Urban Space… The Final Frontier

I know, I know, but I couldn’t help it.

Anyhoo, in her inimitable style, Saskia Sassen updates her ideas regarding global cities with different items.

First, the ‘smart city” and urbanizing technologies:

Lift 2011 – URBAN – Saskia Sassen from videosfing on Vimeo.

It is worth 30 minutes of your time on the topic of the city as strategic space.

As Sassen states:

“This notion of urbanizing technology is one of several along those lines that I have been working out for a while. The starting point was not necessarily cities. It was the notion that in interactive domains the technology delivers its capabilities through ecologies that include non-technological variables –the social and the subjective, the logics/aims of users, for example finance uses the technology with different aims from Amnesty international, etc etc. Again, I make this argument for interactive domains, not, say, data pipelines.

There is another condition present in the interactive domain, separate from the technology itself. At the beginning I studied how the logic of finance (a sector that is deeply embedded in digital networks and digitized spaces) is not the logic of the engineer and computer scientist and software developer who made the digital domain. The effect is that the user (finance) does not necessarily use all the properties that the engineer etc. put into it. I also looked at civil society organizations along the same lines. This helps explain why the outcomes never correspond to what we may have predicted based on the capacities of the technology.

Now I am looking at cities through the same lens. Users bring their own logics to these technologies. In the case of a city with its vast diversities of people and what makes them tick, the outcome can be quite different from what the designers expected. And this matters. This keeps the city alive, and open. When you embed interactive technologies in urban settings, it is important to allow for this mutating as diverse types of users bring their own logics to those technologies. If the technology controls all outcomes in a routinized fashion ((as if it were a data pipeline) there is a high risk that it will become obsolete, or less and less used, or so routinized that it barely is interactive. More like buying a ticket from an automaton: yes you have choices, but you can hardly call this interactive.

The key, difficult, and ever changing question is how do we keep technologies open, responsive to environmental signals and to users choices, including what may seem quirky from the perspective of the engineer. The city is full of signals and quirky uses: given a chance , it would urbanize a whole range of technologies. But this possibility needs to be made – it is not simply a function of interactive technologies as we know them now, and it needs to go beyond the embedded feedback capability. Open Source is more like it.”

And I especially find this important:

“Urbanity is a mutant. And this means it is made and remade along many different concepts/ideas/imaginations across the world. It can happen in sites where we, we of our westernized culture, might not see it. At night in working class neighborhoods of Shanghai bus stops become public spaces –that is urbanity. In some megacities the only spaces that the poor, often homeless have, are what during daytime hours we see as infrastructure: spaces where multiple bus lines intersect or end in. There are many many such examples of practices that destabilize the formal meaning of a space: this, again, takes making, and in that making lies an urbanity. I do think that urbanity is made; it is not only beautifully designed urban settings.”

In addition to these ideas, Sassen also recently wrote of the city as technology of war in the context of new wars and asymmetric conflicts:

“Cities have long been sites for conflicts – wars, racisms, religious hatreds, expulsions of the poor. And yet, where national states have historically responded by militarizing conflict, cities have tended to triage conflict through commerce and civic activity. But major developments in the current global era signal that cities are losing this capacity and becoming sites for a whole range of new types of conflicts, such as asymmetric war and urban violence. Further, the dense and conflictive spaces of cities overwhelmed by inequality and injustice can become the sites for a variety of secondary, more anomic types of conflicts arising from drug wars or the major environmental disasters looming in our immediate futures. All of these challenge that traditional commercial and civic capacity that has allowed cities to avoid war more often than not, when confronted with conflict, and to incorporate diversity of class, culture, religion, ethnicity.” (33)

Emphases mine.

More specifically, Sassen identifies three challenges for global governance that being played out in the cities:

  1. New military asymmetries where the search for national security creates conditions of urban insecurity
  2. Global warming and other environmental issues more likely to create major urban breakdowns
  3. Urban violence as visible in Ciudad Juarez (gang and police violence) and Baghdad (military and insurgent violence as massive asymmetries)

It is not hard to see that over the past 20 years, much terrorist violence has taken place in cities, along with other forms of conflicts. Such conflicts can either push people to the cities (mass displacement) or expel them from urban environments (ethnic cleansing or the creation of ethnic or religious ghettoes). Such segregating practices are also used to separate the wealthy from the impoverished or downwardly mobile.

The important thing here, for Sassen, is that all these trends undermine the city’s ability to be a source of coexistence, diversity, and cosmopolitanism at a time or reassemblage of the state and global governance.

Read the whole thing.

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