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: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/an-internet-of-things/. 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.

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