Urban Geography and Big Data

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The blossoming field of urban technologies will shape how the future looks, as spaces around the world become increasingly urbanized. Services like Uber are already contributing to that future, and many more corporations will enter this realm that has been called the “new frontier” and the “fourth industrial revolution”. Should these companies really be viewed as guiding cities to a better tomorrow, or merely taking advantage of a time when innovation is craved? Professor Richard Shearmur of the Urban Planning department at Montreal’s McGill University offers his thoughts in an editorial in Urban Geography.

Urban geography is an old study, and the most notable visions of these geographers are typically vast. They often focus on broad spatial organization and may feature some specialized technologies which could increase efficiency and standards of living in the city. In this era of innovation – often for its own sake – that is coming from Silicon Valley and start-up culture, private sector forces have seized the future of cities.

Companies view cities as “untapped zones of extraction” and hope “to ensure that democratically implemented municipal by-laws and standards do not impede opportunities to extract value from cities” (Shearmur). Urban innovations by private companies rest all risks in development and implementation upon the public sector, taking only the successful ventures to a wider scale to great amounts of profit. After burdening the city with risks, large companies often escape paying taxes. Recently, Apple has been a notable example of this with the revelation that they are awaiting tax rates that they agree with before paying.

Shearmur calls for an end to fascination, both private and public, with innovation. He instead favors an evaluation of each innovation for its public benefits and a full understanding of its long-term effects. As long as innovation reigns supreme, immediate convenience will be valued alongside it. (See: Laundry laziness in Silicon Valley) .


Shearmur, R., 2015, Dazzled by Data: Big Data, the Census and Urban Geography (editorial), Urban Geography, 36.7, 965-968

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