Bjørn Bertelsen

What does the notion of the urban mean when the city is replaced by megapolises lacking physical centres and clear-cut boundaries? What egalitarian and inegalitarian possibilities and dynamics do such globally emergent urban configurations hold? Many of the new structures, and in particular in what is commonly referred to as the global South, experience the disintegration of a centrally governed city with a polis that was often colonially imposed. Simultaneously and in both the global North and South many urban areas experience an increased use of automated and digital systems of governance that emerge in tandem with urban zones that reflect corporate forms of experimentation, privatization and, thus, fragmentation.

This project aims to compare mainly two large-scale urban contexts in what is commonly labelled the global South and North, namely, Maputo and San Francisco. Such juxtaposition addresses the questions raised by critically investigating ongoing and future urban configurations in terms of how these constrain, structure or open up egalitarian possibilities. This will include analysing the socio-political impact of various forms of technology (such as implementation of the Internet of Things, infrastructural arrangements and digital surveillance and tracking possibilities), novel forms of ordering urban space (such as privatized cities, gated communities, security arrangements), emergent forms of politics (such as autonomous or occupied areas, urban citizen-run zones or riots) and questions relating to the urban comprising depositories of wealth.

Picture 1: Bairro Polana Caniço, Maputo, January 2016.
Eradication of housings of the poor as part of rapid gentrification. New gated community condominiums about to be constructed in the background. Photo: Bjørn Enge Bertelsen.


New urban orders

With 50 per cent of the world’s population living in ever-larger urban settings, the nature of the urban—and not just its lure—needs to be re-analysed as such ‘planetary urbanism’ indicates a profound transformation of the human habitat. Crucially, such intensifying global urbanisation has run parallel with what seems to be a confrontation between the apparatuses of the nation state and urban administrations, on the one hand, and emerging globalised forms of governance on the other—particularly fuelled by the increased global power of large corporations and finance often aggressively investing white, grey and black capital in speculative real estate ventures.



Picture 2: Dhaka, September 2016. Real estate to be: Signs in the water indicating the area is now controlled by a large cooperation that, through land-reclamation, will develop the area into an upper middle class area—reflecting Dhaka’s explosive urban expansion. Photo: Bjørn Enge Bertelsen.


Still, even as the social world of the globe is, increasingly turning urban and corporate, the notion of the ‘the city’ is paradoxically retained on an ideological or hegemonic political level while analysts increasingly retreat from it as an analytical category. While there is a disparity between the notion and centrist construct of ‘the city’ and sprawling and mutating forms, urban formations transcend being sufficiently represented as spatial containers or demarcations for human activity. The urban stands out as a laboratory for present and future human formations being particularly central to questions of human freedom and egalitarian orientation, as well as its opposites. This project therefore approaches the urban as intimately tied not only to ideologies of dominant politics but also as it is a central locus for what we commonly label as politics of resistance, struggles for identity politics or as sites of differentiation.

In this regard, two interlinked processes are particularly relevant: For one, the digital era has meant the development of a range of systems of control—over material domains, signal flows, traffic, housing systems and human subjects. Such digitization crucially involves automated and partly autonomous systems of surveillance and control which in itself experiments with known feature of the urban form and, essentially, reshapes the humans that are contained by or are filtered through it. Second, an intense site of future-oriented urban expansion and transformation takes place in the postcolonial cities of the global South: Hailed as hubs of creativity and organic growth with a state presence increasingly fractured, predatory or absent, novel configurations of the urban terrain emerge—and the once unified cities disintegrate and mutate, replete with the generation of private urban enclaves at the edges of the collapsed erstwhile centres.

Both of the above processes are often celebrated as examples of human ingenuity and smartness. Both also, however, challenge how one may conceive of the city. These two processes are therefore addressed in terms of the challenges they pose to the idea, so central to Western philosophy and radical political thought, of the urban as a particularly generative and fruitful site for egalitarian emancipatory politics and, more broadly, as comprising an ideal context for the realisation of (various forms of) human freedom. By probing the idea of the polis as still relevant to analyses of the contemporary urban orders of the kind pointed at briefly above, the project aims to locate historically the trajectory of the urban as a (potential) egalitarian space within concrete urban formations.



Picture 3: Singapore, August 2016. Ritual figures in the foreground in Singapore’s new futuristic park ‘Gardens by the Bay’—replete with the hybrid steel-organic so-called ‘super trees’. In the background, the Marina Bay Sands area of Singapore. Photo: Bjørn Enge Bertelsen.


(In)Egalitarian urban possibilities and global temporal asymmetries

Already in 1970 Henri Lefebvre famously argued for replacing the term ‘the city’ with the ‘the urban’ which, he argued, should figure ‘as a horizon, an illuminating virtuality’. Preeminent in his vision was the urban street as the site for revolutionary events—in this mirroring a number of other thinkers of the urban, such as Manuel Castells. The notion of the urban as liberating and egalitarian was perhaps most clearly expressed during the modernist era of urban planning when a technocratic and effectivizing reordering of the urban space would imbue individuals with the liberty of more leisure time and (nigh) universal access to city spaces. At the same time, beyond its function as a nave in the nation-state, cities such as Brasilia were intensely politically ordered cities where its citizens were to be seen as integral to a polis—a political order with ordered and administered participation. Moreover, despite the seeming transformation of the city, scholars such as David Graeber or David Harvey for the global North and AbdouMaliq Simone, Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe for the global South, retain and elaborate various ideas of the urban as harbouring a potential for transformation and rupture of egalitarian kinds.

The ideal of the riot-free and controllable city is long-standing and was famously instrumental in Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s re-design of urban Paris in the decades following the 1848 revolution: In the years following this attack on feudal privileges, the city’s infrastructure was changed to accommodate swift statal control and oversight in situations of upheaval that threatened the political order, with the construction of wide boulevards being among the most prominent results. Although never completely effective in Paris or elsewhere—the riots of the 21st century including that of 1968 bearing testament to this—now, however, a more or less riot-free organization of urban formations may be within reach: Ring roads circumvent—literally speaking—the event from unfolding on the streets (in Lefebvre’s usage) and the street is left desolate. An infrastructure for riotfree cities also involves the orchestration of protests which are routinely allocated certain spaces and integrated into certain hegemonic, bureaucratic orders. Further, a nigh total surveillance with public cameras and the monitoring of internet usage, mobile phone traffic and GPS positions slowly eradicates the possibility of urban anonymity. In this sense, the realization of so-called ‘smart cities’ may be approached as self-ordering (as opposed to centrally governed) urban entities where the order emerges “…when its inhabitants find new ways of producing, connecting and giving meaning to their own data. The resilient metropolis thus emerges, one that can resist every disaster”, as The Invisible Committee phrases it. Infrastructure is here a form of ‘cybernetic governmentality’ and the problems for such governmentality are comprised by those that opt out—also a reason why poor and marginalized are sometimes regarded as inimical to the urban order as they are not always already mined for information and, thus, outside its cybernetic system of ordering.

On the other hand, novel forms of more open-ended urban dynamics may be discerned on the horizon and, for instance, Alberto Corsin Jiménez has suggested that a range of new inhabitant-driven, collective enterprises—such as communal urban gardens, alternative energy stations or non-cadastralised architectural forms—provide examples of “…open source hardware projects [that] wireframe the city with new sociotechnical relations”. Across the USA and in European cities, conferences, courses and workshops are held hailing not only economic and social entrepreneurship but also celebrating the rise of the ideology of so-called ‘consumer-innovators’. Arguably, urban spaces continue to constitute pre-eminent domains for acts of sabotage against hegemonic order—sites for, one could say, monkeywrenching the machinic order of the urban. Such disrupting interventions in the urban might work in both egalitarian and un- or anti-egalitarian direction, they might include direct action in certain urban spaces (demonstrations, riots, actions/practices that seek to occupy city spaces, halting of traffic etc.), art interventions or other reality-altering (hacking the visual aesthetics of the order by, e.g., modifying traffic signals, altering physical or digital sign systems, using artful forms of actions in public places to change how these spaces are perceived, guerrilla gardening etc.).

While the urban form is, of course, neither exclusively a Western construct nor presently conforming to a singular political, physical or sociocultural format, its relation (in all its manifestations) to ideals of the Enlightenment and post-enlightenment ideals run deep and are multi-stranded: Arguably in the post-enlightenment period, the city has passed through ideals of high modernism (Brasilia, for instance) and postmodernism (Los Angeles) where the idea of a centric, unified city has risen and fallen. In a bleak diagnosis on the urban situation, Lefebvre lamented already in 1970 about what he saw as “…colonization of the urban space, which takes place in the street through the image, through publicity, through the spectacle of objects […] Through the uniformization of the grid, visible in the modernization of old streets, objects (merchandise) take on the effect of color and form that make them attractive. The parades, masquerades, balls, and folklore festivals authorized by a power structure caricaturize the appropriation and re-appropriation of space”.

Are, however, such largely dystopic descriptions the only valid descriptions of the urban as we are entering what Edward Soja calls the ‘third urban revolution’ where the urban formation is also always already a ‘possibilities machine’? As already established, there are various forms of global discourses about the urban casting certain areas as ‘at the forefront’, ‘future-oriented’ or ‘in the backwaters’. In this research we would like to explores this interesting global temporal asymmetry at work—for instance, in discourses about urban development or in terms of effects of global processes of (sometimes violent) transformation, e.g. capitalism and war. Put differently, some forms and instantiations of the urban are seen to prefigure others. Extreme cases in points—and both cast as laboratories of the future—are the megapolises of Africa and the Google cities of the global north. This project will not only juxtapose such global temporal asymmetry but also seek to move beyond the universalizing dystopic descriptions or empty celebratory rhetoric of, for instance, ‘smartness’ by drawing on a number of specific and more general questions:

  • What does urban mean in a world where what is usually connoted by the term has grown spatially as a globally dominant social structure. ? Should one seek alternatives to capture the dynamics and trajectories of egalitarian and inegalitarian orientation within such a formation?
  • What happens to the urban form in a ‘post-polis’ world where ideals of Lefebvrian rights to the city are in the past, are rejected or assume a form that is always already co-opted by systems of NGOs and politics of representation and recognition – or assuming the form of spectacle—even carnivalesque counter-spectacles? What can political subjectivity be or become in a post-polis order?
  • Urban formations now may be represented as machines of accumulation dominated by bloated financial centres and select residential areas but where wealth frequently also effectuates a social cleansing or purging of specific zones. In this sense, capital forms of wealth generate its own patterns of urban formation crucially involving slicing up areas through gentrification and privatisation, expunging from its hitherto cores the destitute and the poor who thereafter reside at the margins of the order. Such dynamics are also at work, of course, outside the global North: Postcolonial cities, with their necropolitical zombification and modes of extraction, may also be seen to contribute to a if not deadening of the urban, then its transmogrification, as noted by Achille Mbembe. Further, various forms of wealth is also experimentally produced in these postcolonial zones—as well as likewise experimentally (re-)redistributed through, for instance, systems of cash transfers, urban riots or elite-run webs of corruption. What role, then, does capital and wealth play in the seemingly ever-more dramatic reorganizations of the physical, symbolic and discursive space comprising the urban? How is capital and wealth related to a world that has been ‘enclosed’ and privatized– where the very idea and notion of polis seems fully eclipsed, obsolete or corrupted?
  • Global urban formations are also depositories of wealth for globally mobile elites and physically absent—robotized—investment mechanisms, such as pension funds and hedge funds. An effect of this is the purging of the poor (including migrants) to political, economic and spatial marginality. We therefore ask: Are we seeing the emergence of new corporate city states a subsuming of the domain of the political and powers of ordering to a transcendent form of state and capital? Or are such centric visions of the corporate state form flawed?
  • How is the global disjunction—a temporal asymmetry—between various urban localities produced, disseminated and imagined? Extreme cases in points – and both cast as laboratories of the future – are the major new urban formations in Africa, places like San Francisco or the smart nation-state Singapore. In what different ways do the African urban megapolises as ‘laboratories of the future’ differ from the ‘smart cities’ of (especially) the global North?
  • The rise of the Anthropocene and the premise that the world is always already collapsed with global warming has implications also for understanding the urban. In these domains, debates on development increasingly seem to revolve around notions of human flexibility, adaptability and resilience within technological and cybernetic systems of self-repair, while in the literature relating to the notion of the Anthropocene similar ideas of human being as subsumable to Gaia are emerging. Such an idea conveys a being that simultaneously infuses, consumes and transmogrifies the world; anthropocening it. Simultaneously, the human figure is forged by theoretical and analytical orientations that prescribe that one should recede from such a hierarchical and human-centric reading of the world. We ask: Does the notion of the lesser human—which is particularly evident in the search for non-human-centric perspectives sometimes involves ideas of human self-sacrifice, i.e. the need, if taking notions of the Anthropocene seriously, of becoming less through reinventing humanity and human life (without capital letters)—imply emergent hierarchical forms of urban development mirroring imminent urban dys-/u-/eco-topias?
  • The urban is open and closed at the same time and As Lefebvre noted, “[v]irtually anything can happen anywhere. A crowd can gather, objects can pile up, a festival unfold, an event—terrifying or pleasant—can occur.” How does this open potential unfold in digital and postcolonial urban formations—in various events such as public and orchestrated and subversive such as riots, carnivals, accidents?


Fieldwork and research

Through comparative fieldwork across major urban formations—including (but not limited to) Maputo and San Francisco—the project aims at breaking new theoretical and analytical ground in relation to various forms of egalitarian and inegalitarian dynamics taking place in, as well as shaping, large-scale urban configurations. Fieldwork will be carried out in the period 2016 to 2018.