0226.3 The City of Platform Capitalism ×

The cities of the future are being planned by technology companies and management consultancies on the basis of algorithms; it seems the expertise of architects is becoming obsolete. The common good is being replaced by profit interests—and governments are playing along. Deane Simpson, an architect, urban planner, and professor for Urbanism & Societal Change at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (KADK) in Copenhagen, spoke with Arno Brandlhuber and Olaf Grawert about the smart city business model, continual increases in efficiency, and alternatives to this model that urgently need to be considered.

ARCH+ Verlag, Birkhäuser
ARCH+ with Arno Brandlhuber, Olaf Grawert (station+, DARCH, ETH Zurich)
Arno Brandlhuber, Olaf Grawert (station+); Deane Simpson

Arno Brandlhuber: In your research on the changing conditions of urban planning and the arrival of the “smart city” into our everyday lives, you mention David Harvey, who notes a shift from managerial to entrepreneurial city, ending with the vision of postpolitical, algorithmic urban planning. [01] What role do today’s cities play in the economic considerations of the big tech firms that are investing in the physical space?

Deane Simpson: Harvey describes this turn regarding the role of states and municipalities in urban planning taking place since the 1980s. Instead of the largely state-led managerial “predict and provide” planning of the 1960s and 1970s, from the 1980s onwards the city’s role increasingly became an entrepreneurial one, promoting development through city-led public-private investment. Under the recent influence of platform-capitalism, with developments like Sidewalk Lab’s Quayside in Toronto, theorists including Guy Baeten have suggested that a new type of algorithmic (post-) planning is emerging. One characterized by new kinds of public-private partnerships, led this time by big tech firms delivering a form of A-to-Z solution-based urbanism. Technology giants like the Big Five (Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple)—corporate actors of a scale not seen before in history—are attempting to exploit the potential of the city as a growth model in their business plans. We are experiencing a massive shift in the balance of power between urban actors, especially with regard to urban planning. The growth strategies of these companies are expanding from a mostly digital context into a merger of the virtual and the physical worlds. This is linked to the ambition to collect data not only on our online behavior but also on our behavior in physical space, as urban infrastructures now produce data themselves.

AB: How do these companies combine their existing knowledge of data mining with algorithm-based planning?

DS: According to Anthony M. Townsend, the tech industry sees the city as a low-hanging fruit: there’s a lot of money to be made without much effort, with the current value of roughly $1.5 trillion per year expected to triple within a decade. smart city pitches are commonly centered on the rhetoric of big data and its provision of a new set of opportunities it offers for architecture, infrastructure, and planning. This is described in terms of greater optimizations, efficiencies, feedback, and responsiveness, based on greater amounts of information. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs project, for example, intends to achieve greater flexibility in programming based on the constant digital monitoring of space usage. This kind of algorithmic-driven responsiveness is promoted by its supporters as a more democratic, and post-ideological form of planning, producing a hyper-efficient and optimized urban outcome. I believe we should be extremely suspicious of such a claim to post-ideological planning. Obviously, the design of the data collection system, and the particular design of the algorithms themselves have implications that are highly political in nature, and largely informed by the agendas that drive the big tech companies, be that short-term economic performance or their longer-term business strategy.

AB: The Sidewalk Labs Quayside project in Toronto is creating new rules and roles that the city and we architects and citizens have yet to learn to deal with. Given the hidden political and business interests, would you agree that this will lead to a more homogenous habitat, despite current promises of heterogeneity?

DS: What is interesting is the extent to which platitudes dominate the rhetoric of Sidewalk Labs’s promotional brochures and videos—describing its participatory engagement and its commitment both to locality and heterogeneity. Especially in relation to Toronto’s diverse multi-cultural population. I am skeptical as to how this rhetoric will translate into reality. While Sidewalk Labs repeatedly emphasizes the project’s social commitments, as researchers we know the extent to which such development projects primarily serve commercial interests and mainly target economically advantaged groups, thus playing into the hands of homogenization and gentrification. Based on the high level of investment and the expectations riding on this, one can anticipate the extent to which Sidewalk Labs will attempt to control and curate inhabitants and urban life on the site. How long could one anticipate homeless people being allowed to stay in the semi-covered public spaces of the development? Or to what extent could we predict political demonstrations being tolerated in these spaces? One of the key evaluation points in assessing the project will be the extent to which diversity, tolerance, and inclusivity are realized—or if this will remain an empty advertising claim. These aspects are absolutely central in evaluating how our cities support accessibility for all citizens.

© Brandlhuber+ Team

Olaf Grawert: This leads us to the question of values in architecture and urban planning. In our film, The Property Drama, and the accompanying ARCH+ publication, The Property Issue, [footnote An earlier version of The Property Issue titled ARCH+ 231 The Property Issue – Von der Bodenfrage und neuen Gemeingütern was originally published in April 2018, in German and English, to accompany the film The Property Drama by Arno Brandlhuber and Christopher Roth, released in 2017 as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.] it became clear that a discussion about property is always about accessibility, or rather about inclusivity and exclusivity. Whoever has property rights has the power to make decisions as well as the final say on values.

DS: According to Rem Koolhaas, the emergence of the smart city paradigm is increasingly displacing traditional values and ambitions that have long dominated European planning—in his usual very cognizant way he speaks of a silent revolution in which egalité, fraternité, and liberté have been supplanted by values of comfort, security, and sustainability. I agree with his assessment. This shift in values threatens the vision of the welfare city and the ideal of the city as a collective project. The focus on comfort (or livability) and security supports an urban imaginary directed toward a techno-savvy middle- and upper-middle class audience, while actively excluding others.

Hidden behind the shift toward the smart city is a business model that focuses largely on data production through citizens in space as a new territory to exploit. What does that mean for the future of urban values, such as the ambition for equality? For tech companies, citizens only have value when they generate data. The lack of control and transparency of the data collectors, and what happens to those members of society with whom no money can be made, pose great challenges. This has a lot to do with who has “the right to the city” and the role of architects and urban planners in a context in which space is being absorbed and colonized by a very different ideology.

These developments operate to a large extent according to techno-rationalized values native to tech companies. They are informed by the managerial sciences; with the notion that the algorithm is capable of producing a post-political, hyperefficient, and optimized city—a reality that could hardly be more distant from previous visions of urbanity. The city as a melting pot, a space of freedom and emancipation underwritten by anonymity and privacy, is being fundamentally questioned by this new paradigm.

OG: Given the current shift from the public to the private sector, China—where the major tech companies are under state control—is a curious exception. In this case, the smart city discourse is dominated by the state. How do Western and Chinese approaches differ with regard to the manipulative potential of big data?

DS: From a European or North American perspective, we see recurring utopian narratives attached to the promotion of smart cities. These narratives push concepts such as the hyper-optimized, efficient, frictionless city; the utopia of the safe city or the utopian city of participatory democracy. These stories attempt to point to a sustainable, citizen-empowered vision of the city, facilitating a fairer and more responsible distribution of resources. But the reality that is emerging suggests quite a different picture. With the monopolies represented by the large tech companies and the control of information they achieve, we are seeing a growing concentration of resources in the hands of a few key actors. We have been aware of potential abuses of power at the latest since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when it became clear that social media microtargeting had a massive impact on voter behavior in the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum. The implications of Alphabet’s plans in Toronto, where an entire neighborhood is to provide the urban infrastructure for even greater levels of data collection, raises further concerns. But it has also become evident that the major tech companies and the state are not completely independent—just think of the NSA scandal concerning PRISM [02] in 2013 or the intensive cooperation between Silicon Valley and Washington, DC.

The narratives promoting the smart city in a Chinese context are framed in similar utopian terms, referring to efficiency, convenience, and safety. And as you suggested, they are influenced by far greater entwinement between the central government and tech companies than in the West. Critics have suggested that the smart city infrastructure is a pretense for introducing greater levels of state-initiated social and political control. The Social Credit System is perhaps the most emblematic and concerning of the Chinese experiments in this emerging form of authoritarian data-governance. This of course presents a highly contrasted reality to the euphoric narratives of freedom and hope connected to the global expansion of the internet in the 1990s.

AB: Tech companies don’t just formulate vague ideas, but also concrete visions on urban planning and architecture. One aim, for example, is the reinvention of the flexible loft typology, which allows all possible models of living and working. What are the implications of this openness to flexible programming?

DS: Sidewalk Labs strives for a comprehensive understanding of human behavior. The company intends to establish a constant feedback loop between the virtual and physical space, in order to make continuous adjustments and improvements. However, this claim distracts from the massive implications the model has on the political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of the city. The rhetoric of freedom, efficiency, and flexibility—built on large amounts of data—play out at different scales. A flexible zoning concept has been proposed, which is very different from modern urban planning. Its equivalent at the scale of architectural typology is the loft. Its flexibility points to a paradigm shift for architecture. I see Sidewalk Labs loft concept proposal pointing to two opposing poles. On the one side, it is an experiment in potentially delirious mixtures of program, activities, and life forms. While on the other hand, it presents a spatial dystopia of our late-capitalist, tech-led world, in which all distinctions between work, play and sleep are eroded.

OG: So the loft would be the spatial manifestation of our attitude to life, always having to be productive so as not to be left behind?

DS: The loft concept implies the concentration of our activities in a single location and demands a corresponding degree of flexibility from us. This stands in stark contrast to modern planning approaches of the post-war period, when distinct spatial zones were intended for different activities. Think of Copenhagen’s Finger Plan, for example, whose zoning is strictly based on the distinction between work, leisure, and housing. This urban plan can only be understood if one takes into account the efforts of the labor movement to achieve an eight-hour work day, in response to the industrial revolution and the 24-hour operation of the factory. But it was also the intention of modern urban planning to separate the polluting industrial workplace from the site of living. In his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary argues how contemporary late capitalism has invited and pressured us in the last decades to consume and produce 24/7. This blurs the distinction between work and leisure, between consumption and surveillance, to the extent that even time for sleep, as the last affront to capitalism, is encroached upon. Because even in our sleep we generate data that is collected. The lofts of the Quayside project are ultimately just one example of a much broader tendency that can be observed in the emergence of the leisure and play—evoking workspaces of the late 1990s in Silicon Valley.

AB: We architects have long since lost the discussion on values, programs, and aesthetics. Our role has turned into more of a side note. Why are we losing ground to other players who claim expertise in spatial issues?

DS: Our discipline continues to suffer from the legacy of modern urban planning and its perceived failure. By the end of the twentieth century, architecture had turned its back on urban planning, which left a vacuum to be filled by other actors and agendas. Another reason for our marginalization, as suggested earlier, is the shift from a managerial to an entrepreneurial city. The most recent developments in algorithmic (post-)planning will lead architecture even further away from planning and decision-making expertise. This is also reflected in the composition of the Sidewalk Labs team, whose members have mainly technical and business expertise and hardly any urban planning expertise. Architects are degraded to window dressers; they are only consulted after most of the critical decisions have been made—not only regarding the digital layer but also the spatial aspects. The result will be a built environment that owes its existence to the technical and economic culture of big tech and management consultancies, but has little to do with urban culture.

OG: In our latest film, Architecting After Politics, the architectural theorist Keller Easterling notes that “some of the greatest changes of the globalizing world are being written in the language of architecture and urbanism. There has to be a chance that we know something more about these changes than the 28-year-old McKinsey consultant who is influencing global decisions.” What qualifies them and disqualifies us, apart from reservations about modern architecture?

DS: The McKinsey consultant plays a central role in decisions involving politics, economics, and technology. They approach urban development from a purely quantitative perspective. This offers a level of abstraction that renders the complexity of the city and the life forms it supports understandable for investors and politicians. However, important perspectives fall by the wayside: the complex understanding that architects have of the relationship between the spatial and physical substance of the city and the social life forms it enables. We should bear in mind that projects such as the Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside are a test case, which if successful, will be rolled out globally. This prospect points to the need for viable alternative visions of urban development that can compete with McKinsey and Alphabet’s projects, and also entail a certain moral obligation towards the city’s inhabitants. Formulating convincing arguments and rhetorics for such alternatives must be the task of architecture and urban planning.

© Brandlhuber+ Team

AB: Helmut Schmidt allegedly once said, “anyone who has visions should see a doctor.” [03] What if the architect as visionary is long dead?

DS: The view that our discipline has lost its visionary potential is certainly related to the frequently cited failure of modern urban planning. However, a common set of tendencies in European and North American cities over the last three decades coincides with the triumph of financialization—driving urban environments toward extensive privatization, unaffordable housing, inequality, spatial segregation, gentrification, and social control. For the time being, this development has reached its high point with the regime of the smart city, which focuses on innovation and technology. In relation to Helmut Schmidt’s statement, I would probably argue that those who do not see the urgency to develop alternate visions should be the ones heading to the doctor. When I use the term visions, I am not referring to rarefied utopias, but rather approaches that negotiate the multiple parameters in play—from those embedded in the McKinsey brief, to those materializing the physical and social composition of the territory. If architects do not do it, which other groups are able to work creatively and spatially across the multiple fields of complexity? Our capacity involves more than just business plans, but to actually envision alternatives to the tracks that we are already on.

AB: What could these alternative narratives look like? What is our role here and how can these stories be embedded in a wider context?

DS: In recent decades there has been a great deal of emphasis on communication within disciplinary borders, or between limited fields, like architecture and philosophy, or architecture and geometry. I am very interested in the possibility to communicate more broadly in various ways, particularly visually. This is also something that we are exploring a lot with our students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. For example, we are looking for analogue and digital formats to give intellectuals or activist students a stronger voice in public debates.

It’s encouraging to see that there are various actors currently looking at the relationship between architecture and media or architecture and communication, such as your explorations into storytelling and online television and their potential to increase the reach of architecture. I don’t see that as following a renewed megalomania for architects as urban “saviors.” A little more modesty would do us all good, and it is important that we form new alliances and work together with others to develop alternative visions— visions that take into account the complexities of the city and the need for equity in the right to access it. And just as important, how we develop new narratives and frameworks to communicate these urgent, necessary, and pragmatic visions.

This conversation took place as part of a Master’s colloquium at the Department of Architecture at ETH Zurich.

David Harvey, “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism,” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 71(1), 1989: 3–17.
PRISM is the name of a surveillance program by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) that comprehensively monitors internet communications with the help of numerous internet companies in the United States.
The quote was retrospectively attributed to Helmut Schmidt in an interview with Giovanni di Lorenzo. See “Verstehen Sie das, Herr Schmidt?,” ZEIT online, March 4, 2010, accessed August 31, 2019, www.zeit.de/2010/10/ Fragen-an-Helmut-Schmidt.