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: 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).

02 November 2013

parallel lines.

Powerlines and a lightpost alongside Bartram Avenue, Philadelphia. July 2013.

28 October 2013

Above-ground impact of the 2nd Avenue Subway construction

2nd Avenue at 86th Street in Manhattan, looking north. September 2013.
The megaproject tunneling underneath 2nd Avenue in Manhattan, scheduled to sync into the New York City Subway system in December of 2016, has provided some marvelous images of the process of digging enormous passageways underneath existing streets and inhabited buildings, in order to actually construct the subway line. Another much, much more visible but, I would argue, less noticed element of this project is the re-purposing of part of 2nd Avenue itself to stage the construction equipment and materials, house the project managers, and provide ventilation and access to the digging sites all has to locate somewhere, and that somewhere is, at least in the 2nd Avenue and mid-80s blocks, in the far eastern lane of the boulevard.

A collection of eight streetlights awaiting placement. September 2013.

A space intended to move traffic has been transitioned--for the time it takes to complete the digging below--into a construction site for a project invisible to see above ground. Like most building sites in Manhattan, this one is loud at times with the rumble of large trucks carting away soil and debris, but the material is nowhere to be seen, carried up from the underground load-by-load, driven off somewhere else, perhaps to New Jersey? In the meantime, 2nd Avenue is home to a collection on-site office trailers, what the Center for Land Use Interpretation terms "the invisible architecture of the urban environment".

Note the signage on the blue tarps indicating what business is obscured by this construction structure. The muted, neutral grey of the temporary building speaks well to its "invisibility". September 2013.
Looking south into the construction area. September 2013.

For more great photos of documenting the process of building the subway line, New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority's Flickr page is worth a look. The MTA's Flickr account is a great example of the utility of social media to city agencies - there is lots of behind the scenes, under and above-ground photos of areas of New York City that most visitors and residents are never able to gain access to.

14 October 2013

Essay published: Everyday Landmarks of Networked Urbanism

 In downtown Philadelphia not far from City Hall,a cellular antenna array is located on top of an AT&T mobile phone retail store and a hair salon. Photograph taken by author, 2013.

The current issue of the Journal of Urban Technology was just released; it includes an essay I wrote, Everyday Landmarks of Networked Urbanism: Cellular Antenna Sites and the Infrastructure of Mobile Communication in Philadelphia. Readers of this blog will recognize many overlapping themes and concerns in the essay as it more formally details the research on mobile communication systems and ubiquitous computing infrastructures in Philadelphia.

The journal's publisher, Taylor & Francis, offers fifty free downloads of the essay at this link for those of you without academic affiliations.

The abstract and introductory section of the essay follows.

At the center of the image is an AT&T cellular antenna affixed to an electricity pylon alongside the Schuylkill River flyover for Roosevelt Boulevard in Fairmount Park, Northwest Phila- delphia. Photograph taken by author, 2012.
Everyday landmarks of Networked Urbanism: Cellular antenna sites and the infrastructure of mobile communication in Philadelphia

ABSTRACT: Harnessing the utility of mobile communication and the mobile Internet is a common, everyday aspect of the urban condition today. The wireless connectivity these pocketable devices harness is produced through an electromagnetic overlay that emanates from cellular antenna and towers. These sites have a distinct if often overlooked presence in the urban landscape of the United States. Through fieldwork in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this essay examines the aesthetic impact of telecommunications network equipment such as cellular sites as a means of locating these sites as key socio-technical actors in one of the information and telecommunication infrastructures of contemporary, networked urbanism.

Alongside the Schuylkill River on the western edge of downtown Philadelphia, two of AT&T’s cellular antenna arrays are bolted to the top of this building, 500 South 27th Street, which is a prominent node in AT&T’s national telecommunication network. Photograph taken by author, 2011.
Study a city and neglect its sewers and power supplies (as many have), and you miss essential aspects of distributional justice and planning power. Study an information system and neglect its standards, wires, and settings, and you miss equally essential aspects of aesthetics, justice, and change. (Star, 1999: 379, citing Latour and Hermant, 1998).

Anywhere a connection to a mobile communication network can be found, a cellular site is nearby. Cellular antenna broadcast their communicative potential throughout an area, disregarding distinctions between public and private spaces—as well as the built and natural environment—as the network equipment connects individuals to each other and to the Internet via larger systems of fiber-optic cabling, data centers, and so on (for further discussion of the engineering of telecommunications systems, see Ascher, 2007; Hayes, 2006). To check an email, find directions with a locative mapping program, interact with social media, or to access any number of other uses of the mobile Internet requires the dispersal of ubiquitous, monotone grey and white, thin vertical rectangular boxes mounted throughout high points in a city. The “always-on” nature of mobile connectivity is created through the maintenance of these cellular networks, a situation described by human-computer interaction as well as urban scholars as “ubiquitous computing”, which is defined as the dispersal of computing power—through devices like mobile phones—into the urban landscape itself, with the subsequent changes to urban movement and the flow of information throughout a city and the world (Dourish and Bell, 2011; Greenfield and Shepard, 2007; Weiser, 1991). The potential of ubiquitous computing is inherently dispersed throughout a city’s “electromagnetic terrain” (Mitchell, 2003: 55), but at the same time the connection to information and communication networks requires the cellular sites—among other equipment such as wireless Internet (wi-fi) routers—from which this service emanates.

The individual device, such as an Apple iPhone, may fit in a pocket, but the background network is immense, stretching across cities and encompassing much of the world. The last leg of the infrastructural support is wireless and immaterial, but the rest of the system exists as distinct spaces of network equipment embedded within the landscape (see Ascher, 2005: 130-131; Hayes, 2006: 303-311 as well as Graham and Marvin, 2001). As the writer Andrew Blum’s work charting the infrastructure of the Internet shows, data centers house the servers which contain our digital information footprint; a vast array of terrestrial and submarine fiber-optic cabling transmits this information (Blum, 2012), and the final connection to the user can be made through cellular antenna (Hayes, 2006). The aesthetic design and utility of, for instance, an Apple iPhone is of particular concern to the individual user and to Apple, but the design of the infrastructural support is more mundane, similar to other elements of municipal infrastructures such as electricity pylons or wooden telephone poles tying together fixed-line telecommunication systems. Because cellular sites often sit higher than the surrounding city, they become what engineers Claire Barratt and Ian Whitelaw call an “everyday landmark” of the city (Barratt and Whitelaw, 2011: 184). Considering cellular sites as landmarks of contemporary networked urbanism is a productive first step in examining the role this equipment play in cities today.

Philadelphia presents a productive location for examining these issues because the city encompasses many interwoven urban eras from the Colonial to the post-industrial present day. The physical infrastructures of modern, nineteenth-and-twentieth century Philadelphia—water, electricity, gas, street transportation and railroads—are layered with the late twentieth century’s information and communication infrastructures, as well as freeways, a major airport, and the ubiquitous connectivity systems of the twenty-first century, on a street grid originally laid out in the seventeenth century by the city’s founder, William Penn (Dunn and Dunn, 1982: 5). Freestanding cellular sites in Philadelphia often occupy the interstitial margins of the city, wedged into an empty lot alongside a major roadway or standing over a residential neighborhood. While an analysis of the locations of cellular sites indicates that many of the skyscrapers and other buildings of the central business district have cellular antenna either on top of or bolted to the side of their walls, these locations are high up on private property and consequently difficult to observe (General Data Resources, 2013).
The infrastructural aesthetic for cellular equipment seems to focus on presumptions of invisibility and anonymity as well as functional concerns placed before formal design considerations. Muted colors such as whites and greys dominate, with seemingly little attention paid to the impact on integrating the design of the structure with the urban fabric of the adjacent neighborhood. The towers’ heights are meant to disperse the cellular signal over a large area, while the antenna themselves act as a “base station” sending and receiving radio-transmission of information are typically clustered in groups of three parallel to the ground to broadcast their signals (IEEE, 2012b). At the street-level, these towers and their attendant ground-level equipment are typically surrounded by a chain link fence displaying some information about who owns and operates the tower, such as AT&T or Verizon, as well as one or more “No Trespassing” signs. Cellular sites are a perpetually repeatable component dispersed throughout cities and the world to provide wireless network connectivity; the aesthetic intent of this equipment is not locally variable nor does it readily adapt to the particular historic legacies of the neighborhoods in which the equipment is situated. Even so, cellular sites may not have a unique presence in the landscape, but they are still a key actor the networks enabling information exchange in cities today.

This essay focuses on the equipment that supports the wireless exchange of information in the urban space of Philadelphia as a means of locating and grounding these immaterial flows in the built and natural environments of the city itself, of making visible the systems responsible for transforming the landscape into a space for the active, wireless transmission of information. I first discuss mobile communication and the mobile Internet as a component of networked urbanism today using recent developments spatializing and urbanizing Actor-Network Theory to do so (Farias and Bender, 2010; Latour, 2005; McFarlane, 2011). The majority of the essay takes the information and infrastructure studies scholar Susan Leigh Star’s call for ethnographies of infrastructure (1999), from which the introductory quote is drawn, to investigate the aesthetics of cellular antenna and tower sites. The intent of this examination is to draw attention to this new layer of urban infrastructure that in less than twenty years has become a pervasive element in the landscape of cities and open spaces throughout the United States, and to consider what it takes for a mobile computing device to connect to the globalized telecommunications networks.


To read more of the essay, go to the Journal of Urban Technology's site at Taylor & Francis to download the final essay for free; the pre-production version of the essay is available for download as a .pdf here.

KEYWORDS: infrastructure, wireless, mobile communication, cellular antenna tower, Philadelphia, AT&T 

Standing high above its south Philadelphia neighborhood, this AT&T cellular tower backs on to the playground for a community center. Photograph taken by author, 2012.