28 September 2015

the visual melody of infrastructure

A mini-hydroelectric station on River Brathay, Lake District United Kingdom. Photo by Alan Wiig, July 2015.

Teju Cole has a nicely digressive essay in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Far Away from Here, that is a study of travel and photography in Switzerland. Cole writes:

Only direct observation can reveal [the particularities of places]. The way streetlights and traffic signs vary, the most common fonts, the slight variations in building codes, the fleeting culture of ads (different in each place, even when the company is a multinational), the noticeable shift in the range of hues that people wear in a given city, the visual melody of infrastructure as it interacts with terrain.
This last piece of the sentence is a wonderfully vivid description of infrastructure as a part of a landscape rather than a distraction from it. In certain settings, infrastructure both frames and focuses the wider scene, gathering the eye on particular details, then expanding the view to the way the equipment, the system, the concrete, the steel, the brick, the plastic, makes the place. The nature of infrastructure is to universalize. This is the work of the International Organization of Standardization among others, to make sure mobile phones connect in different countries, that automotive tires fit to rims, that steel and glass conform to pre-determined codes. But in the landscape, infrastructure takes on local character as it is adapted into particular cultural contexts, and these adaptations offer a "visual melody" that a makes place-difference distinct.

09 April 2015

Data Across Scales: The Geography of Data Centers

One Wilshire in downtown Los Angeles, one of the most important data centers in the world. The potential of data to reshape design requires the infrastructural landscape produced in and through spaces like this. Photo by Alan Wiig, June 2014.

Harvard University's Graduate School of Design is hosting an international, interdisciplinary conference next Friday, "Data Across Scales: Reshaping Design". I'll be speaking in the 7pm session about the geography of data and the impact of data centers and colocation points, examining the storage, maintenance, and transmission of data as an urban concern. Details on my presentation follow.

The disposition of data to transform social exchange is predicated on pervasive connection to global telecommunication networks, where the ‘high design’ of digital, mobile technologies like an Apple iPhone function through mundane, distributed, operational landscapes that transfer information across distance while also affecting proximate space in consequential ways. Understanding the impact of data on the planetary, networked urban condition necessitates conceptualizing the relationship between data infrastructures and the fabric of the city.

The relationship between data to space extends beyond the sensors, services, and mobile devices that transfigure information into data. Pervasive connectivity and ubiquitous computing are central, common elements of contemporary urban life. Data centers act as objects of translation between individuals and the city. While data is largely immaterial except in the action it enables, the storage, maintenance, and transmission of data require many layers of interfacing telecommunication infrastructure that function across scales but are always, inherently embedded in particular places. Data centers, as a central element in the dispersal of data-based decision-making, operate within a variety of spatial contexts. Data centers connect individual users but are typically separated from their proximate neighborhood, embodying the juxtaposition between highly designed connective objects in the form of smartphones and other mobile computing devices, and the quotidian landscape of United States urbanism. I argue that understanding the impact of data on the planetary, networked urban condition necessitates conceptualizing the relationship between data infrastructures and the fabric of the city.

Information technologies and the data they function through have absolutely impacted urban life, yet the disposition of data to transform social exchange is predicated on infrastructural relationships with their own place in the built environment. The ‘high design’ of digital, mobile technologies like an Apple iPhone function through mundane, distributed operational landscapes that transform distance while also affecting proximate space in consequential ways. Visualizing data as a material construct is a means of considering the spatial effects of data.

This presentation investigates the spatial consequences of data through the data centers, fiber-optic cables, and cellular antenna sites enabling mobile, ubiquitous connectivity. These embedded systems form an elemental part of data-driven urban exchange, even as they often remain relatively invisible. Comparative examples of data centers, submarine and terrestrial fiber-optic cabling, and related digital infrastructure will be shown, drawn from fieldwork in California and the North East US over the last five years. A case study of the public face of data centers in Philadelphia will also examine the Philadelphia Navy Yard, a ‘smart city’, globalized free zone highly integrated into data networks across scales, as well as touching on the relationship of data centers and data in general to energy and electrical infrastructure. The centrality of data to our experience of the physical world, to debates over open governance and civic exchange, must also engage with the aesthetic of and politics of data centers themselves.

07 April 2015

Discussing African urbanism and infrastructure in the de-industrialized Northeast USA

Photo by Jonathan Silver. 

My colleague Jonathan Silver (@invisiblemapper) of Durham University's Geography Department is giving two talks next week, one on Monday afternoon at Temple University and one on Wednesday afternoon at Clark University. Details below; the talks are open to the public and I can answer questions directly or through the comments on this post. Note as well that the Temple University talk will be followed with a walking tour that I will lead to the site of the Stetson Hat Factory in North Philadelphia to compare Jonathan's research on African urbanization and the provision of networked infrastructures with the state of infrastructure and the urban condition in inner city Philadelphia. The event at Clark University will proceed as a walking lecture examining the topic through Main South, Worcester.

Talk One

Sponsored by Temple University Geography-Urban Studies, Graduate Student Association Colloquium Series:

Incremental infrastructures: Material improvisation and social collaboration across post-colonial Accra

Monday April 13, 2015, 3:00-5:00 PM
Weigley Room, Gladfelter Hall 9th Floor
Approaching the informal construction and extension of infrastructures through the terrain of “the incremental” opens up new platforms of analysis for post-colonial urban systems. This refers to ad- hoc actions on the part of slum dwellers to connect to energy networks or carve out informal living spaces. In this seminar Jonathan Silver argues that incrementalism is produced and subsequently secured and scaled through material configurations that seek to test and prefigure new forms of infrastructure and accompanying resource flows. Using a case study of energy and housing systems in a low-income neighborhood in Accra to define and examine these incremental infrastructures the seminar examines shifts in the Accra energy network as urban dwellers rework connections to flows of electricity and consider the material adjustment of housing and the role of cooperation in responding to threats of demolition and displacement. Together, incremental infrastructures and the ways that they are constituted may articulate a prefigurative politics in which residents seek to generate access to new infrastructural worlds.

The talk will be followed by a ‘walkshop’, co-organized with Alan Wiig (Temple University Geography- Urban Studies) exploring these issues in a North American context in the neighborhoods surrounding the university.

Talk Two

Sponsored by Clark University's Graduate School of Geography

Postcolonial urbanisms and a comparative theory of infrastructure: A walking lecture

Wednesday April 15 from 1:15-2:30pm
Meet at 1:15 outside the Geography Building
Across the social sciences, the growing importance of understanding cities through the infrastructures that sustain urban life create new challenges in how we research global processes of urbanization. Despite this attention there has been surprisingly little work that has sought to compare the various conceptions of infrastructures in ways that could develop a global theorization, relevant to the global North and South. This walking seminar is predicated on asking a series of questions concerning infrastructures from a post-colonial perspective. Can theories of infrastructure in cities of the global South help in understanding urban infrastructures across the global North? For instance, are there commonalities between informal, slum neighborhoods in Africa and de-industrialized cities in the Northeast United States? Does the changing nature of infrastructure operation, maintenance, provision and politics generate the need and context for a new global (urban) theory of infrastructure? This walking lecture seeks to develop an empirically and conceptually informed response to such questions by engaging with the landscape of Worcester. We will meet outside the Geography Building and proceed through the Main South, returning to Clark University. Wear comfortable shoes, bring a camera and a notebook.

Jonathan Silver is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Geography, Durham University. His PhD at Durham sought to understand the political ecologies of networked systems across Accra and Cape Town’s electricity network. Jonathan is currently working on the SAMSET project investigating energy geographies across cities in Uganda, Ghana and South Africa together with work on understanding post-colonial urbanisms through work on sanitation and everyday infrastructures.

02 April 2015

New essay published: IBM's smart city as techno-utopian policy mobility

A view of Providence's smart city downtown redevelopment at sunset, December 2014. Photo by author. A full set of photos of Providence's smart city project from 2012, 2013, and 2014 can be found on Flickr.

The latest issue of City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action was published yesterday. It contains an essay of mine about the work of IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge to improve urban problems through information technology-focused policy solutions. I'm happy to finally be able to share this work publicly. A link to the pre-press copy of the essay is at the bottom of the blogpost, as are details about contacting me for the final version. The publisher, Taylor & Francis, offers fifty free downloads of the essay here.
 IBM's smart city as techno-utopian policy mobility


This essay explores IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge as an example of global smart city policymaking. The evolution of IBM’s smart city thinking is discussed, then a case study of Philadelphia’s online workforce education initiative, Digital On-Ramps, is presented as an example of IBM’s consulting services. Philadelphia’s rationale for working with IBM and the translation of IBM’s ideas into locally adapted initiatives is considered. The essay argues that critical scholarship on the smart city over-emphasizes IBM’s agency in driving the discourse. Unpacking how and why cities enrolled in smart city policymaking with IBM places city governments as a key actor advancing the smart city paradigm. Two points are made about the policy mobility of the smart city as a mask for entrepreneurial governance. 1) Smart city efforts are best understood as examples of outward-looking policy promotion for the globalized economy. 2) These policies proposed citywide benefit through a variety of digital governance augmentations, unlike established urban, economic development projects such as a downtown redevelopment. Yet, the policy rhetoric of positive change was always oriented to fostering globalized business enterprise. As such, implementing the particulars of often- untested smart city policies mattered less than their capacity to attract multinational corporations.


The smart city has arrived, albeit unevenly and in different manifestations, through the continued implementation of information technologies in mediating urban governance, civic exchange, and the flow of people, goods, and data through cities (Hollands 2008; Luque et al. 2014; Townsend 2013). The critical engagement with the smart city in urban scholarship articulates the problematic role major information technology corporations play in pushing this ‘techno-utopian’ vision of urban change (Luque et al. 2014, 74). This paradigm advances a ‘smartmentality’ (Vanolo 2013) of urban management through data-driven metrics, verging on a new era of ‘governing through code’ (Klauser et al. 2014). IBM has emerged as a leading proponent of the smart city discourse over the last five years, and the global information technology corporation worked at becoming what Söderström et al. (2014) term an ‘obligatory passage point’ delimiting and defining the smart city governance paradigm (citing Callon 1986). And yet, little of this scholarship looks beyond the policy narratives of smart city initiatives to actively ground the work in cities that adopted these policies (Kitchin 2014a). 
The techno-utopian vision of and discourse around the smart city matters, a point Söderström et al. argue (2014), but the agency of this discourse, and IBM’s role in furthering the discourse, must be balanced against the rationale cities gave for enrolling in smart city policymaking to begin with. For instance, IBM’s bombastic and prolific promotional materials, white papers, and policy reports all offer a rhetoric of transformative change that is not necessarily reflected in the outcomes of the initiatives, a point that will be expanded on below. The continued critique of the smart city must be mediated through examinations of how the policies are assembled, adapted, and implemented. 

By charting the evolution of IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge, a three-year event beginning in 2010 where IBM donated their consultation services to strategize technology-driven solutions for a variety of urban problems, this essay examines IBM's smart city policymaking as an example of globally-circulating policy mobilities (McCann and Ward 2011). Via the Challenge, cities adopted IBM’s smart city proposals to achieve what McCann (2013) termed ‘extrospective policy boosterism’ using policy, in this case untested techno-utopian policy, to highlight ambitious economic potential. The smart city acted as a mask for entrepreneurial governance strategies. Instead of improvements specifically targeted to business enterprise such as downtown redevelopment, the policies proposed widespread urban change through digital augmentation. The cities that participated in the Challenge were able to present an image of competitive, creative, and strategic governance immediately following the global financial crisis, a time when municipal budgets were cut by shrinking tax revenues. Successfully enacting IBM’s policies was not necessarily a city’s priority. 

With a case study of Philadelphia’s smart city initiative, Digital On-Ramps, I argue that aligning policy rhetoric with a city’s needs was much more complex than implementing a technological fix. IBM’s Philadelphia initiative called for solving chronic underemployment among 600,000 residents in the de-industrialized inner city through a workforce education software application (typically called an ‘app’) (IBM 2011a). This was a step in the longer, messier process of engaging government, non-governmental organizations, private enterprise, and community stakeholders in creating job opportunities in Philadelphia. This smart city app could be useful to city residents, but as proposed by IBM and celebrated by Philadelphia’s mayor it was successful primarily as a promotional device. Implementation of the smart city policy was secondary to the utility of the initiative in selling the city as a promising location for globalized enterprise to set up businesses. For this particular presentation of the smart city, the intended audience was outward-focused beyond the city and its residents, intended to signify the city as smart much more than to advance a new regime of data-driven urban governance. Smart city policymaking proposed citywide benefit, instead of direct benefit to business enterprise through downtown redevelopment, but the overall goal was to signal the city as attractive to global business. 


To continue reading, you can download a pre-production version here. The final, published version is available at City's website. Leave a comment, reach out on Twitter @alanwiig or email me - details in the About section at the bottom of the page. 

Wiig, A. 2015. IBM’s smart city as techno-utopian policy mobility. City 19 (2-3): 258–273.

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.