Care Against Growth [draft]

Draft essay for a talk I’m giving at The Maintainers III in DC on October 7.

Sidewalk Labs’ smart cities project in Quayside, Toronto has become a combination of lodestar and black hole. Almost no element of the project has gone unaddressed and uncritiqued, and rightfully so. From Bianca Wylie’s excoriation of the privacy and governance nightmares endemic to the project,[i] to Shannon Mattern’s reveal of the hollowness of Sidewalk’s community engagement and attempts at ‘co-design’,[ii] to Molly Sauter’s discussion of the colonial aesthetics of the imagery of the project’s renderings.[iii] These critiques are indispensable but my focus in this essay is much smaller in scope—about a meter in diameter, if memory serves.

In a universal project such as Sidewalk’s Quayside, the details betray the whole—and a simple modular paver functions as a cypher revealing a monstrous intentionality. At Sidewalk Labs’ 307 (their “experimental workspace”-slash-guinea pig cage in Toronto),[iv] a wood-construction concept version of this paver is on display. Designed with Carlo Ratti Associati and called “Dynamic Street”[v], the installation allows visitors to get familiar with the system. In the recent Master Innovation and Development Plan (or MIDP), these pavers are intended to be “coupled with open access channels consisting of precast concrete sections, enabling streets and the infrastructure they house to evolve as technology changes”.[vi] The initial idea for the paver was lifted from the French Institute of Science and Technology for Transport, Development and Networks, or IFSTTAR. The IFSTTAR version was called, with considerably less hubris, the “Removable Urban Pavement”, or RUP.

Both Sidewalk and IFSTTAR begin as a desire to cut down on on-site labor time necessary to repair a street—an admirable goal. IFSTTAR’s report notes the RUP was intended to allow a street to be “opened and closed within just a few hours using very lightweight site equipment, in restoring the initial street appearance and all its functionalities”.[vii] Similarly, the Dynamic Street, when paired with open access utility channels beneath, “could work as a pair to increase the ease of utility work” and lessen disruption (disruption, the Silicon Valley motto, is now the enemy in this case).[viii] But in the case of the Dynamic Street, replacability is abandoned to “create a streetscape that responds to citizens’ ever-changing needs”.[ix] The focus is less on the street as a stage than as a technological armature, featuring lights, heating, and sensor suites.[x] For Sidewalk, the street and its pavers are a means to a greater end: a city as a blank slate of infinite amenities and infinite control, where capital, as technological progress, can play unimpeded. Technoutopia begins in the destruction of the old mundane, and the simple paver ushers in a world where responsiveness—to bourgeois desires, to capitalist privations—is the rule. “Sidewalk Labs recognizes that this new approach to street systems would require changes to existing regulations and operations,” the MIDP shyly admits.[xi] But the changes Sidewalk describes are seismic shifts. By reconsidering street maintenance not as a laborious process of 20- or 30-year maintenance cycles, but one of von Neumannesque continuous reproduction, urban maintenance is recast as a logistical issue. Logistics has no place for the human subject or its labor, just the expansion of wealth.[xii] To enable the logistical dawn, labor must be made a background process. When labor is invisible, the city seems organic as well as a highly technological artifact, seemingly responding ‘automatically’ to “the emergence of [the] new”[xiii], free to pursue relentless “optimization”.[xiv]

“To work today is to be asked,” Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write, “…to do without thinking, to feel without emotion, to move without friction, to adapt without question, to translate without pause, to desire without purpose, to connect without interruption”.[xv] As Karl Marx wrote, capital considers the worker “when he is not working, as a human being”, but this same sentiment is true while at work as well.[xvi] Logistics is the capitalist systematic, the fever dream of the brain of capital, and its moving parts are caked with blood even as they take on ever more hideous forms.[xvii] The heart of Quayside is not the digital, but the flowing of people and commodities: “an empire which, with its network of pumps, filters, vats and basins, incarnates the Principle of Fluidity… “approaching this horizon, the ideal would be a factory without matter and…without workers!”[xviii] But labor is not a constant in an algorithm or the action of a hollow subject: it is a social relationship, an expression of care. To understand care, we can turn to the experience of unpaid domestic labor.

Maria Puig de la Bellacasa describes care as “a signifier of devalued ordinary labours that are crucial for getting us through the day”. [xix] This labor is often thought of as “domestic”, such as childcare, hospice, and other “embodied practices”, as Monique Lanoix explains, and it is undertaken predominantly by women and people of color.[xx] But care can be a mode of both production and reproduction—it is the ‘personal reason’ to the question “why are you doing that?”. As an unquantifiable quiddity of labor in the abstract, care cuts past the capitalist presentation of labor solely as a wage relation, gesturing instead towards an atavistic understanding of work as a social practice which can and does exist apart from capital but has been captured and commoditized by it.[xxi] It is in the interest of capital to maintain the a singular conception of labor as a wage-relationship which produces value, as we have seen in feminist critiques of unpaid domestic labor and the demand of “wages for housework”. Returning again to de la Bellacasa, capital must be “a sociotechnical assemblage [which] can reinforce asymmetrical relations that devalue caring”.[xxii] Sidewalk’s Quayside fits snugly into this asymmetrical machinery, which we can give another name: capitalist development in and of itself.[xxiii] This system can seem inexorable: Achille Mbembe warns that “[u]nless we reinvent the terms of what counts and in the process resignify what value stands for as well as the procedures of assigning value, of measuring value, of exchanging value, things won’t change”.[xxiv]

“[W]e could imagine physical infrastructures that support ecologies of care — cities and buildings that provide the appropriate physical settings and resources for street sweepers and sanitation workers, teachers and social workers, therapists and outreach agents,” Shannon Mattern writes. To imagine caring infrastructures is to imagine a world for us, far from Quayside and its rabid commoditization of urban life and activity. This imagination is a theoretical standpoint first and foremost: workers are the subject, coming first, with technological progress a firm second, in a dramatic inversion of the status quo.[xxv] The theory is answered by a polical practice of design-labor, addressing labor in its role within the logistical system, that is, “the inevitable interrelations of agendas of technological change and (re)distributions of labor with associated implications for both material and symbolic reward”, as Lucy Suchman writes.[xxvi] By becoming conscious of our role as caretakers of infrastructural and social relationships, the potential for interrupting capitalist development begins to come into view. Labor reasserts itself as a teleological undertaking, and care the method by which it is performed.[xxvii]

This new standpoint throws the differences between the RUP and the Dynamic Street into harsh relief. In the RUP report, I was shocked to find that the pavers themselves were ultimately not the essential element. After design meetings with engineers and “network operators”, the RUP team realized that the paver itself lived and died by its substrate. The new “Structural Excavatable Cement-Treated Material” (SECTM) developed in response with and as an element of labor ultimately was, as the report stated, the “most innovative aspect” of the project, designed greater ease of maintenance and installation.[xxviii] When Sidewalk and Carlo Ratti Associati adapted the RUP for Toronto, they seemingly left out SECTM, instead favoring ‘good life’ scenarios that imagine the street as a stage for unbridled logistics and the occassional block party, wherein residents with an “digital reconfigurator” can “design urban scenarios of their own”,[xxix] “in order to swiftly change the function of the road without creating disruptions on the street”.[xxx] The hypnagogic urbanism of Sidewalk Labs—ephemeral, responsive only to desire, possessed of infinite growth—is not free of the material world at all, despite their claims. The digital dream is borne up by a sea of faceless logistical workers, bound to the city-machine. To center labor in our minds represents a weapon in the war against the smart city—a war that we are, perhaps, already losing.



[i] Wylie’s Medium page is an inexhaustible and incredibly valuable repository of information about the Sidewalk Toronto process as well as full of brilliant ruminations on the threats it poses to governance, privacy, and citizenship. See more at Bianca Wylie, “Collected Medium Posts,” Medium, accessed September 19, 2019,

[ii] Shannon Mattern, “Sidewalk Labs’s Material Co-Design,” Words In Space (blog), April 28, 2019, See also the now-canonical “The City is Not a Computer” and “Instrumental City”, both at Places Journal.

[iii] Molly Sauter, “City Planning Heaven Sent,” e-flux Architecture, February 1, 2019,

[iv] Sidewalk Labs, “Participate,” Sidewalk Toronto (blog), accessed September 18, 2019,

[v] Rima Sabina Aouf, “Carlo Ratti and Sidewalk Labs Collaborate to Build Reconfigurable Dynamic Street,” Dezeen, July 20, 2018,

[vi] Sidewalk Labs, “The Urban Innovations,” Draft Master Innovation and Development Plan, June 24, 2019, 137,

[vii] François de Lerrard, Thierry Sadran, and Jean Maurice Balay, “Removable Urban Pavements: An Innovative, Sustainable Technology,” The International Journal of Pavement Engineering 31p (2012): 1–2,

[viii] Sidewalk Labs, “MIDP,” 136.

[ix] Aouf, “Carlo Ratti and Sidewalk Labs Collaborate to Build Reconfigurable Dynamic Street.”

[x] Quoted in Aouf.

[xi] Sidewalk Labs, “MIDP,” 135.

[xii] Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, “Fantasy in the Hold,” in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Brooklyn: Minor Compositions Press, 2016), 87.

[xiii] Sidewalk Labs, “MIDP,” 138.

[xiv] Sidewalk Labs, “Sidewalk Labs Street Design Principles,” Sidewalk Labs Street Design Principles, accessed May 12, 2019,

[xv] Moten and Harney, “Fantasy in the Hold,” 87.

[xvi] Buret quoted in Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan (Amherst: Prometheus, 1988), 50.

[xvii] Raniero Panzieri, “The Capitalist Use of Machinery: Marx versus the ‘Objectivists,’” in Outlines of a Critique of Technology, ed. Phil Slater (Ink Links, 1980).

[xviii] Gilles Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs: The Incitement of Envy and Boredom in Market Democracies (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018), 76.

[xix] Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, “Matters of Care in Technoscience: Assembling Neglected Things:,” Social Studies of Science, December 7, 2010, 94,

[xx] MONIQUE LANOIX, “Labor as Embodied Practice: The Lessons of Care Work,” Hypatia 28, no. 1 (2013): 85–100.

[xxi] Bruno Gulli, Labor of Fire: The Ontology of Labor between Economy and Culture (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2005).

[xxii] Bellacasa, “Matters of Care in Technoscience,” 97.

[xxiii] Panzieri, “The Capitalist Use of Machinery: Marx versus the ‘Objectivists.’”

[xxiv] cls-1{fill:#fffffc;} cls-2{fill:#11161a;}profile-placeholderBy: Sindre Bangstad et al., “Thoughts on the Planetary: An Interview with Achille Mbembe,” New Frame, September 5, 2019,

[xxv] This inversion is discussed more fully in Mario Tronti, “A New Type of Political Experiment: Lenin in England,” in Workers and Capital, trans. David Broder (Verso, 2019). More generally, it occupies a central theoretical obsession of operaia, particularly the editors of Quaderni Rossi.

[xxvi] Lucy A. Suchman, Human-Machine Reconfigurations. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 278.

[xxvii] Georg Lukács, Ontology of Social Being: Labor, vol. 2, 3 vols. (London: Merlin Press, 1978).

[xxviii] François de Lerrard, Thierry Sadran, and Jean Maurice Balay, “Removable Urban Pavements: An Innovative, Sustainable Technology,” 5.

[xxix] Carlo Ratti Associati, “The Dynamic Street,” Carlo Ratti Associati, 2018,

[xxx] “Dynamic Street for Sidewalk Labs,” Smart Cities World, accessed September 19, 2019,