Two themes stand out prominently in discussions, projects and strategies that are at the forefront of contemporary urbanisation. It is, on one hand, the question of ecology, where the city and architecture are reconceptualised in "green" terms such as sustainability, resilience, metabolic optimisation and energy efficiency. On the other hand is the cybernetic question, where the futures of architecture and urbanisation are staked upon the pervasive use of digital communication, interactive technologies, ubiquitous computing, and the "big data". Moreover, these two questions have become increasingly intertwined as two facets of a single environmental question: while real-time adjustments, behaviour optimisation and "smart" solutions are central to urban environmental agenda, the omnipresent network of perpetually interacting digital objects constitutes itself a qualitatively new environment within which urban citizens are enfolded. But as digital networks become our "second nature," we also hark back to the models derived from the "first nature".
With the growing pressure on architects, urbanists and planners to deliver ecological and techno-informational solutions, with (self-)monitoring of citizens "behaviour", optimisation of the buildings "performance", and smoothing of urban "flows", and with the respective substitution of democratic politics by automated governance models, it is ever more important to interrogate the historical, theoretical, methodological and epistemological assumptions beneath the above set of processes that can be described, following Michel Foucault, as environmental governmentality. These questions will be explored under three thematic tracks.
Optimised urban ecosystems
While urbanisation had for centuries relied on nature as its constitutive outside—as a resource and as a fantasy—it is only around the 1970s that the urban-nature dichotomy was subjected to the paradigm of limits and risks. Protection, conservation and sustainability had been institutionalised as regulative planning ideas in the following decades and the city itself has been hereby reconceptualised as an ecosystem. More recently, however, urban "ecosystems" are being subjected to the criteria of resilience, and the ideals of harmony and balance replaced with emergence and complexity. Urban planning and development are transformed into variants of metabolic governance, whose objective is to optimise energy flows, smooth eco-infrastructures, and stimulate ecosystemic self-organisation, even for the price of insulating the optimised, smooth and self-organised from labour on which it essentially rests.
What are the histories and futures of sustainability, resilience and ecological optimisation and how can they be addressed as epistemic categories beyond their implied "solutionist" imperative? What roles have architecture and urbanism played in these epistemic transformations? What are the broader political consequences of thinking the city as an ecosystem and urbanisation as a metabolic flow? To what extent is the widely analysed shift from planning and government to management and governance, or from Fordism to post-Fordism more generally, itself rooted in the urban ecological imperative of the last 40 years?
Architectural turn to nature?
In terms of their relationship with nature, urbanism and architecture today are caught in a peculiar paradox. On one side these disciplines recognise that there is no pure nature, that nature has been "planetary urbanised". On the other hand, they are drawn to the idea of pure nature as a blueprint for spatial action. The morphology and morphogenesis of biological organisms inspire ostensibly resourceful tectonic solutions and efficient material performance. The evolutionary model and the ecological cycling of nutrients inspire ostensibly non-deterministic, open-ended models of urbanisation.
But why and how have biomimesis and ecomimesis come to constitute an unquestioned ideal for architecture and urbanism in the first place? What is a more fundamental historical and epistemological stake underneath their biomimetic and ecomimetic impulses? Why has nature, as described by natural sciences, been appropriated as a model and a teacher? Why is nature viewed as inherently efficient and intelligent and how does current architecture's "turn to nature" differ from earlier such turns? What are the social costs of urbanism's green, "clean-tech" imaginations?
"Big data" and urban subjectification
Similar questions can be directed at the notions of human nature and subjectivity. As the proliferation of data destabilises human subjectivity, rendering individuals into profiles and substituting individuation with algorithmic personalisation, the idea of a human-friendly city continues to inform urban design. While we expect that "big data" will help us to better design "for people" and make cities more "liveable", we tend to ignore how these data simultaneously undo the very meaning of people and life. The ultimate embodiment of this paradox is the "smart city," whose puerile idea of a desirable urbanity correlates with the transformation of life into a data stream.
How have architecture's and urbanism's environmental powers mutated since these discipline started to unfold subjects in cybernetic environments? Who are the past, present and future subjects of digital governmentality-through-environments? Who is the "smart", optimised, efficiently behaving and algorithmically desiring citizen? And in what sense, if any, can s/he be called a democratic citizen? Have social classes and political parties been replaced by deterritorialised swarms? Has government been replaced by environmental modulation?
Authors are welcome to submit analytical papers, theoretically well-grounded case studies, or architectural counter-projects for presentations while indicating their preference for one of the above tracks. At the same time we ask that their contributions consider specifically how natures and data are intertwined in architectural and urban politics today, how the politics of environments is ecological and cybernetic simultaneously.
Please submit your proposal (max 400 words) and a short bio (max 50 words) to architecturesnaturesdata at gmail.com by November 1, 2016 .
- Matthew Gandy is Professor of Cultural and Historical Geography at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, UK and the Fellow of King's College, London, UK. He is a cultural, urban, and environmental geographer with particular interests in landscape, infrastructure, and more recently bio-diversity. His book Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City (MIT Press, 2002) was winner of the 2003 Spiro Kostof award for the book within the previous two years "that has made the greatest contribution to our understanding of urbanism and its relationship with architecture". His book The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and The Urban Imagination (The MIT Press, 2014) was awarded the 2014 AAG Meridian Award for Outstanding Scholarly Work in Geography. He is currently writing a research monograph on bio-diversity and urban nature. Matthew has been a visiting scholar at Columbia University, New York; the University of California, Los Angeles; Newcastle University; the Technical University, Berlin; the Humboldt University, Berlin; and the University of the Arts, Berlin. He was Founder and Director of the UCL Urban Laboratory (2005-11) and is a co-founder of the Urban Salon. Since 2013 he has been co-editor of The International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.
- Doctor of Laws of the European University Institute (Florence), Antoinette Rouvroy is permanent research associate at the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS) and senior researcher at the Research Centre Information, Law and Society, Law Faculty, University of Namur (Belgium). She is the editor (with Mireille Hildebrandt) of Law, Human Agency and Autonomic Computing (Routldege, 2011). In her writings, she has addressed, among other things, issues of privacy, data protection, non-discrimination, equality of opportunities, due process in the context of “data-rich” environments (the so-called genetic revolution, the so-called computational turn) with an approach combining legal and political philosophy. Her current interdisciplinary research interests revolve around what she has called algorithmic governmentality. Under this Foucauldian neologism, she explores the semiotic-epistemic, political, legal and philosophical implications of the computational turn (Big Data, algorithmic profiling, industrial personalisation). She explores the impact of algorithmic governmentality on our modes of production of what counts and accounts for “reality”, on our modes of government, on the modalities of critique, resistance and recalcitrance, and on processes of individual and collective subjectivation or individuation. She is also member of the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS)'s Ethical Advisory Board (EAB) and member of the French CNIL (Commission Informatique et Libertés)’s Foresight committee.
- Dr Douglas Spencer teaches in the Graduate School of Design at the Architectural Association, London, and is the Programme Leader for the Masters course Reading the Neoliberal City at University of East London. He is the author of The Architecture of Neoliberalism (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2016). Douglas is a critical theorist of contemporary architecture and its relationship to the production of subjectivity under processes of neoliberalisation. He teaches and writes on the history and theory of architecture, urbanism and landscape. He is a regular contributor to Radical Philosophy, has written chapters for recent collections on architecture, politics and critical theory – The Missed Encounter of Radical Philosophy with Architecture (Nadir Lahiji ed. 2014, Bloomsbury), and Architecture Against the Post-Political: Essays in Reclaiming the Critical Project (Nadir Lahiji ed. 2014, Routledge) – and has published numerous essays in journals such The Journal of Architecture, AD, AA Files, New Geographies and Praznine.
The website www.architecturesnaturesdata.com, with more details, will be launched in August 2016.