever that might entail—foster a disposition able to achieve new things in space without necessarily changing the materiality of that space. Through these three terms, it becomes possible to integrate the socio-technical, socio-spatial potential of ‘smart city’ initiatives into the larger discussion of networked urbanism, with its zones of economic strength and high infrastructural connectivity such as central business districts or airport-logistics clusters, as well as the fractured neighborhoods of post-industrial inner city marginalization, often cut of by those same globally-integrated infrastructural linkages. Within this networked urban condition,  “Active forms design a disposition—a set of capacities for shaping space over time. Active forms are forms for handling forms” (Easterling 2012b). A ’smart city’ initiative, a globalized economic zone, or a 311 smartphone app and the pervasive connectivity it functions through do not have to actively transform space to foster new relationships therein.

This vocabulary, as an application of a Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (see for instance: Latour 1992; Latour 1993; Latour 2005; Latour and Hermant 1996) is a means of organizing the disparate literature on networked urbanism and the hybrid associations between places, people, policy initiatives, infrastructures, software and computing devices that must be assembled to study ‘smart urbanism’ and ‘smart city’ projects. Easterling considers the latent ability of infrastructures to perform certain activities, writing that “infrastructure, whether composed of digital, building or urban components is dispositional. It is made of action just as much as it is made of concrete, bits, cables or CPUs. It does not constitute an event, but must rather be observed over time as a potentiality, capacity, ability, or tendency” (Easterling 2011, 155). ‘Smart city’ initiatives, nested within patterns established by networked urbanism, becomes a social and economic infrastructure: a support system for other activities intended to develop new economic vitality, promoting ecological sustainability, and the like. Without physically transforming an area of the city, a ‘smart city’ initiative still has the active potential to impact urban space.

'Smart city’ projects were typically not planned solely to make municipal infrastructures more efficient. They were enlisted to do that, but at the same time, and more importantly, they were implemented to present a city as a ‘smart’ place, where the city’s interconnected systems function smoothly and as such were a productive place to do business. This is the particular script that has been created around most ‘smart city’ projects. To describe these new relationships Easterling writes,
“Humans script activities in technologies, and… technologies script human activities. Humans may direct the use or application of a technology, as in the choice to use electricity for lighting. As narrative or persuasion, a script may also set the ideological course for a technology. In turn, a technology delivers new capacities to enhance the activities of humans.” (Easterling 2012c, 59)
To apply these terms, technologies are the tools and systems that arrange these new relationships, scripts refer to the said and implied expectations of what a system might do as well as the discourse built on these expectations (Latour 1992), and disposition points toward the ability of a space to do something new or different. In the case of smart urbanism and the ‘smart city’, technologies are the digital systems—hardware and software and interconnectivity—that lie at the heart of the ‘smartness’ and without which the systems could not function. The scripts are stories that are told to define a subject in a particular fashion: the said and unsaid expectations of what a system might do, where expectations and understandings are built. Easterling defines disposition by adopting the mid-twentieth century philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s metaphor of a ball on a plane, which does not have to roll down the plane to have the ability to do so (Ryle 2009). A new spatial disposition is then the outcome of intertwined technologies and scripts. With smart urbanism or a ‘smart city’ initiative, the overlay of analytic and communicative potential may not be marked or signaled or even located in any particular object or physical, material area, but the disposition the ‘intelligent’ project allows is still latent in the city nonetheless.


Easterling, K. 2011. “The Action Is the Form.” In Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space, edited by M. Shepard. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Easterling, K. 2012a. “An Internet of Things.” E-Flux. Source: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/an-internet-of-things/. Last accessed May 5, 2014.
Easterling, K. 2012b. The Action Is the Form: Victor Hugo’s TED Talk. 1st ed. Moscow: Strelka Press.
Easterling, K. 2012c. “We Will Be Making Active Form.” Architectural Design 82 (5): 58–63.
Latour, B. 1992. “Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts.” In Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, edited by W. Bijker and J. Law. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Latour, B. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Latour, B., and E. Hermant. 1998. Paris Ville Invisible (Les Empecheurs de Penser En Rond). Paris: Institut Synthelabo pour le progres de la connaissance.
Ryle, G. 2009. The Concept of Mind: 60th Anniversary Edition. 60 Anv. New York City: Routledge.

22 February 2014

winter in Worcester

A collage of recent images of Worcester and surrounding countryside in central Massachusetts. 2014. Images by Alan Wiig, taken from Instagram. The top six are from Worcester, the "Paris of the 80s", the bottom three are from Rutland State Park.
Our privileged modernity is as nothing in the face of the onslaught of clouds and air, the globules of sunlight sliding across the land's surface and eating whole postcodes at will. Time moils and folds in on itself under this dancing light. 

16 January 2014

Post Updated: After the Smart City, What? -- a talk at Harvard

Looking at downtown Philadelphia from the South Street Bridge. July 2013. For more Philadelphia images from the last few years, see here.
 RESCHEDULED FOR FRIDAY MARCH 14, 2014. 2:00 pm in Knafel Hall Room K262

On Wednesday, February 5 I will give a talk at Harvard University's Center for Geographic Analysis's geography@harvard monthly colloquia series. In the talk I will use Philadelphia as a case study example of how the 'smart city' as an idea or concept has impacted United States urbanism: what the 'smart city' has actually become, and where the 'smart city' might be found. This is another way of saying: what has become of the city in a 'smart city'?

The talk is open to the public; if you are in the Boston/Cambridge area from 12:30-2:00 pm on February 5 please stop by. 

Below is the abstract to the talk. For more information see the geography@harvard colloquia webpage.


After the Smart City, What?: Ubiquitous Computing Technologies and the Networked Urban Condition


The ability of data-driven, smart city projects to generate transformative urban change are popular, important topics today, but little attention has been paid to the actual, existing cities that underlie these social and technological developments, to charting how smart city projects have integrated into the urban landscape itself. The smart city is a culmnation of ubiquitous computing and the potential of wireless connectivity to effect change. In a smart city, smartphones, networked sensors, data analytics, and the like are intended to improve the flow of people, goods, and information throughout said city. However, the impacts of these changes often remain unclear and under-examined. It is necessary to not only ask what a smart city is and could become, but also who will benefit and where the impacts of these projects will be located. Beyond the celebratory rhetoric of urban intelligence that cities employ to attract business and improve day-to-day issues for residents, this talk will investigate how cities have actively transformed. Through a place-based case study of Philadelphia’s recent smart city efforts, this talk will begin by considering how the always-on, wireless connectivity of a smart, networked city has enabled new forms of civic exchange, municipal governance, and workforce-inclusion agendas. Next I will examine the spatial consequences of Philadelphia’s entrepreneurial efforts to attract key industries of the global information and innovation economy in ‘smart’ zones of the city. The talk will conclude with a consideration of the emerging geography of smart, digital Philadelphia as emblematic of networked urbanism overlaid with ubiquitous computing: as the near-future promise of the smart city to improve the urban condition has been integrated into often splintered and polarized urban landscapes, the areas of the city that attain a 'smart' status were already well-off. For a variety of reasons I will discuss, the benefits have not dispersed very well into the greater city, signaling that this era of digitally-driven urban improvement has not yet lessened longstanding social inequalities as much as was promised.



Knafel Hall K262 - on Cambridge Street just behind the Graduate School of Design.

11 January 2014

cellular antenna sites and pervasive connectivity on the road

Powerlines, cellular antenna site in the distance, and tall roadside signage  intended to be visible from auto-bound passerby on I-81. Taken from a Sunoco gas station. January 2014.

While connection to a cellular network is typically represented as either the signal bars on a mobile phone/smartphone's screen, or via providers' coverage maps (see the maps of coverage from: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint). Outside of cities the areas of strong cellular coverage follow major highways and freeways across the United States, which makes some sense given that the majority of users in less-densely populated areas are traveling through (the lack of coverage in rural areas as an issue of digital inclusion, like the lack of rural broadband accessibility, is another topic entirely). For the mapping app to locate the vehicle as a blue dot on a screen, passing by at seventy miles an hour, or the social media to load to alleviate a moment of boredom, necessitates these tall, slender pieces of telecommunications infrastructure to be located alongside the transportation corridors.

These photos are from just north of the Mason-Dixon Line in south-central Pennsylvania. 

In the past, in this farming area barn silos were probably the tallest built elements found in the landscape...

...but now cellular antenna sites stand much taller. I-81 corridor, south central Pennsylvania. January 2014. The sunset light striking the barns and towers, and the pinks and soft blues in the background, make the towers stand out even more.

abandoned hydro-electric power plant

Abandoned hydro-electric plant. Wells Falls on Six Mile Creek, Ithaca, New York. November 2013.
Black Friday 2013 I spent exploring Ithaca, New York. In the afternoon my local guide took us on a windshield survey--aka a drive through the icy-slushy streets--of a few of the gorges that Ithaca is known for. The abandoned hydro-electric electricity generating station at Wells Falls provided a striking sunset scene of icy dereliction.

Looking down at the dam and falls seen in the previous photo. November 2013.

23 November 2013

A Return to Providence's "Smart City" downtown redevelopment

A protected tree trunk in the redevelopment area on Dyer Street. Downtown Providence, Rhode Island.

A few Saturdays ago I returned to Providence, Rhode Island to survey what work has been completed of the knowledge economy redevelopment of the Interstate 195 corridor area. I first visited the site a year ago--see this post for more information--and I wanted to document the change since then. As these images below show, the city started to transform the space into its new, smart future. The full photoset is available on Flickr.

"Smart" earth moving

"Smart" concrete drainage pipes

A "Smart" tractor.

A "Smart" sunset?

"Smart" concrete road barriers.

peripheral landscapes

Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris. July 2012.

What has not been realized at all is any corresponding automation of the production of built structures [compared to what information technology and automated production have done for work environments and other fields]. This has meant that in relative terms buildings have continued to become more expensive, while other goods have become cheaper. The volume of new construction is now less than it used to be, and western cities have not changed anything like as much as was expected in, say, the early 1960s. Most of the new landscapes which have evolved as a result of computer-driven change have been peripheral, and either ephemeral and relatively insubstantial--the logistics warehouse, the container port, the business park--or, if more substantial, have been realized only because they generate very high profits--the shopping mall, the airport.

--Patrick Keiller, from the essay Popular Science, included in The View from the Train (Verso 2013, p. 70).