Toward a Platform Urbanism Agenda for Urban Studies

Dr Desiree Fields
University of Sheffield
Dr Rachel Macrorie
University of Sheffield
SMALL GROUP PROJECT: JANUARY 2018 – DECEMBER 2018

Abstract

This research sets out to develop the concept of ‘platform urbanism’ and inaugurate it as a research agenda within urban studies. The project asserts that although digital platforms both depend, and have explicit effects, on the urban, urban studies has not comprehensively investigated these emerging infrastructures. Meanwhile other disciplines are making theoretical advances by conceiving of society and capitalism in relation to platforms. However, such work frequently fails to engage with the materiality of the city, the spatiality of digital platforms, and platform-related governance effects. Extant research often emphasises monopolistic and exploitative tendencies of platforms at the expense of considering their emancipatory potential. Our ambition is therefore to work toward a genuinely new concept of platform urbanism that recognises key qualities of platforms and cities, retaining a critical focus without sacrificing progressive possibility.

We aim to tackle platforms as an issue of pressing importance to urban societies and political economies. The advances in knowledge we seek depend on input from varied fields beyond urban studies, including law, media studies, and geography, philosophy of science, and sociology. To begin to establish a new agenda for urban scholarship on the logics, mechanisms, and political-economic and societal effects of urban platforms, we shall cultivate cross-disciplinary exchange between urbanists and those researching platforms in the aforementioned fields, as well as with reflexive practitioners. The project consists of a 2.5-day workshop at the University of Sheffield, to include plenaries, paper presentations, discussion, and demonstrations of participatory or cooperative platforms. Project outputs shall consist of an agenda-setting journal article and a co-authored edited book to progress conceptual and empirical understanding of urban platforms. Generating these outputs will help to meet our longer-term objectives of establishing an international group of researchers to progress the platform urbanism agenda and to stimulate debate within urban studies and related fields.

The Research Idea

The digital infrastructures known as platforms should be theorised for urban studies and conceived as a research agenda for the field. Platforms depend on the urban context to extract data (Rabari and Storper 2015) and have explicit effects on cities through housing and labour markets, transport, retail and distribution, and governance. However, platforms are not yet a significant area of inquiry within urban studies. Attesting to the wider significance of platforms in contemporary social, political, and economic life, conversation about platforms is occurring within disciplines including geography, media studies, law, philosophy of science, and sociology. ISRF support is relevant and crucial for this project, as it will foster exchange between these disciplines and urbanists to inaugurate a ‘platform urbanism’ research agenda.

The project involves a workshop for international participants researching platforms using different conceptual lenses and across varied urban domains, guided by the following empirical and conceptual objectives:

  1. Interrogate the emerging importance of platforms to the urban context;
  2. Typologise the logics and mechanisms of platforms at work in the city;
  3. Examine how digital platforms constitute, and are constituted by, the city; and
  4. Explore the emancipatory possibilities and possible futures of urban platforms.

Plenaries, demonstrations, and presentation and discussion of research will foster knowledge exchange toward conceptualising platform urbanism and cultivating it as a research agenda for urban studies. This project will yield an agenda-setting journal article and an edited book, and will constitute the first step toward establishing an international research group on platform urbanism.

Background

The rise of ubiquitous, networked computing and resurgence of libertarian thought have created an environment in which digital platforms are achieving great scale, hold tremendous capacity for innovation, and can reinforce (or disrupt) socio-economic power and control. Burgeoning research considers the ontology, epistemology and functionality of digital platforms, but studies are largely technologically deterministic, commonly framing the city as a value-neutral data-collection environment or innovation test-bed. Such research fails to connect with the city’s materiality, recognise the spatiality of platform infrastructures, or examine the powerful urban governance effects that platforms produce.

Urban studies research has addressed the digitisation of cities (e.g. Luque-Ayala and Marvin 2015), ‘big’ data and algorithmic governance (e.g. Batty 2016; Kitchin 2017), and implications of ‘open data’ for citizenship (e.g. Barns 2016; Cañigueral 2017; Gabrys 2014). But the logics, mechanisms, political-economic and societal effects of urban digital platforms have not been comprehensively investigated. Where considered (e.g. Wachsmuth et al. 2017), studies have critiqued value-extracting, monopolistic digital platforms (e.g. Srnicek 2017 on platform capitalism). Less research considers platforms’ potential communitarian effects (though see Scholz 2016).

Acknowledging these gaps, and the urgent need to understand how digital platforms are (re)shaping the rapidly urbanising world, this workshop will progress the concept of platform urbanism. Through interdisciplinary exchange, we will theoretically and empirically respond to the underpinning logics, mechanisms, implications of, and alternatives to, the embedding of digital architectures in the city fabric and to ‘data-driven urbanism’ (Kitchin and Dodge 2011).

The Focus

Proliferation of digital platforms has recently led to discussions of an emerging “platform logic” (Andersson Schwarz 2017) that is precipitating a “platform society” (van Dijck 2016). However, digital platforms are not simply technological architectures or business models facilitating economic transactions, but powerful governance infrastructures dictating modes of interaction and value-extraction (Srnicek 2017). These relationships are reflected in platform designs that mediate social relations in ways that reinforce persistent inequalities while disrupting urban political economies (M. Graham and Shaw 2017). It is therefore imperative that urban studies develop a platform urbanism research agenda.

Digital platforms have mattered to urban studies since they began to enable a splintering of the “modern infrastructure ideal” (S. Graham and Marvin 2001) by making possible privatised alternatives to publicly-provided infrastructures. Concurrent to this “platformisation of infrastructures”, platform strategies adopted by software designers (i.e. scale-ability, network effects, modularity), have led to the “infrastructuralisation of platforms” across the city (Plantin et al. 2016). These dual phenomena make urban studies well poised to conceptualise and analyse how platforms operate in an increasingly urbanised world.

Far from adopting a neutral understanding of platform urbanism, this workshop will recognise that platforms have diverse logics, exhibit inherent power dynamics, produce spatialised effects, and stand to profoundly (re)shape the city in contrasting and contested ways. Workshop participants will examine constitutive relationships between platforms in the urban context, citizens and ecologies. Workshop outputs will go beyond critique, to explore how platforms can be organised for a more equitable urban society.

Theoretical Novelty

Though undergoing a period of intense theoretical reappraisal over the past decade (Derickson 2014; Peck 2015), urban studies has neglected how platforms might be conceptualised in relation to the city. Yet platforms possess clear potential to reconfigure urban space, everyday practices, politics, and citizenship (e.g. Leszczynski 2016). Meanwhile, media studies, law, geography, and political economy have made theoretical strides interpreting capitalism and society in terms of platforms.

This research advances urban theory by developing the concept of platform urbanism. Such a concept must account for characteristics of both platforms and the urban environment. Surrounded by discourses of collaboration and democratisation, in practice platforms display monopolistic and exploitative tendencies (Langley and Leyshon 2016; Pasquale 2017; van Doorn 2017). Platforms are political, setting rules for connectivity and thereby shaping behaviour and interactions while extracting data as a condition for use (Langley and Leyshon 2016; Srnicek 2017; Williams 2015). Any urban theory must reckon with cities’ dense built environment and concentrations of infrastructure subject to fragmentation and shifting capital flows (S. Graham and Marvin 2001). It must also incorporate the inherent heterogeneity, power relations and ongoing struggles for social and spatial justice that characterise urban life (Lefebvre 1996).

Our research aims to gather these qualities of cities and platforms into an analytical concept of platform urbanism. We assert this concept requires a critical focus that does not sacrifice a sense of emancipatory possibility, and can only be developed through a process of multi-disciplinary engagement that cuts across key domains of urban life.

Methodology

Sharing the ISRF’s commitment to enriching social science by reaching beyond disciplinary boundaries, we assert the platform urbanism research agenda necessitates that urban studies engage with research in, inter alia, media studies, political economy, geography and law. Beginning with a workshop, leading to an edited book, and establishing a network of international researchers to advance understanding of this agenda, success of the research depends on promoting a productive process of cross-disciplinary engagement. Workshop design is therefore paramount. Funding will support a 2.5-day workshop involving a series of plenaries, presentations, demonstrations and discussion between ten participants: four urban scholars, four scholars from other disciplines, and two reflexive practitioners. Scholars will submit papers (5,000 words) relevant to the research objectives a month before the workshop, and will deliver fifteen-minute presentations prompted by the following questions:

  1. How does your research on platforms relate to the urban context, and why is this important?
  2. What logics and mechanisms underpin digital platforms, and with what implications for the city?
  3. How do you conceptualise and/ or analyse how platforms configure different urban dimensions?
  4. How might we study emerging urban platforms that are more emancipatory/ inclusive and less value-extracting/ monopolistic?

Each paper will be assigned a discussant: urban scholars will discuss papers by platform researchers from other fields, and vice versa. Accompanied by applied demonstrations and discussion of participatory or cooperative platforms, this design will encourage reflection across disciplines and between global urban contexts and domains, generating insights to shape the platform urbanism agenda.

Work Plan

The workshop will:

1. Bring together ten researchers investigating platforms using different disciplinary lenses and representing a range of urban domains and global contexts;

2. Develop new theoretical perspectives on the logics, mechanisms, urban implications of, and emancipatory opportunities for, digital platforms;

3. Demonstrate participatory/ cooperative platforms by involving two practitioners;

4. Lead to an agenda-setting article and edited book launching platform urbanism as a vital agenda in urban studies; and

5. Demonstrate leadership by the Urban Institute, establishing an international research network to develop ongoing relationships.

Day 1: Commencing with a platform demonstration and discussion of workshop objectives.

Day 2: Dedicated to three sessions of paper presentations with discussant feedback; followed by group discussion of implications for the platform urbanism research agenda. The second platform demonstration will punctuate the day’s activities.

Day 3: Commencing with a paper presentation and feedback, continuing with a round-table discussion of participants’ experiences of the demonstrations. The closing session will discuss workshop activities as they relate to the research objectives. Setting out the contours of the platform urbanism agenda, the workshop will conclude by agreeing how to develop the book proposal and chapters.

Timeline:

• Jan-May 2018 Circulate workshop invitation, receive abstracts, confirm

demonstrations, submit journal article (e.g. to Urban Studies)

• July-Sept 2018 Confirm workshop arrangements, receive draft papers, hold

2.5-day workshop in Sheffield, submit revised journal article

• Oct-Dec 2018 Confirm book proposal (e.g. MIT Press), receive and comment

on draft papers, receive finalised papers and submit book

• 2019 Book publication

Outcome

At a time when urban studies is engaged in particularist theoretical debates that sometimes handicap fruitful progress (Peck 2015), it is vital that urban scholarship grapple with how contemporary technological advances are transforming cities and urban life. The intellectual exchange occurring during the workshop, and over the course of preparing the resulting edited book, will both produce a base of conceptual knowledge on platform urbanism and generate key empirical questions worthy of future research.

By fostering a core group of international scholars working on platform urbanism, the workshop lays the foundation for taking the platform urbanism research agenda forward. Affiliation with the Urban Institute (UI) at The University of Sheffield makes us well-situated to lead this agenda from the UI as our institutional ‘home’. This home can support longer-term outcomes by expanding the core group through leveraging the international networks of the PIs and the UI, publishing white papers on platform urbanism by group members, and coordinating funding applications to conduct collaborative platform urbanism research.

Using the article and book as the basis for sessions organised at international conferences geared toward urban scholars (e.g. RC21 Urban and Regional Development) and other fields (e.g. Royal Geographical Society; Internet, Policy and Politics), we will stimulate wider research and policy debate. This step will include scholars from beyond the core group, creating spaces for discussion of the objectives and developing the platform urbanism agenda. As a whole, this project will be instrumental to inaugurating a critical research agenda on platforms within urban studies.

References

Andersson Schwarz, Jonas. 2017. “Platform Logic: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Platform-Based Economy.” Policy & Internet, 1–21. doi:10.1002/poi3.159.

Barns, Sarah. 2016. “Mine Your Data: Open Data, Digital Strategies and Entrepreneurial Governance by Code.” Urban Geography 37 (4): 554–71. doi:10.1080/02723638.2016.1139876.

Batty, Michael. 2016. “Big Data and the City.” Built Environment 42 (3): 321–37. doi:10.2148/benv.42.3.321.

Cañigueral, Albert. 2017. “Building the Networked City From the Ground Up With Citizens (Interview with Francesca Bria, Chief Innovation Officer of Barcelona).” Shareable. https://www.shareable.net/blog/building-the-networked-city-from-the-ground-up-with-citizens.

Derickson, Kate Driscoll. 2014. “Urban Geography I Locating Urban Theory in the ‘urban Age.’” Progress in Human Geography, December, 309132514560961. doi:10.1177/0309132514560961.

Dijck, José van. 2016. “The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World.” In Lund University. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BE8Tw9Hc6kE.

Doorn, Niels van. 2017. “Platform Labor: On the Gendered and Racialized Exploitation of Low-Income Service Work in the ‘on-Demand’ Economy.” Information, Communication & Society 20 (6): 898–914. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2017.1294194.

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Graham, Mark, and Joe Shaw, eds. 2017. Towards a Fairer Gig Economy. Meatspace Press. https://meatspacepress.org/.

Graham, Stephen, and Simon Marvin. 2001. Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. Psychology Press.

Kitchin, Rob. 2017. “Thinking Critically about and Researching Algorithms.” Information, Communication & Society 20 (1): 14–29. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2016.1154087.

Kitchin, Rob, and Martin Dodge. 2011. Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. MIT Press.

Langley, Paul, and Andrew Leyshon. 2016. “Platform Capitalism: The Intermediation and Capitalisation of Digital Economic Circulation.” Finance and Society early view.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1996. “The Right to the City.” In Writings on Cities, edited by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, 63–181. Oxford: Wiley.

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Luque-Ayala, Andrés, and Simon Marvin. 2015. “Developing a Critical Understanding of Smart Urbanism?” Urban Studies 52 (12): 2105–16.

Pasquale, Frank A. 2017. “Two Narratives of Platform Capitalism.” SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 3002529. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=3002529.

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Plantin, Jean-Christophe, Carl Lagoze, Paul N Edwards, and Christian Sandvig. 2016. “Infrastructure Studies Meet Platform Studies in the Age of Google and Facebook.” New Media & Society, August, 1461444816661553. doi:10.1177/1461444816661553.

Rabari, Chirag, and Michael Storper. 2015. “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 (1): 27–42. doi:10.1093/cjres/rsu021.

Scholz, Trebor. 2016. “Platform Cooperativism. Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy.” New York: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. http://ictlogy.net/bibliography/reports/projects.php?idp=3111.

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