Centre for Internet & Society

"Many accounts of smart cities recognise the historical coincidence of cybernetic control and neoliberal capital. Even where it is machines which process the vast amounts of data produced by the city so much so that the ruling and managerial classes disappear from view, it is usually the logic of capital that steers the flows of data, people and things. Yet what other futures of the city may be possible within the smart city, what collective intelligence may it bring forth?" The Fibreculture Journal has accepted an abstract of mine for its upcoming issue on 'Computing the City.'


Speaking to Geert Lovink, Wolfgang Ernst explains that '[t]he coupling of machine and mathematics that enables computers occurs as a mathematization of machine, not as machinization of mathematics' [1]. In this paper, I propose that the idea of smart cities be understood not as 'urbanisation of mathematics' – as often described by industry documents, design fictions, and academic analyses – but as 'mathematisation of the urban.' By the notion of 'urbanisation of mathematics,' I indicate at those reports that conceptualise smart cities as data analytics, or civic mathematics, at an urban scale. I explain how this notion is shared by design visions of actors from the networking industry, such as IBM and Cisco, emerging academic practices in urban science and informatics, and calls for urbanising the technologies of regulation and governance, in the sense of making these technologies directly and bi-directionally interact with the urban citizens [2]. Conversely, the 'mathematisation of the urban' perspective foregrounds a specific transformation at hand in the production of urban space itself, which I argue is what is captured in the idea of smart cities. This transformation is not a new thing, and has been heralded by the coming of coded infrastructures and the transduction of urban space through them [3]. The process of 'mathematisation of the urban' refers to a fundamental reorganisation of the urban itself so as to make aspects of it available to mathematical manipulation, most often undertaken by software systems. This mathematisation takes place through the rebuilding of urban infrastructures so as to facilitate sensing and recording of parts of urban lives and processes as mathematical data, and the embedding of coded assemblages that can communicate and act upon the analysis of such data, and also through re-building the relations of property around this newly-obtained and continuously-generated resource of data about the urban.


I propose in this paper that production, circulation, and ownership of data must be considered as a central problematique in the discussions of smart cities. As writings on smart cities have often focused on the dyadic relationships between code and space on one hand, and co-evolution (and splintering) of networked infrastructures and the urban form, the figure of data has remained implicit yet subdued as as an entry point to study the idea of smart cities. Even for commentators who do focus on the implications of data, the category is often treated as a feature or a capacity of new technological assemblages. Instead, I argue in this paper that it is the concerns of production, circulation, and ownership of data that drive the conceptualisation and actual material forms of the visions of smart cities. These technological assemblages, materialisation of which constitute such visions, are implementations of exclusive data collection operations targeting various portions of urban lives and processes. The imagination of 'city 2.0' takes a particularly insightful colour when thought of as an analogy to the 'web 2.0' model of capture and monetisation of user behaviour data. Further, I employ the Marxian theory of 'primitive accumulation' to describe how the material infrastructures of networked sensors and embedded data capture systems create enclosed spaces for conversion of collectively-held-information into data-as-exchangable-and-interoperable-value, through which disparate and distributed knowledge and experiences of the urban is transformed into urban data, which can be centralised and queried, and hence value can be extracted from it.




[1] Lovink, Geert. 2013. Interview with German Media Archeologist Wolfgang Ernst. Nettime-l. February 26. Accessed on April 20, 2015, from http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0302/msg00132.html.

[2] Sassen, Saskia. 2012. Urbanising Technology. LSE Cities. December. Accessed on April 20, 2015, from http://lsecities.net/media/objects/articles/urbanising-technology/en-gb/.

[3] Dodge, Martin, and Rob Kitchin. 2005. Code and the Transduction of Space. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 95: 01. Pp. 162-180.

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