UBC Faculty Research and Publications

On data cultures and the prehistories of smart urbanism in “Africa’s Digital City” Cinnamon, Jonathan


Data is variably imagined and practiced according to values, behaviors, and norms fashioned over an extended temporal register, meaning data initiatives are not only influenced by contemporary technological and structural conditions, but also by the forces of history and culture. This claim is advanced by situating Cape Town’s smart city plans in a national historical context, highlighting how desires to be a “global city” driven by data, evidence, and openness come up against a data culture largely incompatible with these goals. A genealogy of South Africa’s politicized history of recordkeeping, biometrics, databases, and information sharing reveals the roots and legacy of an ambivalent data culture, which poses a considerable challenge to today’s data ambitions. Through this example, the paper makes two contributions to critical understandings of urban data. First, it advances the notion of data cultures – the values, behaviors, and norms ascribed to data by groups or organizations that together shape practices of data collection, management, use, and sharing. Second, it draws attention to the multi-scalar production of smart cities, when global data imaginaries meet national-scale characteristics at local places. These findings present a new lens for understanding the relative success or failure of (urban) data initiatives.

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