Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Carolyn Marvin

Second Advisor

Jessa Lingel


Design, Control, Predict: Cultural Politics in the Actually Existing Smart City studies the discourses, rhetorics, intuitions, logics, policies, imaginaries, and imageries that animate the intersection between computational media technologies and cities. It presents three case studies in which a diverse array of actors and institutions engage in struggles to articulate, define, and render legible highly complex, unruly, and often woolly urban processes as problems of efficiency to be solved through technocratic intervention.

The introductory chapter, “Cultural Politics, Smart Cities, Logistical Media” (Chapter 1), theorizes the relationship between two ways of studying the smart city as a cultural-political object. On one hand is a global imaginary that takes shape in pristine architectural renderings, diagrams detailing the embedding of data-generating technologies within urban spaces, and city-scale prototypes built de novo on greenfield sites (such as Songdo in South Korea, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, and PlanIT Valley in Portugal). On the other is the “actually existing smart city”—the piecemeal interventions that take hold in extant cities. These two versions of the smart city are considered in tandem for two reasons: first, to understand the way that imaginaries shape actual interventions, and second to avoid hierarchical categorizations of the smart city based on their formal qualities (the “top-down” and “bottom-up” smart city). The chapter then moves to detail the dissertation’s media-theoretical approach to the smart city. It argues that the smart city’s computational media should be noted for their logistical affordances. Smart city technologies, like logistical media broadly, operate by orientating, arranging, and tracking mobile objects and people within urban spaces. Their principal concern is to eke out new efficiencies that can be mined and exploited to produce value. The chapter argues that a more nuanced approach is needed to study the smart city, one that accounts for the logistical affordances of urban computational media technologies while simultaneously situating those within cultural-political struggles around the legitimacy of smart city interventions.

The dissertation then moves to consider three case studies, each of which focuses on the cultural-political dimensions of smart city interventions. The selection of these case studies is meant to reflect the wide range of interventions taking place in the actually existing smart city.

The first, “Interface, Imaginary, and the Future of Public Space” (Chapter 2), engages with theoretical debates about smart city interfaces as points of exchange between citizens and the smart city, focusing specifically on the case of LinkNYC. LinkNYC is a network of kiosks installed throughout New York to replace the city’s aging public payphones and is the product of a public-private partnership between the City of New York and a consortium of technology manufacturing and design firms. The chapter traces the development of LinkNYC. It begins with a design competition in which New York City’s design and technology communities were invited to “reinvent the payphone.” It then details the request for proposals (RFP) phase, the franchise award, and the franchisees’ buy-out by a Google-backed company called Sidewalk Labs. Throughout, the chapter examines some of LinkNYC’s core failures and concerns that were raised by citizen groups and local politicians. It then returns to the beginning of this history—the public design competition phase—to examine four prototypes that offer alternatives to LinkNYC’s commercially-driven business model. These provide empirical points of departure for a critique of LinkNYC’s kiosk interfaces.

The second case study, “Autonomy and Control in the On-Demand Economy” (Chapter 3), considers discourses of technologically-driven transformations in work and labor in the smart city. The so-called “gig,” “sharing”, or “on-demand” economy is framed as an innovative application of Internet of Things (IoT) concepts to urban spaces. Mainstream rhetoric suggests that networked computational media and commercial platforms can provide new market opportunities by linking demand (consumers) with providers of goods and services. On-demand companies frame themselves as “technological middleman” to mediate these interactions and exchanges. I contest these assumptions by considering the experiences of workers (“service providers”) at courier and ride-hailing companies. I focus on the centrality of workers’ designation as independent contractors and company strategies to ensure that they remain as such. I describe these as “strategies of arbitrage” because companies are constantly arbitraging between competing demands: allowing workers enough autonomy that the independent contractor designation can be maintained, while also exerting enough control over workers to maintain smooth operations. The chapter concludes by theorizing the intuitions that workers develop in response to such strategies, and consider how these affect their calculations in everyday on-the-job decisions.

The third and final case study, “Performance and Performativity in Predictive Policing” (Chapter 4), considers debates about police uses of technology—whether they ameliorate or exacerbate bias and discrimination in urban policing. The chapter focuses on HunchLab, a “predictive policing” software suite. Predictive policing refers to police departments’ use of algorithms to make data-analytic predictions about the locations, times, and types of crimes that will occur to inform resource allocation and patrol deployment decisions. The chapter looks to how the product managers and developers at HunchLab engage with the debates about police use of predictive algorithms, and traces attempts to instill progressive values in algorithm design. I argue that in order to understand how HunchLab is approaching these issues, one must turn from questions of predictive performance—how accurately the model predicts crimes—to those of performativity—or how acting on predictions affects the conditions represented within the model. The chapter then moves to situate predictive policing—and, specifically, HunchLab’s engagement with predictive performativity—within a longer lineage of “police media” in order to discuss its historical precedents and future ramifications.

The dissertation then concludes by asking what it would mean to re-politicize the smart city (Chapter 5, “Conclusion: A Repoliticized Smart City?”). The chapter provides a summary of key themes that emerge across the case studies. These include: how system managers seek to maintain legitimacy when challenged by critics; the centrality of interface design and information asymmetries in smart city infrastructures; the modulation of controls at the level of fleets and statistical aggregates; and the role of cultural foundations to compensate for smart city systems’ inability to automate key functions. I argue that the coordinative functions of smart city systems need to conceptualized at their logical extreme in order to highlight their dangerous potential. Researchers need to expand the scope of what can count as a smart city intervention, and the chapter offers the example of an immigration “raid response” system called Sanctuary in the Streets. In Sanctuary in the Streets, community members not at risk for deportation rally at the physical sites where immigration raids are taking place to conduct civilly- disobedient actions. I argue that this exemplifies all of the features of an urban data infrastructure but avoids the pitfalls of typical smart city solutionism: it operates according to an ethics of care and community maintenance, rather than exploiting efficiencies to produce value for system managers.

The dissertation offers a much-needed critical, ethnographic perspective on technology-based urban interventions. It shows how these over-emphasize logistical efficiencies as an ideal to be realized over competing demands, and, in the process, drown out competing claims about what cities are and how municipal services should be delivered and to whom. By highlighting the cultural-political struggles that attend smart city interventions, the dissertation adds nuance to ongoing debates about the future of the city. It will be useful to both practitioners and critical scholars of cities and technology.


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