Skip to main content

Data and Temporality in the Spectral City


Rapid urbanization has meant that cities around the world must deal with problems like traffic congestion, aging infrastructure, affordable housing, and climate change. Increasingly, policymakers are turning to investments in technology and digital infrastructure to address these problems. Yet the move towards so-called smart cities is not simply responsive, and policymakers increasingly advocate for smart city initiatives as a necessary step towards objective, efficient, and rational governance. This understanding of technological interventions as inherently progressive, however, causes many to overlook the erasures, biases, and limitations that emerge from trying to leave the past behind. As the problems associated with this enthusiasm become more apparent, the smart city movement must therefore recalibrate its relationship to not just technology but time itself. Building on deconstructive temporalities emerging out of quantum physics, I argue that cities must begin drawing from alternative temporalities more open to the intersections between past, present, and future. As such, I suggest that the time has come to replace the ideal of the smart city with that of the spectral city – an incomplete city haunted by the ghosts (and composts) of the past.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Adam, B. (2004). Time. Cambridge: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Ananny, M. (2016). Toward an ethics of algorithms: convening, observation, probability, and timeliness. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 41(1), 93–117.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Andrew-Gee, E., Grant, T. (2019). In the dark: the cost of Canada’s data deficit. The Globe and Mail. Accessed April 26, 2019.

  4. Bakici, T., Almirall, E., & Wareham, J. (2012). A smart city initiative: the case of Barcelona. Journal of the Knowledge Economy. Special Issue: Smart Cities and the Future Internet in Europe, 135–148.

  5. Barad, K. (2018). Troubling time/s and ecologies of nothingness: on the im/possibilities of living and dying in the void. In M. Fritsch, P. Lynes, & D. Wood (Eds.), Eco-Deconstruction: Derrida and environmental philosophy (pp. 160–186). Fordham University Press.

  6. Barrionuevo, J. M., Berrone, P., & Ricart, J. E. (2012). Smart cities, sustainable progress. IESE Insight, 14(14), 50–57.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Batty, M., Axhausen, K. W., Giannotti, F., Pozdnoukhov, A., Bazzani, A., Wachowicz, M., Ouzounis, G., & Portugali, Y. (2012). Smart cities of the future. The European Physical Journal Special Topics, 214(1), 481–518.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Beer, D. (2017). The social power of algorithms. Information, Communication, and Society, 20(1), 1–13.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Bliss, L. (2018). Uber and Lyft could do a lot more for the planet. Accessed 13 Aug 2019.

  10. Bowles, N. (2019). Human contact is now a luxury good. New York Times. Accessed August 14, 2019.

  11. Braidotti, R. (2013). The posthuman. Polity Press.

  12. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (2019). Sidewalk wants cut of property taxes and development fees for Quayside project. Accessed August 13, 2019.

  13. Cardullo, P., Kitchin, R., & Di Feliciantonio, C. (2018). Living labs and vacancy in the neoliberal city. Cities, 73(1), 44–50.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Castells, M. (2011). The rise of the network society (Vol. 12). John Wiley & Sons Press.

  15. Cath, C., Wachter, S., Mittelstadt, B., Taddeo, M., & Floridi, L. (2018). Artificial intelligence and the ‘good society’: the US, EU, and UK approach. Science and Engineering Ethics, 24(2), 505–528.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Cecco, L. (2019). The Innisfil experiment: the town that replaced public transit with Uber. The Guardian. Accessed August 13, 2019.

  17. Chandler, D. (2015). A world without causation: big data and the coming of age of posthumanism. Millennium, 43(3), 833–851.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Chiusano, M. (2019). Autonomous cars come to Brooklyn. AM New York. Accessed August 13, 2019.

  19. City of Toronto (2017). City of Toronto pilots new smart traffic signal technology to monitor traffic flow in real time. News Releases and Media Advisories. Accessed April 26, 2019.

  20. City of Toronto (n.d.a). Land acknowledgement (website). Accessed 26 April 2019.

  21. City of Toronto (n.d.b). Smart cities initiatives (website). Accessed August 14, 2019.

  22. Colebrook, C. (2018). Extinguishing ability: how we became post-extinction persons. In M. Fritsch, P. Lynes, & D. Wood (Eds.), Eco-Deconstruction: Derrida and environmental philosophy (pp. 261–278). Fordham University Press.

  23. Coletta, C., & Kitchin, R. (2017). Algorithmic governance: regulating the ‘heartbeat’ of a city using the Internet of things. Big Data & Society, 4(2), 1–16.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Crang, M., & Graham, S. (2007). Sentient cities ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space. Information, Communication & Society, 10(6), 789–817.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Crawford, K. (2016). Artificial intelligence’s white guy problem. The New York Times. Accessed April 26, 2019.

  26. Cretu, L. G. (2012). Smart cities design using event-driven paradigm and semantic web. Informatica Economica, 16(4), 57.

    Google Scholar 

  27. D’Amore, R. (2017). City partnership with Waze will help drivers navigate construction, new traffic measures. CTV News. Accessed August 14, 2019.

  28. Datta, A. (2015). New urban utopias of postcolonial India: entrepreneurial urbanization in Dholera smart city, Gujarat. Dialogues in Human Geography, 5(1), 3–22.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Datta, A. (2016). Introduction: fast cities in an urban age. In Mega-Urbanization in the Global South. Routledge, 13–40.

  30. Datta, A. (2019). Postcolonial urban futures: imagining and governing India’s smart urban age. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 37(3), 393–410.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Derrida, J. (1989). Biodegradables: seven diary fragments (trans. Kamuf, P.). Critical Inquiry, 13(4), 812–837.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Derrida, J. (2000). Le toucher. Editions Galilée: Jean-Luc Nancy.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Derrida, J. (2002). The animal that therefore I am (more to follow) (trans. Willis, D.). Critical Inquiry, 28(2), 369–418.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Derrida, J. (2004). For what tomorrow (trans. Fort, J.). Stanford University Press.

  35. Derrida, J. (2005). Politics of friendship (Volume 5). Verso.

  36. Derrida, J. (2006). Specters of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the new international (trans. Kamuf, P.). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Edensor, T. (2012). Geographies of rhythm: nature, place, mobilities and bodies. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

  38. Fabian, J. (2014). Time and the other: how anthropology makes its object. Columbia University Press.

  39. Farivar, C. (2018). Habeas data: privacy vs. the rise of surveillance tech. Melville House.

  40. Glasmeier, A., & Christopherson, S. (2015). Thinking about smart cities. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy, and Society, 8(1), 3–12.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Government of India. (n.d.) Smart Cities Mission, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. Government Website. Accessed August 13, 2019.

  42. Haggart, B. (2018). The government’s role in constructing the data-driven economy. Centre for International Governance Innovation. Accessed April 26, 2019.

  43. Halpern, O., & Günel, G. (2017). Demoing unto death: smart cities, environment, and ‘apocalyptic hope’. The Fibreculture Journal.

  44. Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

  45. Harding, S. G. (1994). Is science multicultural? Postcolonialisms, feminisms, and epistemologies. Indiana University Press.

  46. Harrison, C., Eckman, B., Hamilton, R., Hartswick, P., Kalagnanam, J., Paraszczak, J., & Williams, P. (2010). Foundations for smarter cities. IBM Journal of Research and Development, 54(4).

  47. Hassan, R. (2007). 24/7: time and temporality in the network society. Stanford University Press.

  48. Hollands, R. G. (2008). Will the real smart city please stand up? Intelligent, progressive or entrepreneurial? City, 12(3), 303–320.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Kitchin, R. (2014). The real-time city? Big data and smart urbanism. GeoJournal, 79(1), 1–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Kitchin, R. (2018). The realtimeness of smart cities. Technoscienza: Italian Journal of Science & Technology Studies, 8(2), 19–42.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Kitchin, R. (2019). The timescape of smart cities. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 109(3), 775–790.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Krivý, M. (2018). Towards a critique of cybernetic urbanism: the smart city and the society of control. Planning Theory, 17(1), 8–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Lawlor, L. (2007). This is not sufficient: an essay on animality and human nature in Derrida. Columbia University Press.

  54. Luque-Ayala, A., & Marvin, S. (2016). The maintenance of urban circulation: an operational logic of infrastructural control. Environment and Planning D: society and space, 34(2), 191–208.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Maclean, J. (2017). Unaffordable: is high tech turning Toronto into another San Francisco? Cantech Letter. Accessed April 26, 2019.

  56. Mager, A. (2012). Algorithmic ideology: how capitalist society shapes search engines. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 769–787.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Markoff, J. (2012). How many computers to identify a cat? 16,000. The New York Times. Accessed April 26, 2019.

  58. Massey, D. (1992). Politics and space/time. New Left Review, 196, 65–84.

    Google Scholar 

  59. May, J., & Thrift, N. (2003). Timespace: geographies of temporality. Routledge.

  60. Meyer, E. (2018). Inner animalities: theology and the end of the human. Fordham University Press.

  61. Naas, M. (2018). E-phemera: of deconstruction, biodegradability, and nuclear war. In M. Fritsch, P. Lynes, & D. Wood (Eds.), Eco-Deconstruction: Derrida and environmental philosophy (pp. 187–205). Fordham University Press.

  62. Peterson, M. (2018). Responsibility and the non(bio)degradable. In M. Fritsch, P. Lynes, & D. Wood (Eds.), Eco-Deconstruction: Derrida and environmental philosophy (pp. 249-260). Fordham University Press

  63. Richards, R., Brothman, D., & Leibowitz, M. (2019). Urban tech is the next frontier in the digital revolution. The Star. Accessed August 13, 2019.

  64. Rieland, R. (2018). Artificial Intelligence is now used to predict crime. But is it biased? Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed April 26, 2019.

  65. Saxe, S. (2019). I’m an engineer, and I’m not buying into ‘Smart’ cities. New York Times. Accessed July 18, 2019.

  66. Shea, S. (2019). Smart streetlights build smart city network backbone. IoT Agenda. Accessed August 13, 2019.

  67. Shelton, T., Zook, M., & Wiig, A. (2015). The ‘actually existing smart city’. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy, and Society, 8(1), 13–25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. Slade, K. (2018). Kierkegaard and the politics of time. In R. Sirvent & S. Morgan (Eds.), Kierkegaard and Political Theology. Pickwick Publications.

  69. Townsend, A. M. (2013). Smart cities: big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia. WW Norton & Company.

  70. Uprichard, E. (2012). Being stuck in (live) time: the sticky sociological imagination. The Sociological Review, 60(1), 124–138.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. Van Zoonen, L. (2016). Privacy concerns in smart cities. Government Informational Quarterly, 33(3), 472–480.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Vincent, J. (2019). Gender and racial bias found in Amazon’s facial recognition technology (again). The Verge. Accessed April 26, 2019.

  73. Virilio, P. (1997). Open sky (vol. 35). Verso.

  74. Wajcman, J. (2008). Life in the fast lane? Towards a sociology of technology and time. The British Journal of Sociology, 59(1), 59–77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Wang, G., Anesini, D., Bisht, A., & Siviero, A. (2019). Worldwide smart cities spending guide. Accessed 14 Aug 2019.

  76. White, J. M. (2016). Anticipatory logics of the smart city’s global imaginary. Urban Geography, 37(4), 572–589.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. Williams, T. (2019). In high-tech cities, no more potholes, but what about privacy? New York Times. Accessed August 13, 2019.

  78. Wood, D. (2018). The eleventh plague: thinking ecologically after Derrida. In M. Fritsch, P. Lynes, & D. Wood (Eds.), Eco-Deconstruction: Derrida and environmental philosophy (pp. 29–49). Fordham University Press.

  79. Wylie, B. (2018a). Sidewalk Toronto: time to take data governance away from Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto. Medium. Accessed April 26, 2019.

  80. Wylie, B. (2018b). What is a data trust? Centre for International Governance Innovation. Accessed April 26, 2019.

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nathan A. Olmstead.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Olmstead, N.A. Data and Temporality in the Spectral City. Philos. Technol. 34, 243–263 (2021).

Download citation


  • Smart cities
  • Deconstruction
  • Spectral
  • Technology
  • Urban governance
  • Data and Temporality in the Spectral City