Tag Archives: capitalism

New WP: Urban data power: capitalism, governance, ethics and justice

A new ProgCity working paper (46) – Urban data power: capitalism, governance, ethics and justice – has been published. Download PDF

This working paper is a pre-print of Kitchin, R. (in press) Urban data power: capitalism, governance, ethics and justice. In Söderström, O. and Datta, A. (eds) Data Power in Action: Urban Data Politics in Times of Crisis. Bristol University Press.

Urban big data systems are thoroughly infused with data power and data politics. These systems mobilise data power as a means to deepen the interests of states and their ability to manage urban life, and companies and their capacity to create and capture new markets and accumulate profit. Data power is thus deeply imbricated into the workings and reproduction of political economies, its deployment justified as a necessary means to tackle various urban crises and sustain growth. The paper details how data power is being claimed and exerted through the logics and practices of data capitalism, particularly with respect to urban platforms, and how data-driven systems are shifting the nature of governmentality and governance, enacting new, stronger forms of data power, as well as transferring some aspects of municipal government and service delivery to companies. The final section considers how data power can be resisted and reconfigured through an engagement with the ideas of data ethics, data justice, data sovereignty, and the practices of data activism.

Key words: urban data, smart city, capitalism, governance, governmentality, data ethics, data justice, data sovereignty

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Impressions of Songdo, an urban growth machine in progress

On September 30th/October 1st, while on a trip to South Korea, I visited Songdo, the much discussed smart city development built in the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ) at the edge of the Seoul metropolitan area.  The IFEZ, initiated in 2003, consists of three large-scale developments – Songdo (international business district, with a focus on research, education, bio-tech, conferencing), Yeongjong (aviation and logistics hub, tourism), and Cheongna (finance, component manufacturing, robotics, shopping and tourism), much of it built on reclaimed land.

My exploration mainly consisted of a long wander around Songdo and a visit to the IFEZ Promotion Centre on 33rd floor of G-tower.  Unfortunately, the exhibition in the Compact Smart City museum was ‘closed for construction’ and I also failed to see the U-City Vision at Tomorrow City as the entire complex seemed to be closed (I have a feeling that it might be permanently closed as the website was last updated in May 2010).


While Songdo is perhaps best known in the urban studies literature as model smart city and an example of testbed urbanism on a grand scale, my sense is that its creation really has to be contextualised with respect to IFEZ as it is predominately an economic development initiative aimed at driving domestic growth and establishing South Korea as a North East Asian hub for particular industries and thus consolidating its position as a key player in the global economy.
Seen from this perspective, the focus on creating a smart city is an implementation strategy designed to attract investment capital, anchor tenants, and global workers, with a side benefit of creating a potential exportable model of development.  Indeed, the smart city is one of four such implementation strategies used by IFEZ to bring the vision of being a ‘global business frontier’ to life, the others being: creating ‘a global economic platform’, becoming a ‘hub of service industries’ and a ‘hub of convergence’.

These strategies have been quite successful in attracting Korean and global investment, with over $US 8.3 billion being invested in the IFEZ by June 2016.  This has led to rapid growth.  In 2003 the population of the IFEZ (3 areas) was 25,778; by June 2016 it stood at 253,465.  Of these, 4,281 were international residents.  Songdo’s population exceed 100,000 in early 2016.  In the same period the number of companies operating in the IFEZ had grown to 1,737, of which 80 were foreign-owned, and there were 4 international universities and 14 international organizations who had opened campuses/offices in the IFEZ, including branches of the United Nations.  The plan is that by 2030 investment will have reached $US 15 billion, the number of foreign invested companies will have reached 150, the number of international organizations 150, the number of international universities 10, and the population will have grown to 536,000, of which 60,000 will be international residents.

Songdo 2

To aid such growth, the IFEZ has a number of development, planning and social policies.  For example, each district has their own design theme, with Songdo specializing in ‘night landscape, high end architecture landscape, mountainous skyline and waterside network’, along with the theme of being a smart city, or what they have termed ‘U-City’, an intelligent city that utilizes ubiquitous computing to manage urban infrastructures and city services.  In the IFEZ case, the U-City seeks to provide the coordinated management of transportation, environment, crime prevention, fire prevention, and facility management in an integrated manner across the three areas from a single control room.  In terms of social policies this includes trying to produce a ‘trouble free life for foreign residents’, including a ‘real-estate investment immigration system’, in which non-Korean investors are given resident status and after five years permanent residence status.

ucity centre

Recently they have established a plan to develop the IFEZ U-City model into what they term ‘the K-Smart City model’ to ‘more aggressively reinforce its presence in the overseas market.’  Utilising a public cloud system to ‘to securely store the massive amount of information flowing in from the CCTVs and sensors installed across the city’ and an approach to ‘drastically reducing construction and maintenance costs’, this model, it is anticipated, will not only ‘enhance the quality of life of citizens but also serve as a new growth engine as an added-value industry.’  In other words, the IFEZ wants to firmly establish itself as a model of smart city development and governance and to export this model, their expertise and new technologies globally, as made clear by Government official Kim Jong-won of the IFEZ U-City Division: “We plan to develop the knowhow, technology, and expertise regarding the construction of IFEZ and U-City into a brand and commercialize it on a global level.” Songdo is thus a means to showcase top-tier infrastructure and to create an exportable set of knowledges and technologies.

So, what were my impressions of the Songdo?  Having been led to believe that the place is half-built and mostly empty, it is clear that while one section is under-construction a substantial chunk is complete and occupied and all the major infrastructure (in terms of roads, rail, air, energy) are in place.  The part that is complete while quite quiet during the day is reasonably busy during the night with lots of people on the street and in the park, loads of kids playing in courtyards of tower blocks, and there are hundreds of restaurants and shops.  As the empty lots attest it’s a project in development, but far from being a ghost town.  Indeed, 13 years ago there was little but reclaimed land, but now there are over 100,000 people living in Songdo and in the areas that are complete the built environment feels relatively mature.

However, my sense was that it’s all very new, clean and wealthy, and there was little organic about the city – it has clearly been planned and developed to a masterplan, with centrally managed clustering of shops, restaurants and services, and some signature architecture around Central Park.  Moreover, the nascent city is a gated community at city-scale.  Given that the land was reclaimed there was no local community to displace and the cost of living in the private apartment buildings works to exclude lower-income households.  Indeed, Songdo is reputed to be one of the largest privately developed and financed urban developments globally and it aims for a certain degree of exclusivity that will attract additional international investment.

As for the smart city technologies these are difficult to spot, which is no surprise given they are designed to work in the background.  As such, the place does not particularly feel very smart (but rather a newly constructed city district) and since I struggled to get online outside the hotel I couldn’t access what information is made publicly available.  Moreover, what is highlighted in the Promotions Centre might have been pushing the smart city envelope in the mid-2000s but is now pretty middle of the road (real-time passenger information, sensor networks and CCTV, smart parking, traffic and accident information, e-government services, energy-efficient buildings, urban control room).

My overall impression then is that Songdo is more about economic development, free trade, global capitalism, real-estate development, cities as a target market for tech development, and gated community at a city scale, than it is about creating sustainable, diverse and smart communities and citizens.  And despite the global financial crisis it’s making a pretty good fist of the former, having now seemingly gained enough critical mass in terms of investment, infrastructure, companies and population to become an urban growth machine.  I’m not convinced, however, that this is the kind of smart city that other places should seek to emulate given it’s the vision of private interests largely for the benefit of private interests.

Rob Kitchin

A number of the quotes in this blog post are from the IFEZ journal (Sept/Oct 2016, vol 71).

Post-script – I’ve had a search around after I posted this piece.  There are a number of academic articles/book chapters concerning the development of Songdo, including:

Carvalho, L. (2012) Urban competiveness, U-city strategies and the development of technological niches in Songdo, South Korea. In Bulu, M. (ed) City competitiveness and improving urban subsystems. Information Science Reference, Hershey, PA. pp. 197-216.

Halpern, O., LeCavalier, J., Calvillo, N. and Pietsch, W. (2013) Test-Bed Urbanism. Popular Culture 25(2): 272-306.

Kuecker, G.D. (2013) Building the Bridge to the Future: New Songdo City from a Critical Urbanism Perspective. Paper prepared for the workshop: New Songdo City and South Korea’s Green Economy: An Uncertain Future.

Kim, J.I. (2014) Making cities global: the new city development of Songdo, Yujiapu and Lingang. Planning Perspectives 29(3): 329-356

Kim, C. (2010) Place promotion and symbolic characterization of New Songdo City, South Korea. Cities 27(1): 13-19.

Shin, H., Park, S.H. and Sonn, J.W. (2015) The emergence of a multiscalar growth regime and scalar tension: the politics of urban development in Songdo New City, South Korea.  Environment and Planning C 33(6): 1618-1638

Shwayri, S.T. (2013) A Model Korean Ubiquitous Eco-City? The Politics of Making Songdo. Journal of Urban Technology 20(1): 39-55.

Population, automation and the death drive of capitalism

Two of the plenary sessions at this year’s Association of American Geographers meeting in Chicago (April 21-25) — Heidi Nast’s Dialogues in Human Geography forum and Paul Robbins’ Progress in Human Geography lecture — examined in broad terms the relationship between fertility rates, population, the changing nature of work, and the future of capitalism.  Interestingly, fertility seems to be the forgotten focus in the discipline of demography and population the forgotten field in human geography.  However, both sessions called for a renewed focus, not with respect to population growth over the next couple of decades, but the longer run fertility rate and population decline due to take place in the second half of the century.  In both cases, an argument was made regarding the consequences concerning the functioning of capitalism and the health and wealth of society.  Both talks also folded in an analysis of work and production — in Paul’s case types of employment in India and in Heidi’s automation (in a loose sense as much of her talk concerned the development of sex robots in the context of a crisis of masculinity, social alienation, and falling fertility) — and its spillover effects for lifestyle and consumption.

Parsing between the two talks, my sense of the argument starting to be formulated runs in a broad sense thus.  Fertility rates have been falling globally and by 2050 will be below replacement rate in the vast majority of countries with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa.  At this point, the dependency ratio will be very high and growing (ratio of older people to working population), and the global population will peak in the latter part of the century and start to decline at roughly the speed it is growing at present, with this occurring earlier in countries that presently have a low fertility rate.  As such, the market for consumption of products and services will start to plummet, especially in the West.  Moreover, the increasing growth of automation of work (pretty much any work that involves formalised knowledge (e.g., law, medicine, finance) or practices (manufacturing) is set to speed up markedly (Gartner, for example, predict a third of all jobs could be automated by 2025) meaning that labour will become more precarious, less skilled, and less well paying, meaning widening inequalities and decreasing incomes across lower and middle class households.

In combination, reducing population, shrinking cities, a high dependency ratio, widening inequalities, rising labour precarity and falling incomes will create a fatal crisis for capitalism.  Think Detroit and the rustbelt but on a grand, global scale – cities and the production of goods and services scaled for 9-10 billion, but with waged labour highly precarious and a shrinking population and market base.  In other words, whilst attention is presently focused on the issue of rapid global population growth, rural-to-urban migration, resource conflicts and climate adaptability, it is the crisis that follows that will be truly challenging because it signals the end game of a form of political economy that is reliant of constant growth, new markets, and consumers who can afford to consume.  In other words, in its present pursuit of profit and accumulation, capital is creating the conditions to systematically starve itself.

Capitalism has always been vulnerable to crises, but they tend to be short, sharp shocks, whereas population decline and automation will be long-term systemic challenges.  I think there’s some interesting ideas here that are worth fleshing out and thinking through.  It’ll be interesting to see if people start to pick up on them and how the debate — and society — develops.

Rob Kitchin