Urban Studies

Our interdisciplinary Urban Studies list examines how the built environment shapes behaviour and how to address complex problems like urban poverty, gentrification, climate change and educational inequality.

Subjects covered include urban planning, urban geography, urban policy, local governance and community-based participation, to offer a broad understanding of how urban dynamics shape both global interdependence and local spaces.

Urban Studies

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This chapter analyses the tactics of civil society organizations (CSOs) in three South African cities: Cape Town; Ekurhuleni, in the Gauteng City-Region; and Buffalo City. Drawing on work on data politics, data activism, and postcolonial STS, it uses the notion of ‘conjugated knowledge positions’ to open the reflection to data tactics as part of broader knowledge politics and envisage them as negotiated within a multi-actor game. Based on the case studies, the chapter shows how CSO tactics are positioned along a spectrum between data power and knowledge power. Extending work on CSO urban data politics, the authors conclude that South African CSOs have not rolled out and rolled back data-focused tactics as a consequence of moments of faith and disillusionment in the power of data, but rather mobilize data and other forms of knowledge according to local political contexts and interactional situations.

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Data, data everywhere. Never a moment’s rest. Never an aspect of life not potentially convertible into indicating something besides itself, never unable to participate in a gathering of factors whose particular compositions indicate future behavioral dispositions or scenarios. Data reworks the fundamental ontological status of things, as they no longer exist for themselves or for their actual and potential uses for others, but rather as placeholders, momentary points of reference for an assemblage of futurity always in the making. In other words, things are basins of attraction – to use cybernetic vernacular – that contribute to the singularity of specific events, personalities, and operations: a contributing factor to why events transpired in the way they did and what their likely implications are to be. The chapter explores some of the operations and ramifications of urban data technical apparatuses. What do they do, how do they function, and what, most significantly, is the terrain of the urban they both analyse and constitute? In what ways is the interoperability of knowledge increasingly predicated, or at least suggestive of, an entire domain of the inoperable, the feral; that is, procedures of knowing and doing that seem to come out of nowhere, that have no ready mechanisms of translation, no discernible relational frameworks.

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Ethics as practice in data-driven contexts refers to ways of organizing, acting with, relating to, or contesting data. The use of data within urban settings provides a number of specific contexts and practices, intersecting and transcending what might be considered ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’ dynamics. Data-based governance, management, and civic engagement are deeply embedded into the function and experience of cities, raising issues of justice that require considerations of meaning that cut across scale, since issues of justice are temporally dispersed and contextually specific. Ethnographic methods can surface a range of possibilities for understanding issues of data justice across these contexts and scales. Areas of practice with ethical and justice implications include: commercial practices of data-based companies; participatory and civic data-gathering and engagement processes, including data activism; and community- or commons-based data governance strategies. A future data ethics can move away from responsive actions set within frameworks set by existing powerful actors and towards attention to implications across scale and time, producing and drawing from dynamics of resistance, resilience, and community strength. This chapter outlines a multiscalar data ethics in practice, using examples to illustrate the processes of trust and autonomy modelled through practices of ethics including governance, management, and civic engagement.

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Urban Data Politics in Times of Crisis

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Drawing on the study of different cities in the Global South, this book explores how the intensive use of data changes politics, power relations and everyday life in contemporary cities.

Across the volume, expert contributors show how urban actors, from the state to activists, are increasingly using data as a resource to empower their actions and support their claims and shows how times of crisis are moments when the power of data is made visible.

Focusing on the different dimensions of data power and politics in the urban realm, this is an important contribution to our understanding of how datafication transforms the places in which we live and how we experience them.

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Data is everywhere, increasingly mediating and shaping all domains of life. It is urgent in this context, argues the introduction, to investigate the political nature of data. However, much of the investigation of data politics focuses on what concerns researchers in the Global North – big data, data infrastructures, cybersecurity, surveillance, and so on, and is rarely explicit about the diverse and fragmented nature of data, particularly in the Global South. Therefore, while considering in its first section issues that are planetary in reach, such as data and platform capitalism, data ethics, and data justice, contributions in the book focus essentially on situations outside Europe and North America – in Kenya, China, India, South Africa. Beyond such a provincialization of data politics, the book has three aims: to analyse data politics specifically in the urban realm; to propose a practice-orientated approach while structural accounts are predominant in urban data studies; and to look at crises as moments of acceleration, visibility, and legitimation of new forms of data power.

The introduction then discusses the concepts that are central to the book – urban data politics, data power in action crises – explains the structure of the book, and highlights the main arguments of its chapters.

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Data Power in Action shows how the intensive use of data is changing politics, power relations and everyday life in contemporary cities. The book argues that data has become a generative force in shaping what cities are, how they are governed and lived. It investigates how urban actors – from the state to activists and digital platforms – use data as a resource to empower their actions and support their claims. Drawing on the study of different cities in the Global South, Data Power in Action investigates times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the invasion of Ukraine, as moments when the power of data is made visible, accelerated, and legitimized. Written by major scholars in the fields of critical data studies and urban studies, this is the first edited collection that specifically focuses on the different dimensions of data power and politics in the urban realm. Highlighting agency in the datafication of cities, the book is structured in three parts: Frames, which looks at broad (infra)structural trends; Strategies, which focuses on institutional actors; and Tactics, which researches practices of citizens and civil society organizations.

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What can be done to renegotiate data power in an era of platform scale? Data reforms enacted by cities such as Barcelona and Toronto, as well as new multi-city data alliances, demonstrate the role of local and municipal governments as key sites for data policy experimentation. This chapter explores some of the policies and programmes used to advance experimental data policies that respond to the extraction of data value by commercial platform business models, and discusses some of the emerging instruments used to advance citizen digital rights and urban data values. These experimental reforms, it argues, highlight the enduring importance of the city scale as a site for the renegotiation of data power in an era of platform scale.

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Data Power in Action shows how the intensive use of data is changing politics, power relations and everyday life in contemporary cities. The book argues that data has become a generative force in shaping what cities are, how they are governed and lived. It investigates how urban actors – from the state to activists and digital platforms – use data as a resource to empower their actions and support their claims. Drawing on the study of different cities in the Global South, Data Power in Action investigates times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the invasion of Ukraine, as moments when the power of data is made visible, accelerated, and legitimized. Written by major scholars in the fields of critical data studies and urban studies, this is the first edited collection that specifically focuses on the different dimensions of data power and politics in the urban realm. Highlighting agency in the datafication of cities, the book is structured in three parts: Frames, which looks at broad (infra)structural trends; Strategies, which focuses on institutional actors; and Tactics, which researches practices of citizens and civil society organizations.

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The ‘digital turn’ has brought digital platforms to the forefront of social, economic, and political spheres of urban life. In this chapter, I draw from the case of Nairobi – Kenya’s capital, a political and economic hub, and a major technological centre – over 24 months, to examine articulations of platform work, everyday life and survival in times of crisis. First, I highlight different ways through which operational companies had to make room for digital systems during the COVID-19 restrictions. Second, by way of ‘following the platform’ from a worker and a driver, I offer an ethnographic account of how at the height of COVID-related socio-spatial inequalities, residents appropriate different digital systems and delivery platforms to navigate urban life and pandemic restrictions. And third, I build on established debates on urban and infrastructure development and appropriation to make an explicit contribution that is empirically grounded beyond utopian descriptions of circulating techno-centred visions and deterministic views of urban innovation. I conclude with considerations for urban planning, theorizing, and innovation in post-crisis contexts.

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‘In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company’, Mark Zuckerberg pondered in a recent interview. This chapter examines platformization as the rise of a new form of private regulation based on data power. Platformization signifies a shift from the top-down, population-based, and categorizing view that characterized state control in high modernity, to the forms of power afforded by new data epistemologies: bottom-up, cluster-based, relational, and fluid. Society is suffused and intertwined with code – producing sociotechnical assemblages which can be designed and engineered with precision as complex systems.

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