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22 | 2021
Digitalisation of public spaces: the great urban change?

Editor's notes

Call for papers:

Guest editor: Raphaël Languillon-Aussel

Digitalisation of urban spaces, especially public spaces, is a long run process that became tangible in the 2000s, but its roots are in the 1970s and even before—at the beginning of the cybernetics age (Mitra and Schwartz, 2001). The telecommunication revolution at the end of the 1990s and the digital revolution in the mid-2000s have externalised computational and digital technologies from private indoor spaces (mainly homes and professional environments) to public external spaces (Eveno, 2014 ; Picon, 2015), leading to the rise of the digital city and its avatars—the smart city, the smart community, the wise city, the safe city, the U-city, the intelligent city, and so forth.

As a result of industrial initiatives, mainly from US companies, the smart city model has quickly and virally spread across the world in the 2010s. Commonly defined as a city structured by the genesis, collection, management, processing, and almost instantaneous analysis of big data through the dissemination of sensors connected in urban spaces and in networks (Batty, 2013), the smart city model is the most common avatar of urban digitalisation dynamics. However, its definition is not stabilised, and it cannot summarize all the diversity of urban digitalisation initiatives.

In recent years, especially since the COVID-19 crisis, urban digitalisation has reached a new stage (van Holstein, 2018). In public spaces, China is deploying its system for mass surveillance of its population via facial recognition, which combines video and artificial intelligence, while other regions of the world are trying to legislate the capture of biometric data in public spaces—or spaces open to the public. This is the case of the European Union, whose General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) gives residents a solid legal framework for the protection of their personal data.

However, there is no need to go through biometric data to monitor citizens (Graham, 1998 ; Vanolo, 2014). Thus, Singapore is inaugurating an urban toll system by satellite in 2020, which allows any vehicle to be tracked at any time of the day and to impose dynamic pricing on its use of the road and its access to different types or zones of urban spaces. In Europe, start-ups are developing various applications for devices using artificial intelligence and video, such as vehicle or license plate recognition systems. Although not falling under the jurisdiction of biometric data, these new high-performance technologies raise concerns about the almost ubiquitous deployment of artificial intelligence and cutting-age digital technologies for the purposes of mass surveillance of space—public spaces, roads, private infrastructures, and so forth.

How does the dissemination of digital devices—for surveillance purposes or not—transform the nature of public spaces but also cities themselves, through changes of uses and behaviours of inhabitants, citizens, or simple onlookers? This Articulo’s special issue aims to examine the effects of the diffusion of digital technologies in public spaces and spaces open to the public in Europe, as well as in the rest of the world. One of the hypothesis of the call consists of presupposing a political regime shift behind the digitalisation of cities, revealing a silent change from the smart city paradigms, focusing on the digitalisation of urban systems aimed at operating maximisation, to the safe city paradigm, focusing on securitisation of urban spaces.

This call for contributions seeks to question five problematic axes of the digital turn’s impacts on public spaces.

Axis 1 – Political and geopolitical turns

Public spaces are highly political in nature (Low and Smith, 2006). In Europe, they are the support and the condition for the expression of the life of the city (Don, 2003 ; Parkinson, 2012). Inherited from a long tradition—sometimes idealised—traced back to Greco–Latin antiquity, they participate in the realisation or even the consolidation of democratic regimes. To what extent does the increasingly important deployment of digital devices in public spaces impact their political dimensions? Are digital technologies transforming citizen practices in public spaces? Do they allow the emergence of new practices? Moreover, by allowing new forms of expression, as well as political and democratic participation online, the virtual space tends to become a new forum. Is digital technology capturing the political functions of public spaces, which have therefore become unnecessary? Do virtual forums weaken the political dimension of “real” public spaces, or do they, on the contrary, consolidate or even revitalise them? Finally, facing a growing movement to close the city (privatisation, communitarianism, new forms of exclusion, conflicts, pandemic crises, and quarantines), can digital technologies temporarily or structurally replace the political dimension of the public space?

Furthermore, on a more geopolitical than political dimension, the diffusion of digital technologies in urban spaces accompanies two geopolitical inflections. At the local level, it reflects the arrival of new players who are transforming public spaces’ planning and governance regimes (Leszczynski, 2016 ; Courmont and Le Galès, 2019). Although they come from the new digital economy, these players are far from homogeneous. Thus, we can distinguish at least three subgroups: digital manufacturers, such as IBM or Cisco; Internet giants, such as Google or Amazon; and Uber- or Airbnb-type platforms. Faced with these heterogeneous strategies, other actors seek to (re)position themselves in the debates and the dynamics of the development of public spaces. This is particularly the case for residents, a growing number of whom are claiming a new form of digitalised right to the city. At the international level, the digital revolution is leading to growing geopolitical tensions, in particular between American and Chinese companies. These tensions are leading to the closure of public markets to certain companies, especially in the current negotiations for the deployment of 5G or the equipping of public spaces with connected furniture. In addition, while the collection of personal data in public spaces becomes more widespread, the question of their storage, as well as the establishment of data trusts and servers, takes on major local and international geopolitical dimensions. What consequences does the diffusion of digital technologies in public spaces have on the local geopolitics of the urban fabric and the international geopolitics of relations between national champions and states? From local to global, the multiscale challenges of digital infrastructure thus lead to questioning the political and geopolitical dimension of public spaces’ digital skin (Rabari and Storper, 2014).

Axis 2 – Planning and narrative turns

While new players are breaking into urban fabric and governance, skills and digital tools are gradually establishing themselves in the field of town planning and urban development (Douay, 2018). If these major transformations have already been partially questioned by urban studies in general, work on the design and construction of public spaces is much less extensive. Is digital transforming the designs, shapes, dimensions, and spatiality of public spaces? In what ways is the emergence of new tools and skills changing the way public spaces are thought-out, planned, and developed? How do digital uses, services, experiences, and interactions transform the way public spaces are imagined, designed, and produced?

Although digital technologies have very short life cycles, their grouping into generations makes it possible to identify structuring periods over a longer time. The so-called Web 2.0 (Social Web) and Web 3.0 (Internet of Things) have each had different impacts on public spaces, impacts that have already been partially studied by the academic literature. However, a new generation of technologies is about to be deployed: in particular, Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G, and a new form of mobile sensors, the latter having merged with robotics. What impacts do the short life cycles of technologies and the changes of technological generations have on the development of public spaces? How are the various technologies articulated in public spaces? Does technology’s obsolescence lead to public space’s obsolescence? Finally, each technology has its limits and blind spots—physically, such as off-screen of a camera, or philosophically, such as the unthought of a device. To what extent is the deployment of digital devices in public spaces likely to be hacked, circumvented, or appropriated in ways that are sometimes unexpected?

Furthermore, research in human and social sciences has shed light on the narrative turn in the urban planning and the making of cities since the 1980s. However, digital technology recontextualises urban narratology by putting it in a mise en abyme. On the one hand, digital avatars are transforming the modes of representation of the city and public spaces, while digital networks accelerate the circulation of images and representations. On the other hand, public spaces are gradually becoming supports for images and imaginations, whether through the multiplication of screens on walls and in street furniture or through augmented reality that allows for the insertion of virtual images and virtual information directly on a public space’s digital skin. What role do digital technologies play in the representation, imagination, and perception of public spaces? Does the digital inflation of images and imaginaries constitute an enrichment, a diversification, or on the contrary, an aesthetic, cultural, and visual impoverishment of public spaces? Does the multiplication of images and digital avatars have an influence on the uses of public spaces or the behaviour observed there? How does the narration of the digital skin of public spaces operate, and what does this narration bring to urban narratology? Finally, how are screens and digital media-emitting images becoming spatialised in public spaces? What impacts does this spatialisation have on the nature and functions of public spaces?

Axis 3 – Economic and sociological turns

With the digital turn of the economy, we are not only observing the emergence of players based on new business models but also observing business models’ transformations of pre-existing players who seek to adapt themselves to the digital economic logic (Klauser, Paasche and Söderström, 2014). What are the new business models of the digital revolution? What status do public spaces occupy in those new business models? What are the new business models of public spaces? Does the digitisation of public space reflect a new form of privatisation and closure? If there is a digital revolution, it should be accompanied by a form of creative destruction of businesses, economic logics, and potentially, spaces. Can we observe such creative destruction of public spaces or of economic phenomena within public spaces attributable to new digital logics?

On another level, from a public perspective, every individual frequenting a public space has many identities: citizen, consumer, user, and inhabitant (each identity can be declined in a multitude of avatars: demonstrator, onlooker, tourist, stroller, athlete/runner, etc.) (Amin, 2008 ; Madanipour, 2010). In addition, digital is a major communicational turning point, outsourcing to the public space the information and communication technologies initially deployed in private interiors (mainly housing and offices). Are digital technologies producing new uses and new behaviours? Conversely, do they lock individuals into limited practices in public spaces? Is the deployment of digital technologies in the public space liberating or liberticidal? Between the citizen, the consumer, the user, and the inhabitant, for which type(s) of recipient(s) are digital technologies deployed in the public space? What impacts do they have on the populations frequenting public spaces? Do they promote social exchanges, or on the contrary, do they physically replicate the segregative logic of digital bubbles?

Moreover, with the new generations of digital technologies, new categories of individuals are appearing. On the one hand, from a transhumanist point of view, 5G and AI—before them the Internet of Things—shift users from the figure of the connected individual to that of the augmented individual. On the other hand, from a demographic point of view, the arrival in public spaces of the generation of “digital natives” tends to transform social relations by making recourse to digital technologies more “natural” or “essential”. How do digital technologies change social relationships in public spaces? How do the different categories of the population—connected individuals, augmented individuals, natives, elders, seniors, etc.—interact within public spaces? Does the idea of co-presence still have a meaning in public spaces? Depending on their different digital uses and cultures, are two co-present people dealing with the “same” public space? Finally, can we still refuse the digitisation of public spaces? Does a non-digital being still have a place in public spaces in the digital age?

Axis 4 – Legal and philosophical turns

The rapid diffusion of digital devices in public spaces and the activities resulting from the business models of players in the digital turnaround of planning and the economy, leads to a reaction - often delayed - from the legislator and public authorities. This is the case with municipal decrees regarding the activity of platforms, for example limitation, prohibition, or contractualisation of the activities of Uber or electric scooters. In addition, as digital identification, recognition, and surveillance systems multiply, questions relating to the collection of personal data and the tacit consent of individuals lead to heterogeneous reactions, leading to the formalisation of a new legal framework in Europe: the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). What spatial impacts do new forms of digital regulation have on and in public spaces? To what extent do legal texts, such as the GDPR, transform the spatialisation of all or part of the digital technologies deployed in public spaces in Europe and in the rest of the world? Has digital legislation in European public spaces had comparable effects in the rest of the world? Conversely, are we seeing the emergence of new forms of legal regulation of public spaces?

In a more philosophical dimension, public spaces of European cities have been built around a philosophical and political reflection on the body and the individual. To reread the reflections and testimonies of authors, such as Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, or Georg Simmel, the city and its public spaces are the guarantors of anonymity, political commitment, or even wandering—no doubt one of the practices that only public spaces allow (Nagel, 1995). Furthermore, the latter are, by nature, the space of probability, uncertainty, serendipity, encounter, happenstance, hazard, and possibly risk. However, how should one think of the public space, the body, and the individual in the digital age? Does digital technology lead to questioning the notions of anonymity, serendipity, and happenstance and their fundamental contribution to what public space is and, furthermore, what cities are? By blurring the distinction between private, interior, and intimate space and public, exterior, and collective space, are digital technologies destroying the city and all physical anchoring of the city? What is the deep nature of the notions of public, individual, and city in a space taken over by digital technologies? Finally, does the rejection of digital technologies lead to rejection of public space or of the city?

Axis 5 – Health turn and spatial distancing

The COVID-19 crisis has led many governments to impose restrictions on the use of public spaces or even to resort to restrictions or bans on access with curfews or quarantines. In addition, many metropolises and towns have tended to reorganise public spaces to adapt them to the conditions imposed by the health episode: social distancing and the extension of the private sector (such as widening of the terraces of certain bars and restaurants to compensate for the economic losses).

What roles has digital played in adapting public spaces to the health crisis of COVID-19? How have digital approaches and analogue approaches been articulated? How have digital technologies contributed to the opening or, on the contrary, to the sanitary closing of public spaces? During quarantine, has digital space taken the place of public spaces? Have we observed online behaviours related to those observable in public spaces—meetings, serendipity, wandering, festivity, “agoraphilia”, or agoraphobia? To what extent do digital technologies allow bodies to return to public spaces that have become dangerous—or are perceived as such? Finally, to what extent will the health crisis be a turning point in the dynamics of digitisation or the deployment of digital technologies in public spaces? This last section aims to recontextualise all the questions raised in this call according to the health crisis of COVID-19.

Contributions must explicitly focus on urban space in a way or another, and be sent to raphael.languillon@unige.ch before March 15, 2021.


References (selection):

Amin A., 2008, Collective culture and urban public space, City, 12-1, pp. 5-24.

Aurigi A., 2005, Making the Digital City. The Earky Shaping of Urban Internet Space, London: Routledge, 236 p.

Batty M., 2013, Big Data, Smart Cities and City Planning, Dialogues in Human Geography, 3-3, pp. 274-279.

Bodnar J., 2015, Reclaiming public space, Urban Studies, 52-12, pp. 2090–2104.

Courmont A. and Le Galès P., 2019, Gouverner la ville numérique, Paris : PUF, 120 p.

Dehaene M. and De Cauter L., 2008, Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society, New York: Routledge, 344 p.

Don M., 2003, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space, New York: Guilford Press, 277 p.

Douay N., 2018, L'Urbanisme à l'heure du numérique, London: ISTE Editions, 184 p.

Eveno E., 1997, Les pouvoirs urbains face aux technologies d’information et de communication, Paris : PUF, 127 p.

Eveno E., 2014, Comment l’intelligence vînt aux villes, Urbanisme, 394, pp. 26-27.

Graham S., 1998, Spaces of surveillant simulation: new technologies, digital representations, and material geographies, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 16, pp. 483–504.

Humphreys L., 2010, Mobile social networks and urban public space, New Media & Society, 12-5, pp. 763–778.

Klauser F., Paasche T. and Söderström O., 2014, Michel Foucault and the smart city: power dynamics inherent in contemporary governing through code, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32, pp. 869-885.

Lane J., 2016, The Digital Street: An Ethnographic Study of Networked Street Life in Harlem, American Behavioral Scientist, 60-1, pp. 43-58

Leszczynski A., 2016, Speculative futures: Cities, data and governance beyond smart urbanism, Environment and Planning A, 48, pp. 1691-1708.

Lipper R. and Walby K., 2013, Policing cities: Urban securitization and regulation in a 21st century world, Oxford: Routledge, 304 p.

Low S. & Smith N., 2006, The politics of Public Space, New York: Routledge, 194 p.

Nagel T., 1995, Personal Rights and Public Space, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 24-2, pp. 83-107.

Madanipour A., 2010, Whose Public Space?: International Case Studies in Urban Design and Development, New York: Routledge, 284 p.

Mitra, A. and Schwartz R.L., 2001, From Cyber Space to Cybernetic Space: Rethinking the Relationship between Real and Virtual Spaces, Journal of Computer-mediated Communication, 7-1, https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.inshs.bib.cnrs.fr/doi/full/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2001.tb00134.x (consulted Oct. 2020)

Parkinson J., 2012, Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 262 p.

Picon A., 2015, Smart Cities: A Spatialised Intelligence, Wiley, 168 p.

Rabari C. and Storper M., 2014, The digital skin of cities: Urban theory and research in the age of the sensored and metered city, ubiquitous computing and big data, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 8, pp. 27–42.

Van Holstein E., 2018, Digital geographie of grassroots securitization, Social & Cultural Geography, 19-8, pp. 1097-1105.

Vanolo A., 2014, Smartmentality: The smart city as disciplinary strategy, Urban Studies, 51, pp. 883-898.

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