24 February 2015

Upcoming talk: The smart city is a techno-utopian fantasy

Philadelphia City Hall, 2013. Photo by Alan Wiig.
This coming Thursday 26 February I've been invited by Cities@Manchester to speak. My talk will critique the smart city through a case study of Philadelphia's recent work with IBM.

The smart city is a techno-utopian fantasy: A case study of IBM in Philadelphia

Smart city initiatives have been adopted worldwide, proposing techno-utopian solutions to urban problems big and small. These policies are indicative of the digitization of urban life, where social and economic exchange rely on globalized telecommunications networks and digitally-focused governance strategies. Propelled through events such as IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge, the smart city offers a data-driven logic of widespread benefit to a city and its residents that masks the underlying advancement of entrepreneurial development objectives. The rhetoric of intelligent, transformative digital change works much more to “sell” a city in the global economy than to actually improve urban conditions. Through a case study of IBM’s policy consultation in Philadelphia, I argue that the promotional capacity of the smart city worked to drive economic growth in specific, already-well-off areas of globally-oriented enterprise. Philadelphia proposed an online application (app) for training up to 600,000 low-literacy residents for jobs in the information and knowledge economy, while at the same time highlighting as “smart” everything from the city’s relative location in the megalopolitan Northeast United States to the ready potential for creating new industries in the region. By tracing the smart city initiative into the fabric of the city itself, this presentation highlights the inconsistencies of a policy aimed at reducing inequalities through enterprise that cannot support the individuals in need. The spatial consequences of the smart city in Philadelphia reinforced a zone-based urbanism more-typically found in Asia or the Middle East. In its supposed efforts at civic engagement, the smart city instead furthered the splintering of the urban landscape.

Further details can be found here.

22 February 2015

Upcoming talk: Batteries, chargers and plugs: Charting the energy demands of mobile communication

This picture I took on SEPTA's Regional Rail in Philadelphia last year exemplifies this emerging social practice: this student (I assume as much since he got off the train at Temple University's stop) chose the seat by the door to access this electrical outlet, to top off his smartphone before heading to class. The outlet apparently works, but it decidedly was not intended for this use. Photo by Alan Wiig, 2014. 

For the last week I've been in residence at Lancaster University's DEMAND Centre, working on a research project examining the energy demands of mobile communication and digital connectivity, specifically focusing on changing social practices around charging mobile devices in public, while in transit. This coming Wednesday February 25 I'll be giving a talk on the research.


Batteries, chargers and plugs: charting the energy demands of mobile communication 

The use of smartphones to access the Internet while on the move is a common aspect of everyday, personal mobility in the twenty-first century. Transit, weather, and social media applications (apps) engageindividuals' attention during commutes, but the energy demands needed to power computing devicesleads many users to employ creative, informal actions around charging batteries in inappropriate places. There is a growing pressure fortransportation planners to provide electrical outlets and charging stations systemwide. Using fieldwork conducted on trains and in train stations in Northern England and the Northeast United States prompts the following line of inquiry: What is the role of electrical energy and batteries in enabling both mobile communication and ubiquitous connectivity while in motion? How is the social practices around constant, wireless connectivity shaping the spaces of transportation? What are the infrastructural provisions that transit providers must now consider around plug loads for battery charging? And finally, what are the larger implications of battery charging and general electricity use for patterns of local, regional, and global mobility?

If any readers are in the area the talk is open to the public. Further information here.

16 November 2014

the materiality of planetary urbanization

A Sunoco gas station in Worcester, Massachusetts. November 2014.
If a global urban age is indeed currently dawning, this circumstance cannot be understood adequately with reference to the formation of global cities or large-scale megacity regions but requires systematic consideration of the tendential, if uneven, operationalization of the entire planet--including terrestrial, subterranean, oceanic, and atmospheric space--to serve as an accelerating, intensifying process of urban industrial development. Insofar as the dominant model of capitalist urbanization continues to be based upon the generalized extraction, production, and consumption of fossil fuels, it is directly implicated in a form of global ecological plunder that has permanently altered the earth's soils, oceans, rivers, and atmosphere with unprecedented levels of pollution and toxic waste. (Brenner 2014, 47)

Planetary urbanization may be the manifestation of “the ongoing creative destruction of political-economic space under early twenty-first century capitalism” (Brenner 2013, 94). Urbanization as a capitalist economic phenomena, especially at the scale of the planet, is produced through many infrastructures layered and interconnected through and between cities and the greater landscape. These networks create the urban of planetary urbanization. Some infrastructures are more global than others: petroleum in particular illustrates the underlying systems literally and metaphorically fueling planetary urbanization. The extraction of crude oil, its distribution through transmission pipes and oil tankers, ports, routes of oceanic travel, refineries, then dispensation to gas stations is a continuous process crucial to planetary urbanization. At the station, the end user in a private automobile withdraws and pays for the fuel that facilitates automobility (the typically credit card-based payment for the fuel ties the individual into another planet-spanning infrastructure: the telecommunications systems for banking and finance that process the payment). 

Gas stations operate as components in a distributed terrain transcending any one city as it enfolds many distinct, material spaces within a repeated pattern, a logic of "spatial products" (Easterling 2005) that sit at the core of planetary urbanism. As Brenner's long quote argues, "planetary" condition is created through fossil fuels, which are consumed in any number of ways, the most visible via gas stations. Gas stations are the tangible point where fuel appears, transferring from underground storage tank to a vehicle's gas tank. The fuel never appears except in a spill, even though its existence is undeniable and necessary. These quotidian filling stations are inescapable, especially in a car-centric country like the United States. Even so, they occupy particular spaces along thoroughfares, near freeway on-ramps, and so on, in a design lexicon that both accommodates cars and is similar everywhere; you always know how to interact with a gas station.   

The logic of contemporary capitalism as a global construct is not inherent: it is created and maintained. Planetary urbanization may explain the outcomes of global capitalism today, enclosing all spaces and exceeding all municipal boundaries, yet conceptualizing the theory necessitates engaging with the flows of many infrastructures that have global reach, to the point of re-conceptualizing urban infrastructure itself around the importance of, and local-to-global impacts of, these systems that constitute capitalism and consequently planetary urbanization. By its very nature there is no singular artifact or space of planetary urbanism. Applying the theory to particular places and processes we engage with regularly and see daily is, perhaps, a means of locating theory everywhere, globally. 

An Xtra Fuels gas station in Beacon, New York. November 2014.

Note about this post: 

As a theoretical framing of the contemporary urban-global condition, planetary urbanization is gaining traction through the work of urbanists Neil Brenner, his writing partner Christian Schmid, and Brenner's Urban Theory Lab at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. While their work thus far has focused on mapping territories and flows of planetary urbanization, there is a need to contextualize emblematic or representative spaces of this theory as well, the "operational landscapes" of this theory where the planetary congeals into particular, material terrains. This post is merely a starting point of an ongoing discussion that Rob Holmes of Mammoth have begun, leading up to the 2015 Association of American Geographers' Annual Meeting in Chicago, where we have organized a session engaging the debate, Infrastructure as landscape: investigations into contemporary theories of global change (description of session here).

  • Brenner, N. 2013. “Theses on Urbanization.” Public Culture 25 (1 69) (February 18): 85–114. 
  • Brenner, N. 2014. Urban Theory Without an Outside. Harvard Design Magazine 37.
  • Easterling, K. 2005. Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.