New paper from Seth Schindler & Simon Marvin, Constructing a universal logic of urban control? International standards for city data, management, and interoperability.

Cities are increasingly understood as systems that can be managed and transformed through scientific methods of data analysis and automated response. The most visible manifestation of the ‘science of cities’ is the so-called ‘smart city,’ in which cutting-edge technology ostensibly assimilates diverse streams of data in ‘real-time’ and this informs automated interventions. There has been a proliferation of efforts to standardize city data, management processes, and interoperability internationally, led by national standards organizations, global corporations and most notably the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

In this article, we review three standards established by the ISO—37120, 37101, and 30182—which promise to standardize the representation of cities as data, quality management processes, and simplified decision-making. The attempt to standardize all aspects of cities has unfolded beyond the media spotlight and faced scant public scrutiny, yet it has far-reaching consequences. This underlying techno-political architecture is a precursor to the adoption of smart city technology, but it goes beyond smart cities and aspires to incorporate sustainability, resilience, and sociality. We demonstrate how it portends to be universally applicable, and seeks to know, measure, compare, manage and ‘correct’ cities worldwide. This method of knowing and acting on cities employs computational logic that requires standardized representations that simplify the complexity of cities (Marvin and Luque-Ayala 2017).

The paper argues  that the standardization of cities amounts to a regime of urban control that rests on an epistemology that understands cities as a multitude of people and things with comprehensible and instrumental relationships that can be known and mapped. Once a city’s complexity is simplified and its constituent components are rendered legible, ‘abnormal’ and ‘deviant’ relationships among people and things can be identified. Relationships that are classified as deviant can be inhibited as the city is rearranged—or ‘corrected’—with automated responses that ensure more ‘desirable’ relationships obtain. Furthermore, the Standards are largely devoid of performance indicators, so although they ostensibly seek to produce more ‘sustainable’ and ‘resilient’ cities, it remains unclear what constitutes ‘sustainability’ or ‘resilience.’ As a result, the Standards tend to reinforce a business as usual approach, albeit with a top-down and non-transparent management structure whose objective is to employ computational solutions to reconfigure cityscapes.