18 February 2013

Ubiquitous computing and the smart city

An otherwise unrelated photo of the view looking east down Market Street from the 69th Street Terminal, at the western edge of Philadelphia. February 2013. 

This May I will present a piece of my dissertation research at the Media Cities International Conference, Workshops and Exhibition at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. As it draws from architecture, urban planning and design, and new media scholarship, the multi-disciplinary nature of the conference will certainly provide productive, engaging conversation. What follows is my paper proposal. 

Ubiquitous computing and the smart city: Assembling the urban landscape through digital infrastructures

To a large extent, both cities and their inhabitants rely on digital information and communication technologies to organize and manage their interactions, transactions, and affairs. The role of these ubiquitous computing technologies in enabling this constantly changing communicative, electromagnetic terrain is a key theme of urban scholarship today. In the scholarship, cities have gone from networked to post-networked, sentient to smart, but cities are inherently all of these things at the same time; these urban assemblages can be located and grounded through empirical research into existing cities. Conceptualizing these different eras of urban change, and the shifting technological and infrastructural forms on which they are built, through an investigation into one particular location presents a means of understanding the complex, plural geographies of the contemporary moment.  Through a place-based case study in Philadelphia, this essay examines how the utility of ubiquitous computing systems and other digital infrastructures are harnessed to provide the ‘urban intelligence’ of ‘smart cities’ purported to underlie the landscape today. The rhetorics surrounding—as well as the likely over-hyped possibilities of—smart urbanism are built within and upon material and digital foundations laid in the past. With a history stretching back into the 1600s, a strong nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial economy, a post-industrial, blighted present-day, Philadelphia presents a productive location to examine how a marginalized urban landscape integrates ubiquitous computing technologies into its fabric. With a focus on recent infrastructure and policy engagements seeking to make cities ‘smart’, this essay will highlight the data, standards, policies, and infrastructural systems that create the media through which a smart city might be produced. 

As part of its smart urbanism agenda—and with IBM’s assistance—Philadelphia is in the process of implementing an online portal for 21st century workforce training and education. By shifting these education and training goals to desktop and laptop computers, tablets, and smartphones, Philadelphia is actively engaging ubiquitous computing technologies for providing social and economic development in the city. In order to critique this smart urbanism project, in order to engage both how and where this project is affecting the city, this essay will trace the actors and networks—city government policy decisions, public/private partnerships, and the pervasive digital communication networks throughout the city that are involved in creating online learning opportunities—across Philadelphia’s post-industrial urban landscape. As Keller Easterling writes, the “active forms” created by scripts, protocols, and infrastructural systems are defining elements—or media—of the urban landscape today. Philadelphia’s smart urbanism projects are no exception: they create an active form of agency that this essay will chart through the material and digital spaces enabled by ubiquitous computing technologies.

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