Urbanisation is not natural or inevitable. It's being inflicted upon us by the forces of capitalism

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. Image: Getty.

This is the first in a series of columns entitled “Critical Cities”, which will explore the rise of the “Urban Industry” – and question whether urbanisation is a good thing for the species or the planet.

The much-publicized Urban Age is, ostensibly, upon us. The inaugural and immoderate celebrations for this new phase in human evolution arrived in late 2006, with LSE professor Ricky Burdett’s Venice Biennale exhibition. Celebrations for the world’s urbanisation continue unabashed to this day – even though they have been ever so slightly tempered by capitalism’s latest crisis.

The handsomely sponsored celebrations that ushered in the Urban Age have more recently leapfrogged out from the businesses of architecture, academia and contemporary art. Today the revelries take place in just about every institution and company, everywhere.  Despite the corporate hospitality, popular effervescence and gaiety for all things urban, this might just end up being “the best worst party” – ever. It might just end up being the sort of party you wished you’d skipped, rather than one you helped organise.

In fact, for reasons we will reveal in this column, the land clearances of the world’s population and our centralisation into cities has been systematically championed and actively advocated for. The result of the campaigns means the majority of the world’s population now lives on just 3-4 per cent of Earth’s land surface. We will chart the currently opaque historic and contemporary relationships between NGOs, academia, business, high culture and governments, that make this unprecedented and humanity-changing enterprise possible. These interlinked and interdependent relationships we call “The Urban Industry”.

Those working in The Urban Industry are, knowingly or unknowingly,  marshaling the world off open, verdant and resource rich lands and in to barren, highly controlled, unequal and densely populated urban areas. It is important to be clear the herding and centralisation of the world’s population in to urban areas is by no means natural or inevitable, and it most certainly isn’t an “evolutionary step”. Are those in the Urban Industry on the wrong side of history?

Throughout these articles, we will present evidence that shows that contemporary cities are in fact creators, incubators and perpetuators of poverty and inequality. The urbanisation of the world should not be celebrated.

These facts are in direct contrast to and conflict with the lavishly sponsored meta-narrative of The Urban Industry that repeats over and over that cities are centers of innovation, creativity, happiness, good health and, even astonishingly the cause and the solution for global warming.

Each of the columns will focus on a different aspect or player in The Urban Industry. Academia for example, we reveal, had every opportunity to be the site to challenge the unjust processes causing forced urbanisation. Unfortunately, due to extreme class privilege and institutional racism – particularly prevalent in architecture, urban studies, planning and development studies universities – these academics are instead some of the most easily star struck, post-critical and inadequate people to examine the real causes and effects of the centralisation of the world’s population.

NGOs – like apparent social-minded academics such as Richard Sennett – spend the vast majority of their time ruminating on the challenges of the management, “strong” leadership and protocol needed for big cities to function. Moreover, we will highlight how NGOs such as UN Habitat are sponsored by some of the most dubious and corrupt corporations that favour commercial profits over human rights.

Capitalism’s interest in centralising the world’s population is threefold. Firstly, land clearances transplant the populations in to cities providing unhindered access to mineral resources and the opportunity for large-scale corporate farming. This type of urbanisation also creates a highly vulnerable and mobile workforce, that can easily be exploited on the industrial farms or once in the city they end up in.

Secondly, land clearances and the urbanisation of “traditional cultures” rapidly speeds up the homogenisation, mainstreaming and assimilation of many millions of people into the dominant westernised metropolitan culture – which often then leads to ‘the village’ being seen as backwards, redundant. The fracturing and alienation also significantly reduces the chances of any resistance to the corporate land grabs.

Thirdly, the creation and management of high population, high density, and compact cities is the ideal business environment. “Citizens” are both captured and highly dependent on goods and services and the scale of the market, and the limited geography make cities the ideal business context.

We will also highlight the role of culture being enacted through events like the London Festival of Architecture to advocate for urbanisation and support the false promises underpinning this so called “Urban Age”. Critical Cities is a column that seeks to place the processes that cause urbanisation at the forefront of discussions about cities. The column aims to undress and expose the great myths that lead some of the brightest to be entirely wrong when they suggest “cities are good for us” – and reveal who really wins and loses from the Urban Age.

Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield  are the founders of This Is Not A Gateway, and the editors of Critical Cities series of books.

Critical Cities: Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation Volume 4Myrdle Court Press (London, 2015)​.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.