Smart Cities and Infrastructural Justice

Mimi Sheller

Excerpt from Mimi Sheller, Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes (London and New York: Verso, 2019)

Cities are formed by mobilities as well as moorings. Located at the confluence of rivers, roadways, ports, rail termini, highways, and airports, cities have long been understood as a space of flows of people, goods, information, and ideas. They are places of intense infrastructural density founded upon the energy and resource-dependent movements of people, data, and objects: “Much of the city’s existence is concerned with energy flows taking place on different levels: from water and sewage through to electricity and information, from people and animals, to machines and vegetables.”[1] The material turn in mobilities research highlights these geoecological underpinnings and spatial questions surrounding infrastructures, including the global political economies of oil, carbon, and the mining of metals.[2]

Cities rely upon an exceptional scale of connections, networks, and flows, with “infrastructure” being the “basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.”[3] Contemporary urban systems are places not just of human surface transportation but also vast movements of energy through pipelines and cables, long-distance travel of freight by air and rail, and communication networks that reach into aerial and orbital space. While transport studies have largely been interested in horizontal movements over the face of the earth, we need to include vertical mobilities from the deep sea and underground mines to the aerial spaces of aviation and low earth-orbiting satellites.[4] Mobility justice on the ground must take into account these extended “operational landscapes” and “vertical dimensions of human world-making.”[5]

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[1] A. Amin and N. Thrift, Cities: Reimagining the Urban (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), p. 82; Sheller and Urry, “The City and the Car,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 24: 4 (2000): 737-57.

[2] M. Sheller and J. Urry, “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” Environment and Planning A, 38 (2006): 207-26; K. Hannam, M. Sheller, J. Urry, “Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings,” Mobilities, 1: 1 (March 2006): 1-22; J. Urry, Climate Change and Society (Cambridge: Polity, 2011); J. Urry, Societies Beyond Oil: Oil Dregs and Social Futures (London: Zed Books, 2013); Mimi Sheller, Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014).

[3] Definition of “infrastructure,” Oxford Living Dictionaries, English, available at en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/infrastructure.

[4] S. Graham, Vertical (London: Verso, 2016); L. Parks and J. Schwoch, Down to Earth: Satellite Technologies Industries and Cultures (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012); L. Parks and N. Starosielski (eds.), Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press); N. Starsioleski, The Undersea Network (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

[5] T. Paglen, “Some Sketches on Vertical Geographies,” e-flux architecture, 2016, available at e-flux.com; E. Weizman, Hollow Land (London: Verso, 2007); Graham, Vertical; M. Arboleda, “Spaces of Extraction, Metropolitan Explosions: Planetary Urbanization and the Commodity Boom in Latin America,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 (1), 2016: 96–112.

[6] D. Cowen, “Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance,” Verso Blog, January 25, 2017, available at versobooks.com.

[7] S. Kesselring and G. Vogl, “The New Mobilities Regimes,” in S. Witzgall, G. Vogl, and S. Kesselring (eds), New Mobilities Regimes in Art and Social Sciences (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 17-36, p. 20.

[8] K. Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (London and New York: Verso, 2015).

[9] Cowen, “Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance.”

[10] L. Berlant, “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34 (3), 2016: 393–419, pp. 393–94.

[11] “Disrupt the Flows: War Against DAPL and Planetary Annihilation,” December 6, 2016, accessed February 3, 2017 at itsgoingdown.org.

[12] Cowen, “Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance.”

[13] Ibid.

[14] A. Carse, “Nature as Infrastructure: Making and managing the Panama Canal watershed,” Social Studies of Science, 42 (4), 2012: 539-63, p. 539; A. Carse, Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014).

[15] S.L. Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43 (3), 1999: 377–91; S. Star and G. Bowker, “How to Infrastructure,” in L. Lievrouw and S. Livingstone (eds.), The Handbook of New Media (London: Sage, 2002), 151–62; J. Packer and S.C. Wiley (eds.), Communication Matters: Materialist Approaches to Media, Mobility and Networks (New York: Routledge, 2012); L. Parks and N. Starosielski (eds.), Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015); D. Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Easterling, Extrastatecraft.

[16] B. Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructures,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013): 327–43.

[17] These questions arise out of the conference “Mobile Utopia: Pasts, Presents, Futures” held at Lancaster University, UK, November 2-5, 2017, the themes of which built on Ruth Levitas, Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).