When tech corporations play as urbanists
A guest post by Manu Fernandez
Maybe you are aware of you have stumbled upon some plans technology companies are setting for their new headquarters or even bigger developments. It might be a way to diversify their business as the smart city debate faces its first signs of fatigue . Or maybe a twenty-first century version of the architecture of power. People, charismatic leaders and boards of directors also have dreams of grandeur and want to leave their indelible mark on the city. It is an apparently irresistible temptation companies such as Disney and General Motors succumbed to.
Leo Hollis recently published on shareable a great article about the meaning of the Zappos´CEO plans to invest 200 million in the renovation of about 55 acres in downtown Las Vegas, a project that:
one can find the seemingly perfect combination of compassionate urban regeneration and the progressive mantras of Silicon Valley capitalism
This is an issue that perfectly matches my own PhD work on the importance of urban narratives, in my case particularly applied to the discursive regime of the smart city storytelling. Hollis´ article addresses the meanings and implicit assumptions of this plan for Las Vegas:
But can one re-imagine the dynamics of the city in the same way one thinks about a tech startup? The rhetoric of Startup Urbanism offer a new vocabulary that foregrounds disruption, open source, and connectedness as values that can be transposed from the Internet straight onto the organization of our cities streets. It supposes that, if you can get the code right, the script will run without glitches. However, such technological solutionism is simplistic, naïve at best, and, more likely, dangerously short-sighted.
The city is not a startup. It is not a market than needs to be disrupted in order to stimulate competition and growth. The city is not a platform that can be hacked. Despite the optimistic talk, it is an old language that is being spoken here: Startup Urbanism is gentrification by another name
It’s a story we’ve already seen with other names and other cities in recent years. While the city of IKEA in Strand East (London) also aims at revitalizing an urban centre, other large companies like Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook or Apple have used their new investments to associate their image with urban, futuristic, hipsters or sustainable attributes. The best thing of Hollis´ article is that it dissects the emptiness behind these projects not only from an architectural point of view, but also from the new business culture of entrepreneurship, to hide what it is probably no more than a tech-driven profiteering movement.