29 December 2011

creating a new spatial grammar for the networked age

In the interest of furthering the discussion of what the networked city actually is, I am posting a short text I wrote recently. It is a little heavy on the academic/geographic jargon which I apologize for, but that was the audience I wrote the piece for. The sources for the in-text citations can be found at the bottom of the essay. Additionally, I would consider the essays and books cited at the bottom an excellent entry point for anyone interested in studying the geographies of the networked city. You will notice pretty quickly that there is not much traditional geography in the list; I pull from many directions and I think that doing so is a necessity for anyone studying the complexities of our contemporary moment.

A New Spatial Grammar

The world’s population is predominantly urban (UNPF 2007). The cities holding these billions of people fit no common mold. Part of recognizing and studying these new landscapes is the need for what Colin McFarlane (2011a) calls a “new spatial grammar”. As digital, pervasive computing technologies become commonplace and spread into the everyday landscape, a new spatial grammar is emerging obliquely out of computer science terms such as ‘open source’, ‘hacking’ and ‘ubiquitous computing’. Architectural historian Kazys Varnelis calls for urbanists to hack the city (Varnelis 2008, 16), to create interventions in the landscape rather than plans, and to revision the city through the many complex assemblages of culture, nature, and technologies that make up cities today. Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell (2011) bring the everyday, mobile and wireless personal and urban, ubiquitous computing technologies into the urban landscape. Saskia Sassen, acting as a public intellectual more than a political economist, calls for an ‘open source urbanism’ (2011a) and for ‘talking back to our intelligent city’ (2011b) as ways to counter the discourse coming from private information technology providers such as IBM and Cisco on the responsive ubiquitous networks embedded in the landscape.
Conceptualizing the geography of contemporary cities to include the overlay of pervasive computing connectivity necessitates bringing new terms into geography. Here are three key terms to my research:

Ubiquitous computing:
Emerging out of information science, ubiquitous computing describes the the technological overlay of everyday life. As digital technologies become so small they are essentially invisible, and as these computing technologies can communicate with each other and between individuals wirelessly, the systems become invisible (Bell and Dourish 2011; Greenfield 2006). A common example today is the mobile phone (Greenfield and Shepard 2007). The invisibility and the near-universal adoption of devices such as mobile phones is the becoming everydayness of digital technologies. The systems disappear into the landscape, in a similar way to other networked systems such as water or transportation, becoming taken-for-granted. While ubiquitous computing has typically focused on the user experience and its impact in urban spaces, there is also a significant infrastructural component to providing and maintaining these systems. Ubiquitous computing systems do not spontaneously generate, just as water does not inherently flow out of the tap. There is a spatialization to how ubiquitous technologies are used in the urban landscape, and there are spatial ramifications to how these systems are embedded in the landscape (Shepard 2001).

The geographic utility of ubiquitous computing is that this everyday overlay of digital responsiveness impacts urban spaces both through the opening up or the foreclosing of action in public space—and private or semi-private space—through the locational information received on a smartphone, or the blanketing presence of security cameras limiting the ability of a group to comfortably gather in a public park (Crang and Graham 2007). This is the ‘above ground’, individualized utility, either beneficial or repressive, of ubiquitous computing technologies, but for this always-present responsiveness to exist requires a significant amount of networked information and communication technology infrastructure, communicating across systems and across platforms. Similarly to water or electrical infrastructure systems, these digital infrastructure (Zimmerman and Horan 2004) systems have a small but noticeable impact on the urban landscape as well today, but as Saskia Sassen points out, opening up these systems visually could be a means to bring the relationships between city and citizen to the surface, to highlight how these relatively invisible technologies impact our individual and collective experiences (Sassen 2011a; 2011b). Additionally, the responsiveness—the instantaneous communicative potential—of ubiquitous computing could enable this visualizing of the flows of the modern city that Sassen speaks of. Politicizing these infrastructures locates these ubiquitous systems in the public sphere and not behind the closed doors of city hall and in the programming of private, corporate technology providers such as Cisco or IBM. These ubiquitous things, to paraphrase Bruno Latour, are a networked actor in performing public life, and their role in mediating social and spatial exchanges should be noted (Latour 2005a; 2005b).

Networked city:
The networked city is embedded with responsive, communicative ubiquitous computing capacity. The networked city is an urban form based primarily around the service industry/information economy, but also encompassing other, more traditional urban economic activities (Castells 2000; Graham and Marvin 2001). This city may still have industrial outputs, but the core economic activity is based around creative (in the largest sense), digital production. Consequently, information and communication technologies linking inter-urban and intra-urban networks together and between other nodes both near and far in the information economy are central to the socio-economic output (Mitchell 2003). The networked city is the above-ground, visual representation of the flows of the networked infrastructures that underlie the urban fabric (Graham 2002). It is important to note that the networked city is built on and around the modern, industrial city and the post-modern suburban sprawl. The networked city prioritizes flows of information, but supported by flows of modern infrastructural networks—water, electricity, and gas, and transportation (Kaika and Swyngedeouw 2000).

Architectural scholar Kazys Varnelis considers the networked city as more than a singular urban are, instead considering the megalopolitan sprawl of, for instance, the greater Northeast or Southern California as the contemporary networked city (Varnelis 2011). The on-the-ground condition of the networked city can be considered one of splintering urbanism (Graham and Marvin 2001), of glocal disconnect and zones of premium network provision, where the modern ideal of universal infrastructure provision has failed and certain areas of a city are left to crumble into ghettos, post-industrial brownfields, and other areas of general and particular neglect, while other areas, such as central business districts, edgeland office parks, corporate entertainment or heritage zones, airports, and other globally repeatable spatial products (Easterling 2005) are hyper-connected to each other, but disconnected from the particular city as a whole. Infrastructure networks in a landscape of splintering urbanism no longer—if they ever did to begin with (Coutard 2002)—exist to provide a unified urban ideal based on collective progress, but instead today provide individualized benefit at the expense of the city as a whole. 

Assemblage scholarship, as a geographic application of Actor-Network Theory, offers a means to study the spaces through which human and non-human actors, and the connecting, mediating networks, interact (Amin and Thrift 2002; Farias and Bender 2010; Latour and Hermant 2006; McFarlane 2011b). Assemblage scholarship includes the spaces through which the networks flow directly, not just as a background element to the relationships being charted. Infrastructure in the contemporary landscape is a product of the social as well as a conduit through which the social is constituted (Easterling 2011; Star 1999; Star 2002). It is possible to consider the various systems bundled together as ubiquitous computing as unique networked ecologies, and to map out how these systems interface with each other and with the city at large. Ubiquitous computing, as the spatialization and spread of everyday digital technologies into the landscape, and the networked information technology infrastructural systems that connect these communicative devices, defies place-bounded analysis. As these ubiquitous systems redefine proximity and distance for the user, they re-inscribe the landscape through instanteous connectivity. Associations between disconnected spaces are made through these pervasive communication networks. Assemblage scholarship is a means to trace these networks across space, through and between the various networked ecologies of the contemporary landscape, ecologies that may or may not be spatially proximate, but are still joined.

An example of assembling the landscape of the networked city is found in the term ‘networked ecologies’ (Varnelis 2008). Although the term has yet to gain widespread recognition in geographic scholarship, I find it a useful term to contain the natural and cultural worlds and the many infrastructural systems that network many things together. Networked ecologies are the meshwork of human and technological, built and natural environments that constitute cities today. Infrastructural networks interface between the various networked ecologies across time and space. For instance, a water supply as a natural ecology may pass from one watershed to another to provide a city with this vital element, connecting two disparate locations. Or, a telecommunications system, localized in one city links that place with every other connected place in the world, through a complex weave of fiber-optic cables, satellites and satellite base stations, data centers, co-location points, and mobile phone antenna. This connectivity is not organic, it is actively built and maintained, but at the same time, it is not spatially separate from the rest of a city. It is placed in real places, not just in the end-user’s device such as a mobile phone. No place is solely human or completely natural; this condition is amplified exponentially in urban settings. The spaces of a contemporary city are assembled through flows of natural systems such as water through infrastructures that are enmeshed with other infrastructural systems creating many layers that then interact with local iterations of human and other urban animals’ habitations, as well as with political regulations and cultural values. This call and response between the near and the far, the human and the technological, material and digital flows and the embedded groundedness of physical infrastructure, underlies the cultural activities and economic products that are typically foregrounded as the prominent, visible face of a city.

Amin, A., and N. Thrift. 2002. Cities: Reimagining the Urban 1st ed. Malden, MA: Polity/Blackwell.

Castells, M. 2000. The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture Volume I 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Coutard, O. 2002. “Premium Network Spaces”: A Comment. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 26 (March):166-174.

Crang, M., and S. Graham. 2007. Sentient Cities: Ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space. Information, Communication & Society 10 (6):789-817.
Dourish, P., and G. Bell. 2011. Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. The MIT Press.

Easterling, K. 2005. Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Instituet of Technology.

Easterling, K. 2011. Fresh Field. In Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism, eds. N. Bhatia et al. New York City: Princeton Architectural Press.

Farias, I., and T. Bender eds. 2010. Urban Assemblages: How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies. London ; New York: Routledge.
Galloway, A. 2004. Intimations of everyday life: Ubiquitous computing and the city. Cultural Studies 18 (2-3):384–408.

Graham, S. 2002. Flow City: Networked Mobilities and the Contemporary Metropolis. Journal of Urban Technology 9 (1):1-20.

Graham, S., and S. Marvin. 2001. Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. New York: Routledge.

Greenfield, A. 2006. Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. Berkeley: New Riders Publishing.

Greenfield, A., and M. Shepard. 2007. Situated Technologies Phamplets 1: Urban Computing and its Discontents. New York City: The Architectural League of New York.

Kaika, M., and E. Swyngedouw. 2000. Fetishizing the Modern City: The Phantasmagoria of Urban Technological Networks. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24.

Latour, B. 2005a. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York City: Oxford University Press.

Latour, B. 2005b. From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public. In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, eds. B. Latour and P. Weibel, 14 - 43. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Latour, B. and Hermant, E. (2006 [1998]) Paris: Invisible City, trans. L. Carey-Libbrecht. Available at: http:// www.bruno-latour.fr/livres/viii_paris-city-gb.pdf

Law, J., and J. Urry. 2001. Enacting the social. Economy and Society 33 (3):390-410.

Mitchell, W. J. 2003. Me++:  The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

McFarlane, C. 2011a. Learning the City: Knowledge and Translocal Assemblage. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

McFarlane, C. 2011. Assemblage and critical urbanism. City 15 (2):204-224.

Sassen, S. 2011a. Open Source Urbanism. Domus. http://www.domusweb.it/en/op-ed/open-source-urbanism/ (last accessed 15 November 2011).

Sassen, S. 2011b. Talking back to your intelligent city. http://whatmatters.mckinseydigital.com/cities/talking-back-to-your-intelligent-city (last accessed 15 November 2011).

Shepard, M. (ed.). 2011. Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. 2011. Cambridge, MA: The Architectural League of New York and MIT Press.

Star, S. L. 1999. The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist 43 (3):377-391.

Star, S. L. 2002. Infrastructure and ethnographic practice Working on the fringes. Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 14 (2):107-122.

UNPF (United Nations Population Fund). 2007. State of the World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth, http://www.unfpa.org/swp/2007/ presskit/pdf/sowp2007_eng.pdf (accessed 30 October 2011).

Varnelis, K. 2008. Introduction: Networked Ecologies. In The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles, ed. Varnelis, Kazys. Barcelona: Actar.

Varnelis, K. 2011. A Manifesto for Looseness. http://vimeo.com/33423863 (last accessed 11 December 2011).

Zimmerman, R., and T. A. Horan. 2004. Digital infrastructures: enabling civil and environmental systems through information technology. Routledge.


  1. Thanks for posting this solid summary and introduction to the subject. It seems then that you would define a networked city is a set of overlaying connected 'ecologies' with different geographic identities. I have a question though, how would we draw a line by this method? The internet is a worldwide network, the water network of California is probably interconnected with the rest of the USA. The network of 'materialness' seems to be still a way to identify one seperate city from each other. The networks then could be seen as affecting the city but not manifesting as the city itself. Only posing this question as a first thought. Have been meaning to get into this subject for some time, so thanks again for the post.

  2. Dear Lewis, Good question. I think you hit on the key issue with these issues surrounding the immateriality of networks such as the Internet - it is most everywhere, assuming you have a device that can access it, but it is still located in specific, particular places. My concern in identifying the infrastructural supports to the networked city is to put these ubiquitous technologies in a continuum with the other urban forms, such as the modern, industrial city, as a means of highlighting how interconnected these old and new systems are. For instance, in the US at least, fiber optic communication networks typically follow railroad corridors and highways, indicating to me at least that the network city is not a fantastical new place, but instead a technological overlay on top of older urban forms. In the global north at least, the network city is more about individual connectivity through smartphones, etc, than actually harnessing the possibilities of ubiquitous computing to improve (or at least attempt to improve) the urban condition.

  3. You may be interested in our work on PolySocial Reality (PoSR), the global interaction context within which people experience the social mobile web as they exist in grounded reality.

    PoSR emerges from the aggregate of multiplexed asynchronous or synchronous data creations of all individuals within the framework of networked individuated UX experiences. In other words, PoSR is the aggregate of all the experienced 'locations' and 'communications' of all individual people in multiple networks at the same or different times.

    You can read more about PolySocial Reality (PoSR) here:


    and here:


  4. Dear s.a.a. (Sally the author of the essays I assume). Thanks for the links - I hadn't heard of this work before. It is reassuring to see how these issues that I guess we could group as components of the networked city for lack of a better term, are being approached from many directions.