Hybrid City 2 Conference abstract: The smart city you love to hate: Exploring the role of affect in hybrid urbanism


Next week from 23 ? 25 May I attend the second Hybrid City conference – “subtle rEvolutions” – in Athens, Greece.

Hybrid City is an international biennial event dedicated to exploring the emergent character of the city and the potential transformative shift of the urban condition, as a result of ongoing developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) and of their integration in the urban physical context. After the successful homonymous symposium in 2011, the second edition of Hybrid City has grown into a peer reviewed conference, aiming to promote dialogue and knowledge exchange among experts drawn from academia, as well as artists, designers, researchers, advocates, stakeholders and decision makers, actively involved in addressing questions on the nature of the technologically mediated urban activity and experience.

Check out the program here >>

Below the abstract of my paper and talk. It explores the potential role of affect in the smart city. IMO this is a largely ignored domain when it comes to rationalized interventions with the aid of ‘smart technologies’ that are aimed at efficiency and optimization.

As a work in progress the paper itself, which I’ll post here after the event, kind of drifted away from the abstract a little.


The city you love to hate: exploring affective approaches to the smart city

Michiel de Lange

This contribution wishes to contribute to the present controversies and discussions about smart cities by sketching a framework for the affective smart city.

Looking back to how the city has been understood as a hybrid form, we can identify three more or less successive conceptual foundations. In the first, which I call the ecosystem view, the early modern metropolis is theorized as a distinct socio-environmental combination that mediates people’s behavior and mentality. The second, which I call the phenomenological view, tries to bridge spatial and mental domains by focusing on people’s sensory and cognitive experiences of cities. The third, which I call the affective view, shifts attention to emotional relationships between people and hybrid techno-urban environments.

Emblematic of the first approach is the Chicago School with its biological vocabulary. The city is conceived as an ecosystem with distinct spatial qualities (high density and layout), and demographics (high numbers of socially heterogeneous people). The city serves as a more or less closed container for a wide range of ‘species’ – frequently birds of strange feather like hobos, taxi-drivers, ballroom dancers, street-corner boys – to compete for scarce resources and struggle for survival, while engaging in relationships of dominance, symbiosis, succession, and so on.

Exemplary of the phenomenological approach are Kevin Lynch’s work on ‘The Image of the City’, and De Certeau’s oft-cited work on ‘the practice of everyday life’. As electronic media became ever more widespread, sensitivity for mediated visions also of the city was growing. In many ways Simmel and Benjamin prefigured this with their writings about the mediated urban experience and mentality. Other than the ecosystems view this approach emphasizes human agency, but almost entirely on the level of conscious, rational cognition. Moreover, the focus on experience is driven by extrinsic motivations: better urban navigation, developing a counter-political urban tactics.

Recently, the city is increasingly often conceptualized in affective terms. We see this view emerging in locative media art and its tight intellectual ties with actor-network theory, as it seeks to trace and map complex relationships between places, people, technologies in ‘emotional cartographies’ (Nold 2009). Ubicomp and urban informatics researchers are developing similar ideas about city possessing some form of ‘sentience’ (Shepard 2011). Affect is also central in recent explorations of how digital media can strengthen citizen engagement by fostering feelings of ‘ownership’ (de Lange & de Waal 2012). Contemporary experimental urban design interventions frequently target this affective realm, oftentimes by stirring emotions and desires though play and gamification, or through poetic and cinematographic ‘sense of place’ projects. In the affective view the city no longer is a passive backdrop for social behavior, or a canvas on which urbanites paint their everyday mental experiences. It becomes an active agent in a hybrid mesh of human-techno-socio-spatial interdependencies.

In the slipstream of an avant-garde of media makers, artists and academics, a very different yet powerful new vision of the ‘smart city’ takes hold in cities worldwide. In close collaboration with technology companies and university technology and engineering departments, cities are developing smart city policies to optimize urban processes by deploying a variety of technologies. The smart city is touted to help solve a wide range of pressing urban issues and therefore to improve people’s quality of life in the city. While different cities obviously face different problems, these issues include vacant buildings and wastelands, shrinking cities, sustainable food and energy production, (youth) employment and social equity, mobility, environmental quality, safety, bridging the gap between citizens and policy, and so on.

Smart city policies may be criticized for ignoring the active role of citizens and for proposing ‘technological fixes’ to complex problems. The argument I wish to develop here however goes a step further: the smart city also strips the city itself of its barely conceived agency and capacity to affect people on an emotional level. On the surface the notion of the smart city appears to attribute the city with the power to actively intervene. However, I argue that in fact this smart city paradigm involves a return to the systems perspective of the city as a passive backdrop for action. At best, if indeed there is a more developed perspective on citizen experience and engagement, it assumes people as rational deliberative agents. It is rather telling that smart city experiments are often incubated in that most sterile and rationalized of all environments, the (living) lab. To me that doesn’t seem like a good place to study potential solutions for urban issues on the plane of affect.

How then can an affective viewpoint contribute to tackling these issues and create better solutions? If we look at mobility issues for example, some scholars and artists have emphasized that mobility is not simply about traveling from A to B as efficiently as possible. Moving has its own affective connotations, which depends to a large degree not only on the spatial context and social situation but also the affective qualities of the transport- and communications media that are part of being on the move nowadays. Any smart city proposal that wishes to solve congestion and mobility problems must take this emotional experience of movement into account.

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