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Digital Urbanism and the Challenge of Urban Governance (DIG_URBGOV)


Principal Investigators: CITY Visiting Scholar, Dr. Constance Carr, and Prof. Markus Hesse, both from the Urban Studies Group of the Institute of Geography & Spatial Planning, University of Luxembourg (UL)

Project Advisors: Professors Gene Desfor and Roger Keil, CITY Institute

Funding: The Urban Studies Group of the Institute of Geography & Spatial Planning, UL and the ERASMUS+ Programme of the European Commission.

Project duration: 2-3 years

The aim of DIG_URBGOV is to explore the broad question of how technology is unfolding in societal contexts and how it is changing urban space. As new modes of accumulation are invented, and as we are witnessing a revolution in digital devices, services or economies, some urgent questions are surfacing regarding the role of big tech in urban development and the trajectories of urbanization (digital or not) being put in place.

Inspired by scholarly and qualitative takes on the digital turn in urban geography, DIG_URBGOV research will zero in on Alphabet Inc.'s involvement in urban development along the Toronto's lakeshore. In 2017, Sidewalk Labs – a daughter company of Alphabet Inc. and sister to Google LLC – won the international competition to develop Quayside, a derelict piece of land on Lake Ontario. The announcement ignited not only a massive media storm but also perked the interest of urban scholars both locally and around the world began wondering why one of the world's largest tech companies was suddenly investing in the real estate, housing, and construction industries. How will this change or challenge the usual modes of urban development? How will this change our understanding of cities and urban spaces? The case potentially poses a minefield of lessons that can speak both to the international scholarly debates in urban studies and to urban planning practitioners everywhere.

Research Questions – The project is structured around overlapping streams of research. The first research stream seeks to understand the kinds of institutional arrangements that are ignited when big-tech enters the field of urban planning. Questions include: What are the institutional arrangements of digital cities that involve big tech? How do tech firms situate themselves in urban development? How do pre-existing institutions react to new players in the field of urban development? The second research stream aims to understand how new socio-political constellations that are generated. Questions include: How is the tech vs. non-tech divide understood and discursively reproduced? What sets of knowledges now affect the planning process? How is urban development changing and what are the new processes of negotiation and urban governance?

Methods – DIG_URBGOV is a qualitative research project. Our aims are to understand the discourses surrounding the Quayside project, to reconstruct the role that these discourses play for planning, politics, and governance, and the various ways the governance of Quayside is actually executed, in the contested field between private and public stakeholders and the general public. The PIs are already keeping a close eye on discursive practices in media (newspapers, websites, public documents). Against the background of this written discourse, Carr is keen on interviewing further governing officials, architects, real estate agents, developers, and smart city technologists. Feel invited to get in contact!

Concluding remarks – It is clear that technological change has always gone hand in hand with transitions in urban and regional space; technological change is not new. This research project is thus not a zero-sum analysis of whether or not tech is good or bad. Rather, the object of the research is to understand the new institutional networks and structures of governance that arise alongside the new modes of production concerning digital urban space. The research thus targets the intersection of four domains of research: the practices of technological development and innovation, urban political economy, sustainability, and urban spatial planning.

New modes of production unfolding at differential scales can potentially revolutionize the ways how, why, and for whom, modern cities and regions are planned and organized, governed and developed. And, these can have wide-reaching ramifications and perhaps unforeseen consequences. With a qualitative lens on this issue, DIG_URBGOV aims to shed light on this.

More information on publications and talks (in German or English) at:


Carr, C., Hesse, M. (2020) Sidewalk Labs closed down – whither Google’s smart city? Regions 10.1080/13673882.2020.00001070 (winner of the 2021 Regional Studies Association Best Paper Award)

Carr, C., Hesse, M. (2020). When Alphabet Inc. plans Toronto's waterfront: New post-political modes of urban governance. Urban Planning, 5:1 69-83.

Carr,. C. (2019) Review "Inside Smart Cities – Place, Politics and Urban Innovation”. disP : The Planning Review 10.1080/02513625.2019.167103

Carr, C. (2019). Digital Cities are not void of politics: Quayside as an example of what happens when Big Tech gets into real estate. Research Seminar of the Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning

Carr, C. (2019) Smart Cities: Selbstzweck oder zum Wohl der Städte? Tageblatt

Carr, C., (2019) Alphabet Inc.’s post-political digital city at Toronto’s Waterfront and institutional responses. International Network of Urban Research and Action, Annual Conference, Zagreb

Carr, C., Hesse, M. (2019) Smart Cities, ‚big politics‘ und die Privatisierung der urbanen Governance. Forum für Politik, Gesellschaft und Kultur in Luxemburg

Carr, C., Hesse, M. (2019). Some notes on smart cities and the corporatization of urban governance. International Symposium on the Emergence of the Smart City

Carr, C., Hesse, M. (2019). Smart cities and risk: When digital urban development gets political. Society for Risk Analysis, Benelux Annual Conference 2019, Reasoning with Uncertainty

Carr, C., Hesse, M. (2019) Digital Urbanism and the Challenge of Urban Governance (DIG_URBGOV) – Short Research Summary.

Hesse, M., Carr, C. (2019) The apolitical aims of digital urban development: Following Alphabet Inc.'s waterfront development in Toronto. IGU Urban Commission Meeting