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Digitalization of public spaces. The great urban change?

Raphaël Languillon-Aussel


Public spaces, declining places by definition

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1The collective use of public spaces changed radically throughout the 2010s. The decade began with the proliferation, throughout the world, of social movements that utilized various public spaces (e.g., parks, squares, avenues) in the form of sitting. This was particularly the case in 2011 with Occupy Wall Street and Zuccotti Park in New York, the Arab Spring and Tahrir Square in Egypt and the Indignados and Puerta del Sol in Madrid. The decade closed, however, with the confinements put in place in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the desertion of public spaces. However, the social movements and sitting demonstrations in 2011 on the one hand, as well as the social distancing and depopulation of public spaces in 2020 on the other, seem to have both resulted from digital technology.

2Popular mobilizations like Occupy have thus resulted from the citizen coordination made possible by social networks. These agora of a new kind, as a result of the coupling of traditional public spaces and the digital industrial revolution, are updated and materialize on live chatrooms of the social web. For the French political scientist Alice Béja, “material gatherings, in the urban space, are a transposition of the modes of communication and mobilization that take place on the Internet (…) and are, in a sense, concrete applications of ways to conceive the debate that we practice online” (Béja, 2012). Conversely, the confinements of the end of the decade relied on the virtual space carried by digital tools and platforms to save (although some would say capture) the social intermediation that physical public spaces had played until then. Between these two seemingly contradictory situations, the 2010s are thus problematic in terms of the complex relationships that public spaces and digital tools can maintain. Is digital technology then a factor of political, social or even ideological renewal of public spaces, or does it announce their obsolescence or at least their transformation?

3Whether we consider the social movements of the early 2010s or the confinements of the turn of the 2020s, the answer does not seem identical even though the problem remains the same: that of the role of digital technology on the future of public spaces. Beyond the spectacular manifestation of mass behaviour, the aim of the special issue is thus to establish the first critical assessment of the impacts of digital technology on the ordinary functioning of urban public spaces. How does digital technology lead to modifying individual behaviours, the relationship between the public and private spheres, social interactions and so on? So many fields questioning ordinary urban life are less spectacular than mass social demonstrations but just as structuring over the long term in terms of the evolution of contemporary urban dynamics and the planning of political regimes.

4The notion of public space is a sea serpent of research in the humanities and social sciences. It has regularly experienced periods of intense questioning accompanied by multiple attempts at theorization, interspersed with periods of less interest that may be due to the weariness that academics have felt about the ideological postures that surround its epistemology. In the 1970s, the notion was thoroughly studied because of the adaptation of cities to cars by the proponents of functionalism, whereas the notion was at the core of academics’ interest in the 1980s because of the neoliberalization of the urban fabric that affects public spaces. Then, the notion experienced a partial eclipse in the 1990s before the digital revolution led the academic community to renew its interest in the mid-2000s. At the very end of the 2010s, the COVID-19 crisis renewed its scientific interests and approaches.

5The 2010s were of particular attention for mass protest movements, obscuring the weak signals of more fundamental transformations of uses, behaviours and planning logics of public spaces, which have been the real interest of the academic community at the end of the 2010s. During the half-century of intense and rapid evolution of public spaces starting at least in the 1970s, research postures have become more complex, posing the question of the impossibility of a consensual and universal definition of public spaces outside of any ideology.

The ambivalence of public spaces and their complex geography

6One of the difficulties in defining the notion stems from its terminological ambivalence, which means that “public space” can be considered as either a whole or as the product of the two notions that compose it, which are themselves ambivalent: that of “space” and that of “public”. The ambivalence of public space is thus fractal and can be observed at all levels of apprehension of the concept, as well as at all scales of its spatial expressions. Clarification is therefore needed on the various possible combinations and their definitions.

Public space taken as the product of the notions of “space” and “public”

7Taken as a combination (i.), public space is ambivalent in that it is the product of two equally ambivalent notions: that of public (i.i) and that of space (i.ii). First of all, the notion of public (i.i) designates both what belongs to the people and what belongs to the state. It is not certain that the classical political economy inherited from Rousseau and his Social Contract distinguishes these two levels so categorically, with the government of the state being the fruit of the absolute sovereignty of the people, driving the two meanings of the term public to a homogeneity of views and interests – namely, the general interest of the sovereign people throughout the national territory.

8In a neoliberal regime of urban planning and government, however, the correlation of the interests of the state or public power and those of the people is no longer so obvious or automatic. One could even consider that the competition between territories leads to splitting the legal and moral uniqueness of the very notion of public power into distinct entities with conflicting interests. To put it more simply, the notion of public has become, under the neoliberal regime of the making and planning of the city, an ambivalent and even oppositional principle, not only in its concrete manifestations but also in its deep nature.

9The ambivalence of the notion of space then (i.ii) corrupts the analyses of public space through the confusion between space understood as a physical place of the Euclidean metric – that is to say, homogeneous and continuous – and space understood as a discursive sphere of exchanges and debates that articulate public or private physical places – more or less structured in scattered networks (lounges, bars, halls, conference rooms, amphitheatres, etc., up to national assemblies) – using material media (written press) and immaterial media (with different types of immateriality, such as the digital one). However, if there is a link between the development of public spaces as physical places and material dispositives on the one hand, as well as the political and technical evolution of discursive public spheres on the other, both must be treated separately (either from a methodological or theoretical perspective), without depriving the research from analysing the impacts of one on the other. In this perspective, this issue distinguishes three fields of study: the diffusion of digital technology in a physical space, the diffusion of digital technology in the public sphere (this question will remain secondary here) and the influence of digital technology in the articulation between the physical space and discursive sphere.

Public space understood as a whole

10Taken as a whole and not a combination (ii.), public space can be understood as a concept or ideal (ii.i) and as a place or fact (ii.ii). As a concept (ii.i), public space is often confused with the public sphere – namely, confusion that has led to many misinterpretations. The distinction commonly accepted in the literature is that public space in the singular refers to discursive space and public spaces in the plural to their physical corollary. However, this distinction seems to me fallacious because it presupposes the existence of a strong link or a consubstantial correlation between one and the other. However, the idea of a deterministic evolution between the discursive public space (the public sphere in truth) and physical public spaces that will result from it is purely theoretical and much too linear, obscuring filtering effects, dispositives and assemblages mediating discursive public space to the structuring of physical public spaces. Digital technology would, however, be one of these filtering effects or median dispositives analysed in this issue.

11On the contrary, the concept of public space should rather refer to an abstract essentialization of public places – that is to say, to an abstraction close to the Aristotelian concept of the thing in itself. To avoid any confusion, we will call in this issue of public spaces the physical places observable in the urban environment, and in this issue of the public sphere, we refer to discursive public spaces. From there, public space in the singular becomes the theoretical but resolutely spatial abstraction of public spaces physically observable through the assiduous practice of a geographical fieldwork – that is to say, the rise in the generality of the principle of a public physical space. This abstraction nevertheless encounters many limits due to the impossibility of satisfying the heterogeneity of reality, whose field observations very often thwart the perfection of theoretical principles: the geographical complexity of reality almost systematically undermines the homogeneous and ubiquitous ideal of public space. As the geographer Myriam Houssay-Holzschuch (2016) points out, if the real public space, understood as a physical place, is observed in very many societies, the conceptual public space, understood as a metonymic ideal of the political principle of the city’s organization, only applies in Western societies.

12Taken as a place (ii.ii), the definition and meaning accorded to public space differ greatly, whether it is considered on the broad scale of an entire city or on the local scale of a neighbourhood: in the first case, its symbolic and political dimensions outweigh any other considerations; however, in the second case, its ordinary value of use and, even more, its inhabiting take precedence over its political and symbolic dimensions. In both cases, however, public space participates in the constitution of identities – whether they are the one of city dwellers (a city) or inhabitants (a neighbourhood) – because both of which have an essential relationship to citizenship and its concrete geographical anchoring in a collectively lived territory.

13From there, a fine geography of the ambivalence of public spaces takes shape according to a double spatial entry: an urban marquetry of public spaces, understood as places, articulates those of local dimensions with those of larger scales; a global cultural marquetry of the abstract notion of public spaces raises the question of a European exclusivity of public space, which is understood as the essentialization of an ideal place that is a metonymic of the relationship between urban territory (the city – urbs) and its civic community (its political organization, the city – civitas). With regards to these two intertwined geographies, the ambivalence of the definition of public space is a geographical principle in itself: it is therefore up to geographers to order, sequence and spatialize disciplinary considerations on public space.

The definition of public space through the prism of its approximations

The appearance of the notion and its abusive historicization

14According to the French geographer François Tomas (2001a), the idea of public space is recent and dates back to the 1970s, at a time when geography and, more broadly, human and social sciences were experiencing a great renewal of their theoretical and notional tools. The emergence of the idea of public space thus constituted a conceptual response to the need to describe and denounce the crisis of urban centralities and outdoor spaces, confronted with three traumatic mutations.

15Firstly, the inadequacy of existing squares and streets to modern life and mobility, specifically to the use of the car, made it necessary to reorganize built-up spaces and their spacing. The place granted to the car then encroached on all other types of spaces and uses, sometimes according to very authoritarian decision-making methods at the limit of the democratic practice of urban redevelopment. Secondly, supporters of functionalism tended to dissociate urban spaces according to a monofunctional conception of uses, dispossessing open spaces of any political function and any symbolic value to make them simple support spaces (slabs) – that is, pure horizontality associated with the verticalization by functional strata of urbanism. Finally, in the third place, the newly built-up spaces that were deceptively called “forum” or “agora” did not manage to arouse the interest of the inhabitants or meet their civic needs: the narrative did not take, partly because of the reductionism of functionalism, partly also because of the peri-urban sprawl that dissociated the physical dimension of cities (urbs) and the living space of the civic community (civitas) – that is to say, this caused the very principle of the city to disappear, understood as a territory politically structured and administered by the community that inhabits it (Choay, 1994).

16Cars, functionalism and peri-urbanization deconstructed the complex stacking of populations, uses and functions at the origin of the idea of a city and the adequacy between urbs and civitas. The first victim of this period of traumatic restructuring was therefore what was called at the time the public space, and the shock called for the need to put it into words. The new idea of public space would have thus resulted from these major changes in urban societies and territories, and they would have proceeded from a feeling of dispossession and a feeling of general crisis of “the city inherited from history” (Tomas, 2001a). The notion of public space thus reflects critical postures in the face of structural urban changes sometimes decided in an authoritarian framework without negotiation with the resident population, or almost. It echoes similar critical postures in the context of earlier structural urban changes of comparable importance: in this respect, Tomas cites Camilo Sitte’s indignation in the 19th century at the construction of new types of spaces in Haussmanian Paris, such as the passages, large avenues, gardens and public parks (Sitte was dejected by the fact that the newly planted trees hide the buildings), or even the work of Janes Jacobs on the decline of the street in the 1950s and 1960s – a prolegomena to the following decade. The politicization of the notion of public space is thus an epistemological reaction to a traumatic change.

  • 1 Pospech (2016) confirms this idea of a recent appearance of the notion of public space by mentionin (...)

17The spread of the term public space in the 1970s, according to Tomas (2001a), thus corresponds to the desire of a growing number of contemporaries to denounce its decline and disappearance: the notion was originally the fruit of a rhetoric of crisis and degradation. The idea of decline and loss is then consubstantial with that of public space from the very beginning, in that it provokes the appearance of the term through the need to name it in order to make its alteration visible and intelligible. In this sense, this idea of decline should be taken into consideration in the public space definition, in contrast with two other terms that refer to almost similar physical spaces without connoting the feeling of loss: the idea of collective spaces and that of civic centres, which were moreover prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s before the redevelopment of urban centres led to the emergence of the need to defend public common spaces inherited from history1 (Tomas, 2001b).

  • 2 For Habermas, the communicative reason that structures the discursive public sphere being indeed fo (...)

18The recent nature of the concept of public space therefore contradicts the tendency to go back to antiquity to explain its nature and major characteristics. The reference to Greek and Roman antiquity, on the contrary, establishes a fallacious historical linearization, which leads to the construction of a myth and not of a situated concept: from this partly stems the current confusion between contemporary public space and the public sphere (or discursive public space). It is this plating of the Greco-Roman myth of a partial identity between public space and the public sphere that has led to errors in interpretation and even translation, in particular of the work of Habermas (Tomas, 2001a). The latter, translated in 1978 in French as espace public (literally “public space”), does not actually use in its original version the corresponding German term (Öffentliche Raum) but rather that of public sphere (Öffentlichkeit)2.

Listing characteristics rather than defining the notion

19Due to the ambivalence of the notion and the weight of the myth inherited from antiquity, the definitions of public space are particularly varied, whether it is a question of the physical place or its conceptual abstraction. To circumvent the difficulty, most works rather give general characteristics and principles of functioning. Thus, public spaces would be characterized by their physical and psychological accessibility (Lynch, 1972; Carmona et al, 2008), the diversity of individuals and activities found there (Jacobs, 1961) or their unpredictability. Walzer (1986), in the continuity of authors from the beginning of the 20th century, such as Walter Benjamin (1939), sets out the principles of individuals’ anonymity or even of the diversity of the populations who frequent public spaces (Walzer, 1986). Illitch (1973), meanwhile, insists on the principle of conviviality. The list of supposed characteristics of public spaces is endless, and its recontextualization by digital technology is one of the current challenges of research in social sciences, as well as in planning.

20We could add to this list other principles, such as openness, civic equality, spontaneity or the condition of “non-destination”, that make public space a place that we can cross aimlessly, unlike private spaces, such as department stores that are frequented most of the time for a specific purpose – often that of consuming. Public spaces are also meeting places, planned or not, desired or not, where uncertainty reigns. These are spaces whose uses evolve over time: they are therefore plastic; they are sometimes dedicated to commercial exchanges, cultural events, collective fights or political and social demands, and strolling; and they often mix these heterogeneous uses in an organic and living chaos that is undoubtedly nestled in the most intense urbanity of contemporary societies. None of these characteristics taken individually are however exclusively the prerogative of public spaces, and each one could separately be said of other types of space. All are also potentially transformed by the dissemination of digital technology both in space and within the uses observed there.

The multiple definitions of public space

21Beyond the endless enunciation of characteristics that could also qualify other types of space, a large number of authors have sought to define the notion synthetically. We could classify these attempts at definition into three groups.

22The first group of scholars defines public space by law and uses: a public place is one that belongs to no one except public authorities; that is to say, it is not characterized by any right of property. For urban planners Françoise Choay and Pierre Merlin (1988), public space is thus defined as the unbuilt part of the public domain, allocated to public uses. The geographer Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin (2001) also takes up the definition of public space as a category of diverse spaces not held by private owners, while also insisting on the fact that legal status is not sufficient to truly define public space beyond a heterogeneous legal category of space belonging to the public realm: for her, everything depends on what is at stake there, and she advocates to consider its uses more than its legal status in its definition. La Pradelle (2001) considers in this respect that public space would be inseparable from a system of egalitarian social relations with a view towards celebrating or promoting a feeling of belonging to these places for everyone. His posture is largely influenced by the ancient myth and the ideal of its civic expression in the political actualization of the city.

23At the extreme opposite, from a critical perspective running counter to the law, Myriam Houssay-Holzschuch (2016) considers that the public space is first and foremost the necessary place of an original chaos from which the urban society and its ability to produce law and order are organized. As such, she defines public space as that of radical and absolute openness and vacancy, pre-existing in any order, understood as the base that makes possible any act of social, political, and economic foundation (probably also legal foundation), even if she does not express it explicitly. Highlighting the state-centric dimension of the public nature of public spaces, she nevertheless questions the legitimacy of the state to monopolize the common good and wonders whether the commons, defined as non-state-centric public spaces, would constitute a desirable alternative to supposedly traditional public spaces that are, in the end, of recent legal, political and social composition. Le Crosnier and Vidal (2017) underline in this respect that the notion of urban commons is gaining momentum as the libertarian ideologies carried by some of the actors of the Internet and the digital revolution spread. The impact of this epistemological renewal on physical public spaces is still poorly understood.

24A second group is part of the more or less literal recovery of the myth of ancient public spaces. Iveson (2007) thus defines public spaces as places where people are potentially led to appear before an audience constituted of equal rights strangers. More generally, the public space would be a topographical place and one physically open to the members constituting the notion of public, with all ambiguity of what the public is, from the political meaning of citizen audience to the festive acceptance of spectators. This definition is close to that adopted by the French urban planner Olivier Mongin (2012), who distinguishes between public space thought of in the singular and in the plural. In the singular, public space would be a political space inseparable from dispositives and procedures allowing public debate: in this sense, the idea of a space for deliberation is quite close to that of a discursive space of debate that I prefer to call a public sphere in order to clearly distinguish it from the idea of a physical spatial extent of the Euclidean metric. In the plural, Olivier Mongin defines public spaces as places that offer the public a common visibility – that of streets, squares and monuments – bringing out a common physical space. More generally, he defines them according to their universal accessibility. For the Italian sociologist Andrea Brighenti (2010), the public space is not a particular place in the city but the city itself; however, confusion is introduced here with the idea of the City, which is based more on the concept of the public sphere than on that of the public space.

25Finally, a third group, heterogeneous, criticizes the idealized posture of the people that accepts the public space as an actualization of the ancient myth. By doing so, this last group insists on the symbolic dimension of the myth and its narrative vocation. The French geographer Jacques Lévy (2000) thus sheds light on the fiction behind the definitions that postulate the public space as being a place in which all the individuals and groups that make up a given society can come together freely on a principle of universal equality. According to him, the virtuality of a potential is never actualized: it is therefore fallacious. What is possible in theory is not possible in the real practice of existing public spaces. This critical posture joins that of Isaac Joseph (1996) who considers the fact that public space is in truth the metaphor of three social representations with a strong spatial component: the city as a meeting place, the city as a centre of political debate, and the urban society as a paragon of democratic society. Public spaces would then be “dispositives for dramatizing practical intersubjectivity that mobilize a whole series of artefacts and equipment of thought” (1996, p. 14). The Italian architect Leonardo Benevolo (1993) also considers that public spaces are part of an almost theatrical symbolic staging of society in its diversity, complexity and, often, conflictuality: “In the absence of a narrative space common to all individuals, public spaces give individuals the feeling of a possible identity, even if this identity [is] ephemeral” (1993, p. 5).

  • 3 “The public park served for the 19th century urban democracy much the same function that civic orat (...)

26However, the idea of a symbol is not disconnected from any civic consideration present in the ancient myth of the city – quite the contrary. The North American urban planner Olmsted thus already considered parks in the 19th century as peri-urban public spaces corresponding to an attempt to humanize the utilitarianism of American cities in a patent anti-urban posture (Banerjea, 2001). More than one decade before, Rosenfield (1989) thus has posited a correspondence between the role played by 19th-century parks in the United States for urban democracies and that played by civic oratories in traditional republics – in particular, concerning the role civic oratories played in the celebration of urban ideological institutions and principles while being the place of urban cultures3. Parks and, by extension, any public space would thus have a civilizing virtue. To put it in another way, public spaces would then be places of manifestation and collective inculcation of republican virtues and civic pride participating in the construction of citizens and nations. Their symbolic dimension would therefore be primary in their definition, thus making it possible to distinguish them from non-privatized spaces that are de facto public but devoid of any public value, such as wasteland or interstitial spaces between buildings, among others.

  • 4 One of the concrete illustrations of the power of myth is the myriad of agora and forums set up in (...)

27This position meets that of Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin who, “by public space (…) means not only the materiality of public spaces in the city which allow the meeting in the anonymity of individuals of different social classes, races, ethnicities and religions, but also their immaterial dimension through the representation they arouse and the symbolic value they convey” (2001, p. 5). As such, public spaces would participate in the construction of the social bond as much as they induce it, an idea which joins that of Myriam Houssay Holzschuch (2016), who considers that the Western myth of the public space inherited from antiquity would have played the role of a powerful narrative and, as such, would have had real and concrete impacts in the physical, political, social, economic and legal development of contemporary public spaces4. The latter would even play a key role in the constitution of the social capital of individuals frequenting them in their urban life and habitus on a daily basis. This particularly original conception is deepened by Antonin Margier (2001), who argues that public spaces are not only places dedicated to political debate or economic exchanges but also where local populations live. In this sense, they would participate in what he calls the “ontological security” of daily life, taking up the distinction that Padisson and Sharp (2007) make between local public spaces (that of neighbourhoods) and urban public spaces (the main ones of a whole city). This posture, however, leads to blurring the distinctions between public and private or common and personal (i.e., blurring that digital uses reinforce).

The evolution of public spaces and the emergence of digital technology

28The irruption of digital technology in the making and governance of urban spaces at the turn of the 2010s could lead some people to think that the public sphere would no longer need any spatial inscription and that physical public spaces would no longer be necessary. The social mobilizations of the early 2010s like Occupy, however, demonstrated the opposite. For Olivier Mongin, “the virtual is not disembodied, on the contrary it postulates forms of gathering that invent new places distinguishing themselves from classical monumentality” (Mongin, 2012, p. 77).

29Contrary to the Habermatian idea that the communicative need for a public sphere would not require physical public places, the new discursive spheres allowed by the Internet would on the contrary revitalize concrete public spaces while possibly extracting them from the dominant classes’ political control. From this perspective, the digital revolution would no longer only be industrial but also fundamentally political: it would redistribute power in urban planning and urban governance, which confirms – regarding studies on public space – what many researchers have already identified in other fields or case studies, such as in the sociology of organizations, the political economy of markets regulated by public power (such as taxis or hotels) or even the sociology of legitimate knowledge. Is the irruption of digital players in urban fabric and governance part of a process of long-term transformation of public spaces, or does it lead to a radical change?

Public spaces at the heart of political ideologies of urban fabric

30As early as the 1970s, the French geographer Henry Lefebvre considered that “public spaces are literally filled with ideologies” (Lefebvre, 1976, p. 31). According to him, public spaces must be considered as such because major dispositives for updating and reproducing the power of the dominant class, as well as dispositives of social control, are conditioned by the ideologies of the bourgeois class. Without going so far into the criticism and radical postures, many works have demonstrated the impact of ideologies on the development and operation of public spaces over the past half-century, regardless of the political regime considered. What about the ideologies carried by the actors of the digital revolution?

The irreducible privatization of public spaces during the past few decades

31Contrary to the mythologized and static images of public spaces that a historical linearization has conveyed since ancient Greece and Rome, public spaces undoubtedly constitute the category of urban spaces which underwent the most profound structural transformations in the 20th century, both physically and politically, and even symbolically. Their evolution has shed light on the ideologies of the fabric of cities for more than fifty years – at least twenty years of which have been dedicated to ideologies involving the digital revolution. In addition to their forced adaptation to the motorization of Fordist societies and territories in the 1970s, public spaces were subject in the 1980s to commodification and privatization following the neoliberal transition of societies of great capitalist countries. Chief among them were the United States with Reagan, Great Britain with Thatcher and Japan with Nakasone.

32In the wake of the pioneering work of Zukin (1995), the privatization of public spaces and their transformation into commercial and leisure spaces dedicated to pure consumption have given rise to a large number of studies in the humanities and social sciences. The process is concomitant with the rise to power of another typology of spaces – that of shopping malls and shopping centres. They are entirely private, but they play such an increasingly important role in welcoming masses of individuals that the everyday language tends to qualify them as public. However, the notion of public is not clear here and actually refers to four very different legal meanings: an expression of public power, the result of citizens’ debates and interests (public opinion), a set of spectators at a situated event (such as a play or a concert) and an anonymous set of potential consumers (the general public).

33The question of the problematic status of public has led to a blurring of the legal statuses of a number of hybrid spaces evolving between the two opposite polarities of inclusive and open public spaces on the one hand, and selective and closed private spaces on the other. Between the two is a complex status gradient for spaces, including privatized public spaces (for example, a station hall following the privatization of public railway companies) and private spaces that are open to the public (such as shopping malls). Rybczynski (1993) reports on the legal debates held to determine the nature of the public dimension of shopping malls’ accessibility in the United States at the end of the 1980s. This is a question that was brought to justice in 1987 in many federated states. Whereas some states (like Massachusetts or Washington) have recognized their public vocations, the jurisprudence of most states (Connecticut, New York, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania) has clearly demonstrated their resolutely private character. It is therefore not even more certain that shopping malls belong to the intermediate category of “space open to the public”, as the dimension of openness seems to be undermined by that of selectivity.

34In light of the privatization of public spaces and the reception of an increasingly number of selected people in private spaces, more and more academics, such as Banerjea (2001), are evoking the risk of urban splintering. This is characterized by the privatization of numerous urban spaces at the exclusive benefit of the rich, on the one hand, and the relegation of real public spaces as territories of poverty, on the other hand. Given this, it is difficult to find the saving lever for social diversity even amid the diffusion of digital technology in urban societies. Thus, the duality of a public city of the poor and a private city of the powerful might only continue the currently existing digital divide, as “the transaction costs of living in cities can be minimized by belonging to a network society, which further reduces the need for public encounters in public spaces” (Banerfea, 2001, p. 17).

  • 5 See on the subject of the coexistence of oppositional public spheres the work of the philosopher Na (...)

35For Banerjea (2001), scarcity and inequity in the distribution of open and accessible public spaces are symptomatic of an even broader transformation. For him, public spaces have become both markers and levers of urban social inequalities for three reasons. Firstly, he identifies the withering away of the public sphere, which is fragmenting into smaller and more hermetic spheres5. Then, like other researchers, he highlights the commodification of public goods and their progressive privatization, as so many new sources of exclusion are springing forth through private law and regulation. Finally, he insists on the effects of digital technologies, which transform the traditional concepts of place and community. In addition, he reinforces the hermetic character of public spheres through the capacity of digital technologies to isolate individuals in digital "bubbles" – which have a concrete materiality and real consequences on public spaces. This phenomenon is analysed in greater detail in this special issue’s article by Bailly and Marchand.

Public spaces and the evolution of city-making regimes

  • 6 The definition of this suitcase notion is not the object here. However, Isin (1998) considers that (...)

36Political sociology studies that have looked at the causes of the rising privatization of public spaces and the increasing importance of private spaces in welcoming the public have identified two causes and one condition explaining the phenomenon. On the one hand, they highlight an ideological shift (i), which some call neoliberalization6 and others call the “Dubai stage” of capitalism (Davis, 2007). On the other hand, they emphasize a security-oriented political shift (ii) in response to the rise of urban inequalities as well as the social polarization of metropolises. These two causes stem from an overhaul of administrations and power distribution channels (iii), which allows for substantive action to be taken on the planning and production of urban spaces, particularly public spaces. These spaces’ physical and political inertia is particularly strong, so a governance shock that is also strong is required to overcome them. The role that digital technology could play in this governance shock still needs to be assessed.

37(i) In general, the economic and legal consequences of the privatization of public spaces are thus part of the neoliberal transformation that the regimes of urban making have experienced. These regimes have moved from managerial logics, which the management techniques of private companies have already strongly influenced, to entrepreneurial logics, where public power is the guarantor of unhindered private activity. This change does not erase the state or public power: rather, it redefines public power’s role and positioning, which leads to modifying its internal structure, particularly concerning the services of the territorial administration. The fabric of space and the types of spaces thus produced are therefore indicators of these political transformations of the role of public power and of its internal administrative reconfiguration. The result is a transformation of public spaces, whether at the level of uses, urban forms or even the complex legal statutes that ensure the increasingly commercial legal framework. It is in this multidimensional political and urban transformation that the question of digital technology comes to be posed, as private actors also carry digital technology. Questions remain about the privatization of public space in light of the multiplication of digital outlets (connected objects) and digital bubbles (via the use of smartphones in particular) within it. Bailly and Marchand and Berthold et al. address this dimension in this issue.

38(ii) The rejection of public space and the secession of some urban social elites stem from increased feelings and discourses related to insecurity in the wake of the increase in socio-economic inequalities. Coaffee (2016), studying the characteristics of the regimes of control that were put in place in the 2000s, demonstrates how public spaces are viewed as dispositives of social control. According to him, these regimes of control would also be initiated by exceptional regimes that are temporarily put in place during crises (economic, health, etc.) as well as during major urban events, such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games, then structurally instituted in the ordinary mode of urban governance. As such, Coaffee inscribes his reflections from the perspective of the normalization and trivialization of the exceptional statuses that Agamben (2005) has formalized.

39(iii) From there, we can observe attempts to rationalize space (public and private) via the planning strategies of elites who seek to consolidate their social domination through their domination of the production and functioning of urban spaces. On the other hand, the middle and working classes implement tactics of counter-rationalization as well as the subversion of the dominant order through an often temporary appropriation of the resulting urban forms (de Backer et al., 2016). The strategic urbanism of the powerful and the tactical urbanism of the middle classes are then opposed, especially with regards to their temporal orders. One is aimed at heritage creation via the sedimentation of real estate in the territory, and the other is aimed at occasional occupation via uses that are destined to disappear. In these differentiated relationships, digital technology seems to play a role that is both structuring and ambivalent (Douay, 2018). Research on this matter still needs further work.

  • 7 Mike Davis wrote on this matter: “Such technology-infused urban design innovations have become incr (...)

40Urban built-up spaces produced via elites’ strategic urbanism are marked by the double process of buildings’ verticalization and the privatization of horizontality. Urban verticalization would express the symbolic power of wealthy urban classes as well as their desire to extract themselves from the street level and to escape public spaces that are deemed dangerous. In this sense, the verticalization of buildings and the evolution of public urban horizontality (privatization, securitization) would be closely linked (Davis, 2013; Artaga Botello, 2016)7. According to Manovitch (2006), this dual process would also be made possible through the dissemination and generalization of three technological innovations for which digital technology would play a central role: surveillance cameras and equipment, cell spaces and electronic display. The datafication of the city and the dissemination of digital devices would then amplify the strong intertwining of the verticalization of buildings and the privatization of urban horizontality – particularly that of public spaces. Digital technology therefore would strengthen the virtuous circle among verticalization, privatization, securing and increasing land and real estate values (gentrification). Conversely, other work is still needed to understand how the libertarian ideologies of the Internet reinforce the protest tactics towards the exceptional urban edifice of the powerful.

41Finally, at an institutional level, the inertia of public spaces seems to require a governance shock to be overcome. This governance shock was particularly well studied in the 1980s and 1990s in Barcelona, with Jordi Borja (deputy for town planning) and Oriel Bohigas (urban planner-architect) playing a driving role in the revival of public spaces in the Catalan capital. The latter was made possible thanks to a restructuring of municipal public services carried out during the democratic transition of the post-Franco period in the 1980s, whose urban effects experienced a spectacular peak with the 1992 Olympic Games. Another example is that Lyon is experiencing a renaissance of its public spaces for the similar reason of governance shock in the 2000s. The institutional restructuring of its services is attributable to its transition from the municipality to the urban community of Greater Lyon (more recently to the Metropolis of Lyon since the law of 2010). This leads to a transfer of skills as well as the creation of a public space service within the new administration (Tomas, 2001a). Constituting, in turn, a real governance shock, how does the eruption of digital actors transform the distribution of power within public administrations and urban governance? Does it impact the development of contemporary public spaces?

Beyond the public and the private: the blurring of the personal and the common

42Behind the push for the security and privatization of public spaces, which is accompanied by the exclusion of individuals and undesirable uses, the planning neoliberal shift leads to what Cauter (2003) calls the commodification of individuals themselves, reduced to commercial stereotypes. In the context of commodification, the notion of being public (“being in public”) for the citizen-inhabitant is then filtered through the dispositives of control that the proponents of neoliberal ideologies have put in place. As a result, the public being is demoted to the status of user-consumer, which evolves in over-regulated environments via the inflation of public law (judicialization of individual behaviour) and the inflation of private regulations (at least in proportion to the privatization of public spaces). The rise of rules and the scattering of the law then require citizens to implement agile and complex tactics for overcoming a multitude of legal and prescriptive discontinuities, in which digital technology seems to play an ambivalent role that academic research is still trying to figure out. On the one hand, the windows of opportunity that arise from the uncontrolled dissemination of digital technologies would constitute a resource that citizens seize to escape dispositives of control and possible repression. This was the case during the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in the 2010s. On the other hand, the pre-digital commodification of individuals and individual behaviours by market stakes would pave the way for their datafication. In the context of a digital regime of information processing, this would facilitate the monitoring of citizens within digital panoptics or oligooptics, and therefore, it would ultimately strengthen digital control on them (Klauser, Paasche and Söderström, 2014).

43Mongin (2012) identifies that the privatization of public spaces and individuals’ public lives are intertwined, and so are the publicization of private spaces and individual data, precisely because of their digital uses and the traces they leave. The common point between the privatization of what is public and the publicization of what is private is the prevalence of commercialization compared with other systems of values. Charles Moore declared at the end of 1996 that “you have to pay for public life” (Ghirardo, 1996, p. 57). This declaration meets the ambitions of certain bosses in Silicon Valley, who consider that it is necessary to pay for privacy. According to them, privacy was an accident of the 19th century and its bourgeois ideals. In other words, paying would become the condition of both access to public space and the protection of privacy. The two are the front and back of the same coin, with the digital accentuating the market logic. This would then confirm the idea that by impacting public space, neoliberal ideologies, such as those behind digital technology, are also transforming private spaces at the same time.

44Digital deterritorialization and interference between public and private dimensions do not, however, lead to the disappearance of public space. Rather, they would be the markers of its transformation (Mongin, 2012). Public space as such would not be in crisis, but its visibility regimes would be, which translates into the erosion of the monument and the erosion of the state’s political spatiality. The search for the commons, driven by digital technology and neoliberal ideologies, would then prevail over the need for public space: “the crisis of monumentality is first of all that of a visible public space long marked by the place of the State and power” (Hénaff, 2008, p. 76). The libertarian ideology of the Internet and the political ambitions of digital players would then bring about the re-emergence of the ideal of the commons as opposed to that of a state-centric public space (Le Crosnier and Vidal, 2017). In the digital regime of the making and governance of the city, the weakening of the public-private opposition prior to the digital turn thus leads to the blurring between the personal and the common, which requires particular attention from political sciences as well as from law studies, humanities and social sciences.

Digitalization and public spaces: the great change?

45The role that digital technology plays in the transformations that public spaces have undergone during the past 20 years is not yet clear. Does it constitute an accelerator of pre-existing changes or a radical bifurcation? Is it a simple vector of transformation in the way in which public spaces are structured and function, or does it recontextualize their very nature? If the relations between virtual forums and urban forums still need to be clarified, it seems that digital technology tends to renew physical public spaces and to reinforce the social demand for it. In this special issue, we formulate the general hypothesis that digital technology adds new needs and uses to public spaces, then transforms individual and collective behaviours. Such considerations require that we first look synthetically at the context and modalities of the emergence and diffusion of digital technologies in the city.

Digitalization and urbanization: two processes, one agenda

  • 8 The year 2008 is commonly accepted as a reference for talking about the emergence of the smart city (...)
  • 9 As we see in this special issue, it is indeed a revolution, insofar as power relations in urban pro (...)

46The digitization of spaces and urban networks dates back to the mid-2000s, when major North American companies formulated the general principles of the smart city. At that time, however, it was not yet a development model8. Rather, it was an industrial proposal reflecting the double revolution9 that the world was experiencing at the time, namely the urban revolution in ways of living and the third industrial revolution marked by digital technology. The smart city is therefore the qualifier of a new economic space for the deployment of sensors and connected devices called “smart” in a habitat – the urban – which has become the predominant living environment of the world's population. In addition, it is a new business model involving the production and extraction of value surrounding data as enabled by the digital layer (digital skin) added to infrastructures and urban spaces (Courmont and Le Galès, 2019).

  • 10 “Intelligence” in the Anglo-Saxon sense of gathering information and compiling data, as in the name (...)

47With the smart city and the deployment of digital technologies in urban spaces, particularly public spaces and technical networks, the academic world is paying renewed attention to the interrelations of the industrial revolution, the transformation of capitalism, the rise of new economic and political actors, and the changes of cities’ governance and urban planning dynamics (Eveno, 2014; Picon, 2015 ; Meijer and Rodríguez Bolívar, 2016 ; Languillon, 2018, 2022). The upheavals in governance that cities have experienced in the age of digital intelligence10 thus correspond to the consequences of an ultimately classic urban political economy, the model of which dates back to the first industrial revolution of the 19th century. It makes urban spaces the quasi-natural outlet to the surplus of emerging productive systems and their innovations (Harvey, 2013). The physical but also symbolic transformation of public spaces is as much the marker of this phenomenon as it is one of the direct concrete consequences of it. This special issue thus sets out to explore its modalities, and it discusses its political and social significance.

Political economy of the digital revolution of public spaces

48Although digital players all have a major interest in the development and operation of cities, they follow very different economic logics and political interests. Their impacts on the future of public spaces are therefore different, partly due to the fact that the digital deployment regimes they stimulate are not homogeneous. Their technical and technological methods; their differing business models; and their effects on the social stratum of public spaces (uses and social interactions), on their political stratum (governance) and on their economic stratum (commercial interests, which were already well developed with privatization of the 1980s and 1990s) are also highly variable. These digital players can be grouped into four categories according to their nature as well as their relationships to public spaces: 1° digital manufacturers, such as Apple, Samsung or Toshiba; 2° software manufacturers, such as Microsoft, Cisco or IBM; 3° Internet giants, like Google; and finally, 4° digital platforms, such as Uber or Airbnb, which are very often available in the form of applications for smartphones.

49Digital manufacturers, such as Toshiba or Samsung, provide most of the sensors and connected objects (Languillon-Aussel, Lepretre and Granier, 2016). This is particularly the case for smartphones, which are undoubtedly the most massively deployed (mobile) sensors in public spaces, as well as the most common collectors of data on the uses and behaviours of inhabitants. This deployment is also very profitable for digital manufacturers, as it is based on the desire of individuals to equip themselves, sometimes at great expense, with mobile phones and connected objects. These manufacturers also equip the digital skin of public spaces and urban infrastructures, and they are responsible for the “datafication” of the city and its inhabitants, particularly via the genesis of big data (Batty, 2013).

50Software manufacturers, such as IBM, present themselves as providers of technical and managerial solutions. They conceive urban spaces as technical metasystems (systems of systems) that can be rationalized and optimized. Their profits are made according to a logic of subscription: the remuneration is based largely on the sale of expertise, consulting, advice, support and the digital software that are supposed to participate in the socio-technical optimization of networks. Public spaces are of interest to this category of actors for at least two reasons: the added narrative value that their symbolism brings to projects as well as to business models; their security and political dimensions. In this sense, public spaces serve as a gateway and a lever for action in urban governance.

51Internet giants, such as Google, positioned themselves above all as urban integrators, and they penetrated the field of urban fabric starting from the deployment of 4G in public spaces in the mid-2010s, and going to the maturing of their reflections on communicational and informational approaches for the city. Their challenge is to gradually rebuild urban value chains from the production of data by providing services that have become essential for the proper functioning of cities. From this perspective, public spaces are platforms par excellence for the aggregation of digital services, as well as spaces for the privileged collection of user data.

  • 11 Long discredited in the functionalist city, sidewalks could possibly constitute privileged public s (...)

52Finally, digital platforms are investing in the city by capturing the intermediation functions of the service economy. Most of the time, they position themselves as interfaces between a heterogeneous demand and a disjointed heterogeneous supply, which is difficult to coordinate (or supposedly). Platforms play a fundamentally political role in the sense that they transform the regulation of economic activities that are often protected (such as taxis) by relying on gaps, blind spots or legal inconsistencies. Opportunistic in their relationships to buildings/infrastructure and law, digital platforms need spatial and legal vacancy. Public spaces, which by definition do not belong to anyone, are therefore privileged places of platform activities, where they plug and unplug technologies and services, sometimes over very short operational timeframes. This is the case with self-service bicycles or scooters. The type of privileged public spaces in this logic happens to be above all of the sidewalks, which would become the assets of the smart city that are capitalized on the most because of the many uses, needs and technologies that materialize there11 (Baraud-Serfaty, 2020).

Cities and post-COVID-19 digitalization: ideology and (geo)politics of digital technology deployment in public spaces

53Brutal social movements, such as that of the Yellow Vests in 2018 in France, still seem to be part of the structuring role that digital forums play in social mobilizations, as well as the collective investment of real physical spaces. However, the radical break resulting from the confinements of the years of 2020-2022 and the new secure uses of digital technologies are striking with regards to the two opposite consequences that digital technology could have on public spaces and their uses. Is this a conjunctural phenomenon linked to the sanitary episode of COVID-19, or does it reflect a fundamental change?

Datafication and public spaces before COVID-19 pandemic

54In the various industrial smart city proposals from tech giants, public space becomes an immense dispositive for producing and transmitting data – which presupposes equipping it with various sensors (including smartphones) that can generate data continuously (Batty, 2013). The analogue skin of cities is then gradually coupled with a digital skin whose blind spots mainly constitute the areas that the dissemination of digital sensors of sounds, smells, movements, pressure or light do not cover. Public spaces are preferred places for the dissemination of digital innovations. In this sense, the smart city is indeed in this respect a dispositive, in the Foucauldian sense of the term, for the production and management of digital data (Klauser, Paasche and Söderström, 2014). The aim of its designers is to maximize the state of the knowledge of urban systems and spaces, as well as facilitate their management, governance and commercial exploitation limited to a small number of new actors and intermediaries.

  • 12 This geopolitics mobilizes all scales: if it seems local because of the situated nature of data pro (...)

55The datafication of the city and its uses do not constitute a simple context or a simple support for the political issues of digital technology deployment. Rather, they constitute a political issue, in which digital technology diffusion’s regimes are as important as the regimes of the exploitation of the data produced are. At the heart of the new geopolitics of data, competing ideologies are clashing12. “Open source” thus corresponds to the rise of libertarian ideals that would make digital data the new commons, thus fuelling the construction of public digital spaces (with all of the imprecision of the notion of public in this case). Reflections on the empowerment of individuals through the restitution of their personal data give rise to pilot experiments, such as that of self-data in Lyon (Courmont, 2021).

56In parallel with the bubbling of initiatives concerning the legal modalities and the actors in charge of ensuring various levels of the privatization or publicization of personal digitalized data, a similar bubbling can be observed with regards to the data issued in public spaces. For example, the geolocation of smart phone users leads to strengthening the physical anchoring of the virtual world, as is the case, for example, with the video game Pokémon Go. Citizen platforms also allow for the reporting of events or malfunctions in public spaces in real time to increase the responsiveness of public services, such as Fix My Street, in Brussels. Whether for fun and commercial considerations, or for civic considerations, digital technology reinforces the weight of space. But is geolocation truly a support for the singular existence of the place? Or does it participate in its mathematization and commodification?

Public and digital spaces in a post-COVID-19 world

57Despite the discourse on the intelligence of the smart city and urban digital technology, the eruption of SARS-Cov-2 and the COVID-19 pandemic has not made it possible to highlight greater efficiency in cities that are heavily endowed with digital infrastructures and technologies in the fight against the spread of the disease within the urban populations of smart cities. On the contrary, initially, there was a massive use of simplistic analogue dispositives in most public spaces of large cities, regardless of the degree of economic development or digital equipment. This is the case, for example, for pieces of tape whose aim was to encourage social distancing or temporarily separate streams.

58COVID-19 has thus revealed what every engineer already knew about the smart city: its non-adaptability and the inability of technical systems to evolve outside of the processes and purposes of their initial programming. It was only later in the pandemic that digital applications were developed to maintain a form of social distancing in the context of high population density, such as in Singapore with its applications for counting individuals in public parks (Safe DistPark) or shopping malls (Space out)13. However, these innovations are based on the digital transposition of basic analogue procedures: counting people. It was only in a third phase that most developed countries set up infection tracing applications independently of the digital infrastructures of smart cities.

59During periods of confinement or semi-confinement, the use of digital technology, particularly for teleworking or social events, has allowed for a semblance of professional or personal continuity. This impression of continuity thanks to digital technologies has absorbed the physical space. The shrinking of the need for spatial area (a mathematical approach to distance and pure surface) that resulted from this reinforced the feeling of the uselessness of places, particularly physical public spaces. This is in correlation to the maximization of a discourse on their dangerousness, this time for not only social but also health reasons. In other words, digital technology has allowed for an extreme neoliberal posture that postulates the total rejection of public space due to its dangerousness as well as the systematic generalization of the exclusive use of private spaces. These spaces, however, are open to intrusive forms of publicizing the intimacy that these same digital technologies reinforce (for example, with home office practice).

60The COVID-19 pandemic has thus claimed two victims. The first is the smart city, which has revealed the rigid limits of its functioning, calling for more agile models using a new generation of digital technologies, particularly artificial intelligence and the capture of biometric data. The second is public space, from which people have fled for fear of infections. In some cases, public spaces have been prohibited during phases of severe confinement in countries taking an authoritarian approach to the management of the health crisis, such as China, France or Italy. From there emerges a new urban model that couples ultra-safe postures of public space with a new generation of digital technologies and an authoritarian regime of urban planning and governance: the safe city.

Smart city vs. safe city: the ideological and geopolitical opposition of two digital deployment regimes

61The digital dispositive of the smart city is at the same time technical, political and economic: its ambition is all encompassing and fuels issues of control and power that can go as far as being associated with authoritarianism or totalitarianism. This dimension constitutes a blind spot in work on digital technology and public spaces. This is even more crucial, as the nature of public spaces would then be reversed. From a space of freedom and emancipation, both individual and collective, public spaces in an authoritarian digital regime would become places of control and therefore of confinement and subjugation. This is the whole issue of the safe city model that the context of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront of the world media scene.

62Formalized mainly by China and popularized at the turn of the 2020s due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the safe city constitutes the authoritarian version of the smart city in that its main objective is the control of bodies and behaviours via the collection of personal biometric data (facial recognition, body temperature, etc.) associated with the creation of a rating and social credit system that incorporates all citizens. In this sense, the safe city constitutes a biopolitical evolution of the smart city, and it emphasizes the latent authoritarian potential of the deployment of digital technology in public spaces stemming from a major interference: that of the hybridization between the public character of public space and the private nature of the personal digital traces that digital users leave in there. How is this a paradox, as the private nature of the individuals frequenting public spaces is a universal constant regardless of the country or the time considered? The answer lies in the particularity of digital technology, which is to leave traces of the passage of individuals through physical spaces. However, these traces, being of a personal nature, conflict with the hypothetical anonymity of a non-privatized public space. These non-anonymous personal traces blur the distinction between public/private, collective/personal and individual/anonymous, and they fuel the functioning of the safe city.

63With the safe city, the challenges that digital technology poses to urban spaces and individuals are not only political but also geopolitical. They result from the confrontation of two ambitions, both economic and ideological: those of American companies that initiated the smart city model at the end of the 2000s, and those of the Chinese companies that initiated the safe city model at the end of the 2010s. However, whether it is the ideological conception of the individual, of public space, of the relationship with the state or of digital technology (the libertarian ideology of the North American Internet against the state ideology of the Chinese digital network), everything opposes the USA’s and China’s approaches to the deployment of digital technology in the city and in public spaces. This opposition is not just theoretical: it also fuels corporate exclusions, such as those of certain Chinese players in North America or Europe (the case of Huawei is not isolated), or in the banning of certain American companies in China (like Facebook or Twitter, for example). In this sense, the smart city/ safe city opposition is also primarily ideological and geopolitical, and it fuels a major bifurcation of digital deployment regimes in public spaces between major regions of the world.

The aims of the special issue

64This special issue is devoted to the impacts of the digital revolution on physical public spaces, both from the point of view of their development and their governance, as well as that of their uses, needs, symbols, or living. It opens with the article by Emelyne Bailly and Dorothée Marchand, which studies the impact of the rise of digital objects in urban space and how it changes the relationship to places, to others and to users’ selves. Taking a psycho-urban approach to analyze the development of digital objects in Montreuil-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris, they formulate the hypothesis that digital tools have an impact on the relationship between people and places.

65Responding to the same perspective, the article of Sonja Berthold, Adrienne Wolff, Sonal Tavkar, Dietmar Leyk and Zuliandi Azli analyzes the different regimes of digital augmentation of social interactions in public spaces. The paper claims that the interplay of digital and physical design interventions can create new public spaces, which in turn can encourage social cohesion and physical activity. It discusses the idea that digital augmentation can be used in order to facilitate social interactions and to create a much richer and varied urban experience. To achieve this end, cities can use digital interventions, like city-specific virtual reality games, that bring a sense of playfulness, as well as physical interventions, such as digital urban furniture.

66Exploring the same isea in the specific area of sport, José Chaboche and Alain Schoeny analyze the gamification of digitized sporting devices by public actors and their transformative effects on public space in French metropolises. Through a multi-site synchronous case study of French metropolises, they build a taxonomy of those devices and their transformation of urban public sports spaces. They hypothesize the fact that while these digitized and gamified sports devices accompany a general trend towards a social, spatial, temporal or even financial liberalization of physical activities in public spaces, they do not disrupt urban sports and recreational activities. Responding to challenges and demands for public sports infrastructure and services that are more user friendly, faster and more fluid to operate, these devices aim to meet users’ needs in an increasingly tailored manner, while contributing to the development of a shared governance of public spaces.

67From the opposite side to gamification, Silvana Pedrozo studies the greater digitalization of police activities in the 2010s, focusing on the case study of drones. Her hypothesis is that drones unprecedented development is transforming how public space is secured through a variety of different missions, including searching for missing people, crisis management and surveillance, generating socio-spatial, security, political and ethical controversies in democratic countries such as Switzerland – Silvana main study field. Based on a field survey conducted with the Neuchâtel Police Drones Working Group (GT-Drones) between 2015 and 2019, the article analyses how the use of drones, presented as “new” socio-technical systems, modifies the relationship the police have with public spaces and individuals.

68Lastly, Ian McShane and Bhavna Middha interrogate the nature of the connexion that digital tools make between public spaces and public sphere, using Melbourne initiatives (Australia) as a case study. In this broad perspective, they hypothesize the idea that while viewing digital spaces as part of an expanding repertoire of public spaces and events – physical and digital – that signify the participatory turn in municipal governance, local officials and residents are overly optimistic about the democratic and administrative capacities of the digital sphere. They argue that the experience of new participatory digital platforms falls short of expectations, for both residents and officials, because digital spaces are not homogenous but are made up of diverse and complex practices and interrelationships. The multiplex relationships making up these digital spaces suggest that strategic and contextual combinations of online and offline engagement may be a path towards inclusive and democratic community engagement – in short, that a digitalized public sphere cannot be cut from the physical need of public spaces.

69Beyond the contributions of each article, this special issue is part of a broader critical reflection on the digital “revolution” of public spaces, and its conceptual mitigation. If the notion of revolution presupposes a complete reversal of practices, values, ideologies, but also a shift in power, what about the eruption of digital players and their technologies, visions and models regarding urban societies and territories? Are we seeing an inversion of the urban values carried since the 19th century and the clear distinction between public life and private life, public spaces and intimate interiors? Is the city, once a space of freedom and expression of democratic values, becoming a huge dispositive of control based on the digital transformations of its public spaces? Without providing an exhaustive and in-depth answer to these questions, this special issue aims to contribute to put the question of the relation between digital technology and public spaces on the academic agenda of a collective critical work.

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1 Pospech (2016) confirms this idea of a recent appearance of the notion of public space by mentioning the fact that the term "public space" did not appear in Czech law before 1990: the term emerged at about the same time that appear in the Czech urban landscape the shopping malls, the first being inaugurated in 1997.

2 For Habermas, the communicative reason that structures the discursive public sphere being indeed formal and non-substantial, it escapes the strict necessity of physical spaces, in particular public ones.

3 “The public park served for the 19th century urban democracy much the same function that civic oratory served in traditional republican societies: to celebrate institutions and ideological principles though to be the genius of those cultures” (Rosenfield, 1989, p. 222)

4 One of the concrete illustrations of the power of myth is the myriad of agora and forums set up in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. As their lack of real substance failed to materialize the narrative power of myth, it seems to me necessary to evacuate from the definition of contemporary public spaces abusive references to antiquity and the Greek city.

5 See on the subject of the coexistence of oppositional public spheres the work of the philosopher Nancy Fraser (1990).

6 The definition of this suitcase notion is not the object here. However, Isin (1998) considers that neoliberalization is about shifting the technics, focus and priorities of government. For Larmer (2003), neoliberalization is understood as an unified set of policies and political ideology. Margier (2016) adds that neoliberalism is a set of political practices linked less with economic dogmas than with specific mechanisms of government.

7 Mike Davis wrote on this matter: “Such technology-infused urban design innovations have become increasingly popular worldwide, but the Mexico city-based promoters of the new high tech services advocated by Giuliani were potentially seeking to kill three birds with one stone: offer a new high-tech security application to downtown investors and businesses, create a niche market for a new style of buildings forms and functions, and revitalize the city’s downtown. The Mexico City governor’s decision to establish a dedicated, quasi-private police force to monitor these technologies and patrol these new developments in downtown areas would increase the value of these investments” (Davis, 2013, p. 65).

8 The year 2008 is commonly accepted as a reference for talking about the emergence of the smart city as a model of development and, beyond that, of urban governance. It is indeed at this time that Apple markets its iPhone, transforming its users into real mobile sensors. The same year, the number of urban dwellers exceeded for the first time in the history of humanity that of rural dwellers; and the number of objects connected to the Internet exceeded that of human beings. Finally, the economic and financial Subprime crisis, whose component is essentially suburban, opened a window of opportunity and led to a rethinking of capital accumulation based on a new reflection on data, in particular big data. In view of the unprecedented context of 2008, it is therefore no coincidence that IBM announced its Smarter city program precisely that year, three years after CISCO's initiative (Courmont and Le Galès, 2019).

9 As we see in this special issue, it is indeed a revolution, insofar as power relations in urban production and governance are transformed by the emergence of new actors and new political, social and economic logics presiding over the technical devices resulting from digital technology.

10 “Intelligence” in the Anglo-Saxon sense of gathering information and compiling data, as in the name of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

11 Long discredited in the functionalist city, sidewalks could possibly constitute privileged public spaces in digital cities. It is no coincidence that the subsidiary of Alphabet (parent company of Google) in charge of the development of smart cities around the world is called Sidewalks Lab. The failure of Sidewalks Lab’s proposal for the redevelopment of Toronto’s proves, however, that the urban ambitions of digital giants come up against the development of public spaces: Toronto case demonstrated that public places keep all of their political force, even their ideological dimensions, including at a time of the digital industrial revolution of urban making which is anything but depoliticized - despite of the discourses of neutrality carried by proponents of a purely technical approach of digital players.

12 This geopolitics mobilizes all scales: if it seems local because of the situated nature of data production, it is national or even continental in Europe because of the legislation obtained to regulate its conditions and effects (see for example the General Data Protection Regulation). It can become international with data flows between countries and sometimes their hosting in foreign servers, which is a source of tension between States.

13 and (last visit in January 2022).

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Electronic reference

Raphaël Languillon-Aussel, Digitalization of public spaces. The great urban change?Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 22 | 2021, Online since 15 December 2021, connection on 02 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Raphaël Languillon-Aussel

Raphaël Languillon-Aussel is a senior researcher at the French Institute for Research on Japan (Tokyo, Japan). He is also an associate researcher at the University of Geneva (Switzerland) and the University of Strasbourg (France). PhD holder in urban planning, he carries out work on the relations between urban making logics, economical dynamics and political regimes’ evolution, especially in Japan and France.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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