23 September, 2021

Talking at the Smart City Research Symposium

On September 22, Carr & Hesse were pleased to meet colleagues in Norway to present, "Policy failure in urban governance: the case of large digital corporations" at the session convened by Siddharth Sareen, Anders Riel Müller, Kristiane Lindland, Ragnhild Sjurseike, Jens Kaae Fisker entitled, Social and Spatial justice in times of transition, which is part of
the Smart City Research Symposium organized by the Research Network for Smart Sustainable Cities at the University of Stavanger, Norway and Nordic Edge Expo.

Our Abstract:
This paper draws upon the branch of urban studies literature known as policy mobilities (McCann 2011) and, particularly, policy failure (Temenos & Lauermann 2020) to understand the strategic practices of large digital corporations (LDCs) in urban development. While it is a relatively new phenomenon that LDCs are appearing as important actors in the field of urban development, their role has moved beyond being simply the producers of new technological products that supposedly make cities more efficient, green and smart. They are, for example, in the background, forging their central position in the functioning of cities by taking up space (land, water, bodies) for so-called essential urban infrastructures such as data centers (Carr 2021) needed to support their technologies. At the same time, they are also driving the production of what we refer to as their symbolic spaces of LDC-style digital cities. These are Amazon’s HQ2 and the digital city that was proposed by Sidewalk Labs Toronto (daughter firm of Alphabet Inc.), projects that epitomised both their importance in the field and the height of their technological innovation. Yet, striking about these cases is that, with the exception of the HQ2 in Arlington, these projects never materialized. In this paper, we argue that this was not a coincidence. Rather, both Amazon and Alphabet effectively mobilized a strategy of policy-making that has recently received attention in the urban studies literature: policy failure (Lovell 2017; Temenos & Lauermann 2020). Viewing these cases through the lens of policy failure shows that LDC-led digital cities is not so much about producing flashy cities equipped with avant-garde technologies as it is about endorsing a post-political mode of urban governance that drains public institutions of time and resources and reconfigures state-society relations. This is a cautionary tale for practitioners, who need to understand and watch out for the flags of this disingenuous behaviour.

Carr, C. (2021) “Digital urban development -How large digital corporations shape the field of urban governance (DIGI-GOV) – Project Summary” University of Luxembourg.
Lovell, H. (2017) Policy failure mobilities. Progress in Human Geography 43(1): 46-63.
McCann, E (2011) Urban policy mobilities and global circuits of knowledge: Toward a research agenda. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101: 107–130.
Temenos, C., and Lauerman, J. (2020) The urban politics of policy failure. Urban Geography, 41(9): 1109-1118.
We are looking forward to continuing this co-operation. We owe, in part, our participation to Bettina Bleumling and Anders Riel Müller who invited Carr earlier in 2021 to compare Toronto smart city developments with that of Barcelona -- the latter presented by Ramon Ribera Fumaz.  More info here.
It is with great regret that we cannot present in person, but we are grateful to U. Stavanger for providing hybrid options.

17 September, 2021

From Network Society to Platform Society

by Karinne Madron
As we grapple with the study of digital cities and the influence of large digital corporations (LDCs), it is useful to consider two books that have explored the relationship between technological innovation and society. The first one is Manuel Castells’ (1996) groundbreaking work The Rise of the Network Society. This book is the first volume in a trilogy titled The Information Age: Technology, Society and Culture. Castells’ work situates the technological revolution in its historical, economic and societal context. With remarkable foresight, he observed, at the turn of the millennium, trends that came to define today’s society. The second book is Van Dijck, Poell and De Waal’s (2018) The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World. This book analyses the ways in which platforms have permeated different sectors and transformed social relations.

Learning from Castells – How LDCs gain power by controlling networks
Castells’ (1996) analysis was made at a turning point in history that he describes as the beginning of a new age - the Information Age. He traces the rise of the network society to a number of related factors including historical events such as the end of the cold war, intensified globalization and most importantly an overhaul of the capitalist system (Castells 1996). In this restructured context where world economies were becoming more and more integrated and interdependent, the internet, ‘a new communication system, increasingly speaking a universal, digital language’ (Castells 1996, p. 2), became a tool of primary importance. Castells (1996) named the restructured capitalist system ‘Informational Capitalism’. He described it as a ‘capitalist economy based on innovation, globalization, and decentralized concentration’ where ‘networks are appropriate instruments’ (Castells 1996, p. 502). It is a ‘techno-economic’ system led by global networks of financial flows rather than a global capitalist class (Castells 1996). His analysis lead Castells to several insightful observations that were confirmed in the following decades as the network society matured. One of these observations was that ‘access to technological know-how is at the roots of productivity and competitiveness of global networks of capital, management and information’ (Castells 1996, p. 502). Indeed the pursuit of digital transformation is nowadays acknowledged as essential to the survival of nearly all sectors, private and public alike. The analysis also lead Castells (1996) to a key question concerning who the power holders in this new system are. To answer this question he introduces the concept of the ‘switchers,’ identified as those controlling network connections (Castells 1996). One could thus argue, based on Castells (1996) analysis, that the key position that LDCs have acquired in the constitution and control of networks is the basis of their rise to power over the past decades.

The platform society – The fulfilment of the network society
José van Dijck, Thomas Poell and Martijn de Waal (2018) addressed the question of the growing power of LDCs or ‘Big Tech’ in their book titled ‘The Platform Society: Public values in a Connective World’. In this volume, the authors analyze the ways in which digital platforms are transforming social interactions and institutions. According to the authors digital platforms acquire a dominant position because of their promise to offer personalized services with lower transaction costs by bypassing intermediaries and ‘legacy institutions’ such as news organizations (Van Dijck et al 2018, p. 2). Platform ecosystems which are ‘assemblages of networked platforms’ (Van Dijck et al 2018, p. 4) are largely dominated by the Big Five: Amazon, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Facebook, Microsoft and Apple. These companies form the infrastructure upon which other platforms are built. They are thus the ‘online gatekeepers through which data flows are managed, processed, stored, and channeled’ (Van Dijck et al 2018, p. 13). Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal (2018) also argued that ‘infrastructural platforms can obtain unprecedented power because they are uniquely able to connect and combine data streams and fuse information and intelligence’ (Van Dijck et al 2018, p. 16). The book focuses on various sectors namely news, urban transport, healthcare and education in which LDCs have extended their influence. Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal (2018) conclude by arguing in favuor of ‘a profound rethinking the world’s online ecosystems’ (Van Dijck et al 2018, p. 163) so that platforms adhere to public values such as security, accuracy and privacy. While Castells (1996) foresaw the power that would come from controlling networks in the Information Age, Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal (2018) analyze the different ways in which LDCs achieve their rise to power by controlling networks. The Platform Society could thus be seen as the ultimate fulfilment of the Network Society under the reign of LDCs.

Considered together these two books, written in two different periods of the Information Age and twenty-two years apart, contribute to an understanding of the dynamics that led to the ascension of large digital corporations. The restructuring of the capitalist system since the 1980s created favourable conditions for the rise of companies able to harness technological know-how and a small number of these created an ecosystem that most of the world is now connected to and dependent on in various ways. The concept of LDCs as ‘gatekeepers’ described by Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal (2018) echoes Castells’ (1996) concept of ‘switchers’. Both convey the notion of control over networks and information and how this control makes LDCs the ultimate power holders in the network and platform society.

Castells, M. 1996. The rise of network society. Oxford: Blackwell.
Van Dijck, J., Poell, T., & De Waal, M. 2018. The Platform Society: Public values in a connective world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further Readings at Urbanization Unbound
Welcome Mafaz Syrus and Congratulations to Karinne Madron
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