Surviving the Laboratory City: GeoSocial Information, Data Polities and the Next 1 Billion Users (with Tomas Holderness)

Short bio: 

Etienne Turpin is a philosopher studying, designing, curating, and writing about complex urban systems, political economies of data and infrastructure, aesthetics and visual culture, and Southeast Asia colonial-scientific history. In Jakarta, Indonesia, he is the director of anexact office, and the co-principal investigator, with Dr Tomas Holderness, of At the University of Wollongong, Australia, he is the Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the SMART Infrastructure Facility, Faculty of Engineering and Information Science, and an Associate Research Fellow with the Australian Center for Cultural Environmental Research. He is a member of the SYNAPSE International Curators’ Network of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, where he is the co-editor, with Anna-Sophie Springer, of the intercalations: paginated exhibition series as part of the Das Anthropozän-Projekt. He is also the co-editor of Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (Open Humanities Press, 2015) and Jakarta: Architecture + Adaptation (Universitas Indonesia Press, 2013), and editor of Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy (Open Humanities Press, 2013). Prior to his work in Asia, he taught design research at the University of California Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Toronto.


The role of data within the context of urban governance has become as ubiquitous as the mobile devices which daily generate the petabytes of geospatial information to be consumed for novel urban analyses; yet, the value and purpose of data as an critical component for democratic practices has never been less clear. To address this widening gap between the laudatory role of geospatial data and the absence of democratic purpose that it suffers from, the paper examines four aspects of contemporary data urbanism. The authors situate their concerns within the context of an increasingly commercialized, highly-competitive sector—led by “smart city” firms, data management services, the NGOcracy, and philanthropic “open data” organizations—which drives the data rush for the monetization of urban geospatial information. The authors contend, first, that increasingly data urbanism occurs in the context of “laboratory cities.” Second, the authors claim that data are meaningless without platforms of assembly, but that the construction and maintenance of such platforms create significant challenges for community organizations, institutions, and government agencies. Third, within the context of web 2.0 modes of production and volunteered geographical information (VGI), the authors contend that data producers require techno-organizational structures for the coordination and defense of their data sets and the collective equipment, especially open source software (OSS), upon which these data depend. Fourth, the authors argue that if a meaningful coordination among and defense of VGI data and OSS tools can occur, the democratic potential of geosocial information can be more fully realized; however, such an outcome will require not only surviving, but overcoming the latent colonial and authoritarian tendencies currently operating in the laboratory city.