10 August, 2021

'Obscured by Clouds' - real geographies of urban digitalization

Map by Desmond Bast

Desmond Bast, Constance Carr, Karinne Madron 

As large digital corporations (LDCs) such as Google and Amazon continue to steer the smart city agenda in terms of technological innovation and controlling prevailing narratives, there are two elements of their agenda that juxtapose one another. There is the production of visible representative places, on one hand -- places that are prominent in the media and promoted as flashy, state-of-the-art integrated urban planning, invoking a sense of awe among observers, perhaps even envy. Narratives often dish out pabulum messages of sustainability, social equality, vibrant economy. Further, they are characterized by a lack of debate or willingness to respond to tricky questions. On the opposing hand, there are the lesser visible, lesser sexy, digital infrastructures that are required to run both the representative places and the palate of digital services that LDCs offer. Spreading like mushrooms in a rainforest, these are the resource intensive data centers.

The project that Sidewalk Labs said they would build in Toronto, colloquially known as Quayside, is one such visible representational digital city that received remarkable attention. Even though the project was abandoned, the message was clear: They were going to build the most amazing digital city the world has ever seen. Furnished with digital sensors left and right, up and down, promoters of Quayside claimed that it would revolutionize city-living by collecting, analyzing, commodifying personal data about everything from energy production/consumption, water/waste management, above/below ground traffic flows, air pollution, housing, and then turning them into assets (Birch et. al 2020) for practices of rent-seeking (Artyushina, 2020). Marketed in pastel watercolours, the futuristic image was complete with national symbols of canoes and Canadian geese that would supposedly appeal to its future tenants.
Amazon.com’s HQs are another set of representational digital cities. Like Sidewalk Labs, these projects were also heavily propagated in the media awash with promises of sustainability and a revived economy. While ‘The Spheres’ in Seattle got hype for its architecture, the HQ2 generated attention through the urban competition that Amazon.com ignited, demanding cities across North America compete to host it--even though it was already clear who would win. Later too, strange deals were publicized indicating that Amazon.com paid far more for the properties than they were worth (Arlington County 2021; City of Seattle 2021).
Less often discussed in the media, and clouded by the flashy representational spaces, are the hyperscale data center infrastructures required to run the representational spaces and the products and services that they offer. 'Mile after mile, stone after stone' (Pink Floyd, 1972) the material, socioeconomic and political geographies of infrastructures of all sorts are thoroughly documented, while narratives of the ‘cloud’ convey an immateriality to the infrastructure needed to crunch increasing volumes of data. The storage and processing requirements of Alphabet Inc. and Amazon.com call for data centers built over several hectares which can use up as much land, electricity and water as a town (see map). These are anything but stratospheric.
While the extensive use of cloud services is an important part of the digital strategy of small and large enterprises alike, LDCs are particularly well placed to invest in state-of-the-art facilities, offering a wider palate of services that require efficient and cost-effective infrastructures. According to Synergy Research Group (2021), at the end of 2020 there were a total of 597 hyperscale data centers worldwide with a further 219 in planning or construction. 52 hyperscale data centers opened in 2020 alone. Half of these are operated by Amazon, Microsoft and Google.
The map above shows the data centers in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg as of June 2021. There has been a significant amount of controversy regarding the data center that Google wants to build. To this day, it is still not clear what will be built, who profited how much from this transaction, and who will shoulder the costs of knock-on effects or compensate those who have directly something to lose. As it currently stands, it is still not clear if it will be built at all. Google is hardly the only data center, however, in Luxembourg. Figure 1 shows the distribution of data centers across the Duchy and the energy they consume.
Data was gleaned from various websites, sometimes data center companies publish wattage information directly. Other times, information has to be cross-referenced with other online databases such as baxtel.com or datacenters.com. Sometimes no information is publicly available at all.

The range of services, platforms, technologies, and innovations offered by LDCs is increasing in both volume and centrality, as more and more public and private institutions, rely on these for their operations. But the increased dependency and involvement of LDCs is not without risks. The trajectories of urbanization that LDCs are steering have several sides – the products and services, the representational spaces (the real clouds!), and the hard resource intensive infrastructures needed to support them. Examined together, one unearths this new geography and derives a more comprehensive picture of what the smart city really entails.

Artyushina, A. 2020. Is civic data governance the key to democratic smart cities? The
role of the urban data trust in Sidewalk Toronto
. Telematics and Informatics Volume 55, December 2020, 101456

Birch, K., Chiappetta, M., & Artyushina, A. 2020. The problem of innovation in technoscientific capitalism: data rentiership and the policy implications of turning personal digital data into a private asset, Policy Studies, 41:5, 468-487, DOI: 10.1080/01442872.2020.1748264

Pink Floyd 1972. 'Wot's... Uh, the Deal?' Obscured by Clouds. Capitol Records

Synergy Research Group, 2021. Microsoft, Amazon and Google Account for Over Half of Today’s 600 Hyperscale Data Centers. Available at: <https://www.srgresearch.com/articles/microsoft-amazon-and-google-account-for-over-half-of-todays-600-hyperscale-data-centers> [Accessed 09 July 2021].

Further Readings at Urbanization Unbound
Carr, 2021. Two new Master Student Research Assistants for DIGI-GOV - Desmond Bast and Karinne Madron
Carr, 2021. Toronto versus Barcelona - Comparing smart city development at the University of Stavanger
Carr, 2021. DIGI-GOV Summary
Carr, Hesse 2020. New publication in a special issue of Urban Planning (open access) on smart cities
Carr, 2019. It matters how smart cites are governed
Carr, Hesse, 2019. New Publication on Smart Cities in Forum für Politik Gesellschaft und Kultur
Hesse, 2018. 2HQ2 - Two new seats for the new Amazon.com Headquarters, not one

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