May 26, 2018

City space invaders

As part of the conversation series “Urban Persuasion”, Keller Easterling, author of the book “Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space“, talks about free trade zones and their impact on large cities (The interview was conducted in English.).

Keller Easterling teaches at the Yale School of Architecture. In her book “Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space” (2014) she explores the potential of spatial infrastructure as a medium of politics. I have talked with her about different aspects of her argument. Our focus point was the rapid dissemination of free economic zones across the globe.

Mrs. Easterling, we are at a conference titled Now is the Time of Monsters. Which monsters are you wrestling with today?

I am going to talk about what I call ‘political superbugs’. These might be political leaders and institutions but also non-governmental organisations or spatial systems like the free zone. The superbugs manage to gather more and more power and/or territory while gaining more immunity from critique.

Donald Trump is a good example of a political superbug. He outmaneuvers all reasonable conversation and rational argumentation. He runs rings around earnest punditry and righteousness. He says one thing and then does something totally different. He thrives on the rancor and fighting from left/right binaries.

Trump is powerful – at least primarily – because he is the president of a powerful country. This correlation is fairly obvious. But there are also less visible superbugs that operate outside of governments and public administrations. In Extrastatecraft you identify some of them and describe how they operate. Who or what are these extrastate players and what makes them so powerful?

In Extrastatecraft I argue that the ways in which the world develops are no longer exclusively influenced or directed by policies, laws and diplomacy. Some of the most radical changes to the globalizing world are being written in the languages of infrastructure, architecture and urbanism. Of course public institutions are usually involved in these developments in one way or another. But the point is that the change is often driven by non-state actors.

Examples of such extrastate forces might be organizations like the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), international corporations, global management consultancies or the developers of free zones. They provide the standards, the narratives and the spaces that govern our everyday lives. They determine – each in their own specific field and style – how the world works and what it looks like.

To avoid misunderstandings: I do not claim that we are headed towards a post-national world where corporations and NGOs replace the state. In Extrastatecraft I use the word ‘extra’ in the sense of ‘outside of’ or ‘in addition to’; not in the sense of ‘instead of’ or ‘after’. We are simply living in a world with multiple, nested forms of power.

Further, you said that these extrastate players are ‘less visible’ than governments. I do not think that this is always the case. The extrastate powers usually operate in broad daylight. They seem to be less visible because we are not usually looking for them and because their actions are often undeclared or disguised as something else.

What exactly do you mean when you say that the ‘languages’ of infrastructure, architecture and urbanism are now equally or more powerful than laws, policies and diplomacy?

Well, picture some of the places of everyday life: parking lots, office buildings, metro stops, hotels, cash machines, airports, ports, suburbs, fast food restaurants, resorts, industrial parks etc. Through their designs, functions and interrelations, they make some things possible and some things impossible. In that sense, they can be compared to an operating system that is constantly running in the background governing our daily activities.

The point is that today most of the spaces in the world have become standardised products; in many ways comparable to consumer goods. Their production follows certain formulas or scripts that can be repeated over and over again. So, obviously, whoever writes the scripts for spatial production and/or manages the spaces themselves will become powerful. And this power is increased when the same formula is being applied time and again all around the world. This is precisely what is happening at the moment. It may (still) be less noticeable here in Germany than it is in other countries – but it is happening.

“Moreover, this narrative seems to argue that everything we had before the ‘smart’ city was sluggish and dumb. I resist that idea. On the contrary, I would argue that a city itself is an information system – with or without digital enhancement.”

Would you say that this way of producing space according to formulas and protocols is something new?

Yes and no. No, because there have always been patterns and recipes for spatial production ranging from church architecture to the urban plans of military or the settlements of colonists. So in that sense it is nothing new. But what is new is the acceleration of production and dissemination as well as the sheer size of some of these standardised development projects.

The free zone is perhaps your most illustrative example for this kind of copy-paste urbanism…

Yes, the free zone has become a template for building entire cities in the 21st century. It is perhaps the most popular, contagious world-city paradigm that most people have never even heard of.

In that case, could you please briefly explain what a free zone actually is?

Free zones are spatial arrangements created in order to incentivise business and to boost the economy of a particular region or country. The origins of free zones can be traced back to ancient free ports like the Roman port of Delos in Greece. The cities that were part of the Hanseatic League such as Hamburg, Lübeck or Bergen can also be seen as forerunners of the contemporary zone. But the early 20th century Foreign Trade Zone in the US and later the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) that traveled around the world marked the beginning of the modern free zone as a formalised economic and administrative instrument. The zone established an authority independent from the laws of the host country.

In the 1970s when the zone was promoted by the United Nations and the World Bank as an instrument to boost the economies of developing countries, it became a global phenomenon. Free zones were set up around the world. They offered ever greater economic incentives for businesses, and they accommodated a broader range of functions. Free zones were no longer just spaces of warehousing and production. They also started to make room for residential buildings, administrations and commerce. In other words, the zone began to develop its own particular form of urbanity. Today the zone has swallowed the city as a whole. Dubai, for example, is a gigantic agglomeration of zone enclaves.

Let’s go back to the idea of copy-paste urbanism. You argue that the zone is a repeatable spatial product. But isn’t Dubai a pretty unique place?

There is only one Dubai in the world; but all the individual elements of this city and the way they are being planned, promoted, built and managed, are repeatable. The promotional videos and the narratives around the zone, the economic incentives for businesses and investors, the architectural qualities of the built environment … all of these things are part of a standard repertoire of formulas and protocols. The point I am trying to make here is that urbanism in the 21st century is more and more becoming a serial product tailored for the demands of corporations and private interests.

Drawing of a city

There are many different variants and mutations of free zones, and it is important to highlight the differences between them. Also, there will be future iterations of zone development and we cannot foresee their consequences and manifestations. But the overall tendency of standardisation and repetition is striking. It is not an exaggeration to say that the world has become addicted to zone-urbanism. The zone has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is done because it is done … because it has been done.

You are very critical towards this ‘addiction’. What is so problematic about free zones?

The problem is that countries invest a lot of money into creating spaces of economic exemption. Big corporations and investors are attracted to zones because state bureaucracy can be avoided there, because taxes are low or non-existent, because labour- and environmental laws are partly or completely deregulated, because they are being offered cheap or free properties, because sometimes they cannot even be sued in the regular courts of the host country. And the list continues. These exemptions are highly problematic since they create spaces of labour and environmental abuse. What is more, in most cases the financial investment needed to set up a free zone, would be much more helpful, if it was used to strengthen the existing local economy.

Zones were treated as necessary for entry into global markets or a temporary means to jumpstart a developing economy. But instead of dissolving into the domestic economy, the zone tends to absorb more and more elements of that economy into its special space of exemption.

In Extrastatecraft you say that the zone is ‘breeding’ and ‘mutating’. You also count science and technology parks as variations of the free zone, even though they do not always offer the same economic incentives and regulatory exemptions of older zone-models. Are you equally critical towards these newer forms?

The zone that I am most critical of is the one that sets itself apart in the ways we have discussed. But one might also ask questions about this newly minted urbanism that promotes science and technology parks (some of them also like to call themselves ‘cities’). We might ask: What do these alleged ‘cities’ contribute to the existing urban fabric? Many software or technology parks, especially in the developing world, have created their own special infrastructures that don’t serve the domestic economy, and the surrounding space is lacking even the most basic infrastructural components and services.

For the urbanist, instant cities are usually suspect. Urbanists are interested in the circumstantial collisions that happen in complex environments. Urban fabric cannot be replicated or created over night. It is something that grows, carries much more information and has many more layers than any planned development could ever generate. Therefore the zone is not something that endears itself to an urbanist. On top of that, the zone is a place designed to privilege some and abuse others, primarily labour. I am also skeptical about the many narratives that revolve around the many different kinds of zones.

Could you give an example of such a narrative?

Each free zone typically claims to be a new global centre of trade and innovation. But in reality, when you look at what the zone is actually doing, the picture often looks very different.

Or take the example of the ‘smart city’ narrative. Today we are constantly being told that our cities are becoming ‘smart’. If we stuff them with sensors, collect tons of data and use all kinds of digital technologies to facilitate everyday life – cities will suddenly be ‘smart’. I am sure that modern technology and data collection can be very helpful for different urban actors in various ways. But there are, of course, real questions about who controls that data.

Moreover, this narrative seems to argue that everything we had before the ‘smart’ city was sluggish and dumb. I resist that idea. On the contrary, I would argue that a city itself is an information system – with or without digital enhancement. The lumpy, heavy solids of urban space themselves carry a lot of information. As I said in the beginning: These spaces constitute an operating system. In that sense, they are technology on their own. Just as we can deploy smartphones and other technical devices, software and data analysis to change a city, we can also manipulate spaces to do the same thing.

So we should focus more on space as such and less on technology in space?

I certainly think that urban space is an underexploited resource for change. For some reason the great potentials of space are often overlooked or ignored. When we look at the city we tend to focus on buildings with their shapes and outlines. I propose to unfocus our view in order to see the operating system, to see the spatial matrix in which we live, to see the infrastructural dimension of space. By infrastructure I do not mean all the pipes and wires under the ground, but rather individual spaces and the relations between them. This is what I call infrastructure space.

But if you are right with your thesis that space as such and the processes of space production are more and more under the control of extrastate superbugs that primarily pursue private and not public interests – then how can we make use of this resource to tackle the big challenges of our time?

I guess we will have to learn from the superbugs. They are sly (remember Donald Trump). If we want to outmaneuver them, we cannot only rely on righteous opposition. It is not going to get the job done. Maybe we have to be sneaky sometimes, too.

Regarding space, I think that we should look for ways to ‘hack’ into the spatial operating system rather than to try to install an entirely new version of it. Metaphorically speaking, we should not try to kill Goliath. We should make him work for us.

And how would that work?

There are many different ways. We can for example spread a rumor. We can be overly compliant. We can give the superbug an arm-twisting gift. We can change one tiny little detail and still make a big difference, if this detail is part of a repeatable formula.

You highlight that this art of extrastatecraft is more about ‘knowing how’ than it is about ‘knowing that’. Could you please explain this briefly?

Maybe extrastatecraft is a technique that has to be rehearsed. In a way extrastatecraft is like playing pool: The object of the game is very simple: You have to get a bunch of balls into a the holes. The tricky part, however, is to know how you are going to do it. There is no ultimate solution, no single fixed sequence to play. You have to be able to shift your strategy for each changed condition.

For activists it is the same story: They know their goals very well. That is the easy part. The real question is how to play. My impression-I come from the world of architecture-is that designers often want to design a shiny, beautiful, utopian idea-the fixed sequence in pool rather than the agile changing sequence or chain reaction.

I didn’t know you were such a big fan of pool.

I wish I was a better player. (laughs)

Thank you for this interesting conversation.


May 26, 2018

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