Towards a Technomolecular City: Governance of Urban Metabolic Biochemical Flows

A new vision of biocontrol beyond what had been possible earlier ... points to what I call a ‘technomolecular city’, understood as a use of new technologies and scientific advances to harness the various microscopic processes at play in urban metabolic biochemical flows. ... It is an innovative governance design to use information about flows in the microscopic scale in cities either for private profit or public good

Raúl Acosta, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, LMU Munich

This blog is authored by Raúl Acosta, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, LMU Munich. Raúl Acosta is an invited contributor with the Rescaling the Metabolic: Food, Technology, Ecology Research Network at CRASSH.


What does looking at chemistry and water flows tell us about new social configurations in cities? In what ways are ideas about urban life changing because of increased attention to molecules in human and non-human urban beings? Data-driven public and private policies are increasingly shaped by conceptions of risk, development, and sustainability, that take the micro-scale into account. While scrutiny of different issue areas takes place separately, an overall pattern is emerging. The lens of urban metabolism thus gains new worth in examining efforts to monitor, control, and program microscopic material exchanges between human systems and their surroundings. Urban metabolism is undergoing a reappraisal because of its attention to exchange processes “whereby cities transform raw materials, energy, and water into the built environment, human biomass, and waste” (Castán Broto, Allen, and Rapoport 2012: 851). The majority of studies with this lens – focused on bio-physical processes – have gained traction in the search for policy formulas toward urban sustainability. But the emphasis on a desired balance appears to point towards a new vision of biocontrol beyond what had been possible earlier. In this short paper, I suggest this shift points to what I call a ‘technomolecular city’, understood as a use of new technologies and scientific advances to harness the various microscopic processes at play in urban metabolic biochemical flows. In other words: it is an innovative governance design to use information about flows in the microscopic scale in cities either for private profit or public good.

The analysis presented here is conceived as an anthropological ethnographic approach that builds on Foucault’s biopolitics to include a more-than-human perspective about chemical and other microscopic elements. Its outlook is of cities as ecosystems (Acosta García et al. 2020), in line with recent ‘chemo-ethnographies’ (Shapiro and Kirksey 2017), microbial anthropology (Helmreich 2009), and the anthropology of cells (Landecker 2007), as well as in dialogue with ‘chemical geographies’ (Romero et al. 2017), within a framework of multispecies ethnography (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010). This nascent scholarly arena has emerged at a time when there is increasing awareness of the relevance of microscopic life, materials, and chemical processes for humans and other life forms in our planet. While some studies have focused on national regulatory processes (for example, of foodstuffs or pollutants), there have so far not been studies seeking to explore these issues at an urban level. This paper thus seeks to lay the groundwork for a larger research project on the emerging governance of the technomolecular city.

Studies of contemporary urban governance have identified specific areas where microscopic processes play a central role (i.e. infectious diseases, air pollution). But there is yet to be an analysis how the various areas interact as a system. Recent scholarship has examined the histories of urban governance over the last two centuries regarding their approaches to at least part of the ecology that is referred to here. In this sense, Gandy (2004) shed light on the ‘bacteriological city’ which resulted out of nineteenth century aspirations of hygiene. The twentieth century was dominated by advances in chemistry that produced new materials (i.e. plastics, foodstuffs) and processes (combustion engine). At the turn of the twenty-first century, an increasing awareness of risks produced by some of the microscopic waste elements has led to new restrictions and measures to better understand the effects of some particles (i.e. a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, limited circulation of automobiles in city centres). Although this represents an emerging approach to molecular processes across various arenas, there has not been an acknowledgement of the fledging governance it represents.

What is thus emerging is a regime of technomolecular governance, in which urban metabolisms are examined in their molecular scales. Advances in scientific technologies and capacities have provided greater flexibility to examine microscopic flows and their effects. The tension that exists between private enterprises and public interest has led to major provisions mainly focused on human health and wellbeing. In this equation, however, there is an increasing appraisal of the value of the ecosystem which may help or hinder human health. The use of urban metabolism as a key concept is here crucial. Metabolism is considered a key process for life forms, through which cells break down molecules in order to sustain energy production and ensure the continuation of an organism. Its application to the urban scale is used as an analogy to examine the flow of materials in and through cities that ensure their existence and that of their inhabitants. 

It is useful to keep in mind that metabolism is a constant process. Hans Jonas referred to it as an essential affair in life forms: “We have to realize the all-pervasiveness of metabolism within the living system. The exchange of matter with the environment is not a peripheral activity engaged in by a persistent core: it is the total mode of continuity (self-continuation) of the subject of life itself” (Jonas 2001[1966]: 76fn13). Urban metabolic processes are now crisscrossed by multiscalar molecular flows and various forms of surveillance and control in industrial systems and other forms of infrastructure. There is therefore a potential benefit of an ethnographic study of such emerging constellation of flows and control processes. My intention, therefore, is to carry out an ethnography of urban metabolism, centred on chemical processes.

I use the term technomolecular governance to refer to a negotiating field in which various actors seek to exert influence in or regarding the molecular scale of phenomena. At the urban scale, this means an ecological overview of the interaction of molecules with life forms and materials. An example is the study of effects of chemical particles in the air in human lungs or in other bodily capacities (like cognition), or the identification of emerging diseases through analyses of wastewater in a city’s sewage. In this latter case, the best example nowadays is that of the Covid-19 pandemic, for which scientists have been able to identify emerging viral infection patterns in cities before individual test results pointed to them (Polo et al. 2020). Just like other forms of biopolitics shaped specific social practices and spaces, this new form of technomolecular governance is already changing our ideas of interaction. The difficulties of dealing with some measures instructed by government officials is enhanced by the microscopic scale of the threat. Facemasks are contested technologies due to contrasting beliefs over existing threats. An urban dimension to the analysis of these correspondences provides a specific spatial locality to consider the material and symbolic elements of these processes.

To better understand this emergent form of governance, we need to explore the recent history of our dealings with the microscopic world within and around us. In the nineteenth century, for example, industrialization was leading to crowded cities with unsanitary conditions for their populations. Alongside political critique of these effects of industrialism (Engels 1993[1845]), the awareness of “pathology of the city” (Vidler 2000: 25) was frequently portrayed in romantic, realist, and naturalist novels. The effect of demands and recognition of the threats to health and wellbeing of urban dwellers led policymakers to follow scientific findings in search of a policy of hygiene. Awareness of risks led to changing forms and policies on infrastructures and private living spaces (Gandy 2006). This entailed a hydrological transformation of the nineteenth-century city, from water systems and infrastructures to the design of houses and buildings. Gradually, the use of wastewater for agriculture was reduced because of a dilution of nitrogen contents of human manure due to soaps and other elements, as well as to the use of artificial fertilizers (Gandy 2004). The resulting layers of social discipline can be interpreted as part of a biopolitical dynamic (Osborne 1996; Otter 2002).

Gandy refers to this transformation due to fears of contamination and illness as the ‘bacteriological city’, which shaped not only the physical form of cities, but also their governance structures. He goes on to argue that the ‘bacteriological city’ “proved to be a transitional phase” (Gandy 2006: 23). I surmise here that the phase that followed was marked by heightened industrial production of new materials and compounds, which thus formed a ‘chemical city,’ which has now given way to a ‘technomolecular’ one. While the ‘bacteriological city’ was led by aspirations to reduce risks due to microbes, the ‘chemical’ phase appeared to be in awe of the possibilities of industry and science. What changed were production and consumption habits, but the basic grid of urban infrastructures that the ‘bacteriological city’ produced remained in place. My argument is that our current transition toward the ‘technomolecular’ phase is marked by a renewed sense of risk from different microscopic elements. The fact that these come in so many different guises – of chemical and microbial character – challenges established governance models. As occurred in the ‘bacteriological’ phase, private interests and public concerns are at play in this situation. It is thus important to examine how the current configuration has come about.

The twentieth century saw advances in chemistry that radically changed the way certain materials were produced and used. This included how food was processed, traded, and consumed. Combustion engines, rubber tires for automobiles, a wide array of medicines and treatments were developed, and electric pulses were facilitated to develop new technologies for all areas of life. The rapid growth of new industries, with numerous benefits or perceived advantages, spurred a predisposed faith in technological advances that side-lined calls for caution in the use of some materials. All of these processes have meant that humans and ecosystems are exposed to new elements or unprecedented combinations and densities.

The awe, wonder and practicality of new findings and inventions outweighed any cautionary trepidation. This was clear in the case of food. “Foodstuffs became more standardized, and innovations in canning, drying, packaging, pasteurizing, refrigeration, and refining meant that they travelled further, lasted longer, and reached more consumers regardless of season or origin” (Landecker 2019: 530). The development of a ‘chemical gaze’ meant that specialists started identifying alternative uses of industrial remnants (Landecker 2019: 531). In this process, food animals were thus chemically remade by waste-as-feed. In the United States, for example, arsenical drugs, antibiotics, and hormones “were treated as though they would simply disappear once they had done their work. Care was not taken with their potency, or their capacity to change and endure” (Landecker 2019: 542).

Some toxic effects took decades to travel between some laboratories and scientific papers to the public realm. This path was often laden with litigation and outright intimidation by industrial heavyweights. At the turn of the twenty-first century, however, a critical mass was reached in confirmed studies of toxicity as well as other risks to raise several alarms.  City authorities are increasingly concerned about the quality of air, water, food, as well as with the exposure to various microbes that pose threats to human health. This has led to new forms of microscopic surveillance of chemical flows in urban wastewater as in the air. In a striking parallel to nineteenth-century developments, attention to sewage has provided valuable information for various issues, especially through wastewater-based epidemiology (Choi et al. 2018). This field started out of the realisation that new technologies would allow for the study of chemical and microbial compounds in wastewater (Glassmeyer et al. 2005). One of its most consistent uses has been to scan for illicit drug use (Prichard et al. 2014; Senta et al. 2014). In more recent times, this field has provided a valuable tool to identify infectious disease spread (Sims and Kasprzyk-Hordern 2020).

In the case of air pollution (Mage et al. 1996), concerns over negative effects have gone from an initial focus on pulmonary effects (Pope Iii et al. 2002) to a wide array of negative consequences to human development, including cognitive performance and brain deficits (Kampa and Castanas 2008; Calderón-Garcidueñas et al. 2008). As in the nineteenth century, these improved understandings of the manner in which certain elements affect humans have led to a rethinking of urban design (Yang et al. 2020). They have also led to a development of new forms of measurement (Snyder et al. 2013). There is, for example, a growing number of dynamic monitoring sensors on vehicles or other elements (like mobile phones), with which researchers seek to map spatial air pollution trends (Adams and Kanaroglou 2016; Hasenfratz et al. 2012). New interest in the role of weather patterns has added a new dimension of flows and complexity to these issues (Castán Broto, Robin, and While 2020).

Yet other flows that may produce ailments come not in the hand of elements like water and air, but through life forms (Hinchliffe and Bingham 2008). In many parts of the world, for example, mosquitos have increasingly introduced diseases that affect large populations. This pattern drove a rise in the use of insecticides which in turn increased the amount of toxic chemicals in cities and drove a development of insecticide resistance among various mosquito species (Kandel et al. 2019). In response, adjustments in urban planning have been considered or adopted (Ogden 2016; Miller 2001; Lindsay et al. 2017).

Many of these flows are partly dealt with the term of biosecurity (Dobson, Barker, and Taylor 2013) or food security (Drangert 2020), but there is less clarity with the circulation of other chemical substances. Although each of these molecular flows has been studied separately, there are emerging concerns about their combined effects in human populations (Ragas et al. 2011) and urban environments (Leach, Bauen, and Lucas 1997). Recent scholarship in anthropology has followed chemical flows as particular within what has been termed ‘chemo-ethnographies’ (Shapiro and Kirksey 2017). These have explored issues of health, in which ailments and cures can establish new chemical relations (Jain 2013); or where connections between nutrition, chemical exposure, and body mass yield surprising results (Roberts 2017); or even where pollutants persist across time (Murphy 2017).

Increased scrutiny of molecular flows reveal patterns of differentiation that mirror previous forms of distinction. This makes neo-Marxian interpretations of metabolic processes all the more relevant (Moore 2011). In social systems, metabolic processes transform matter through labour and social interactions, thus emphasising inequalities and power structures. Technomolecular governance is thus prone to similar power-driven frictions as other forms of extraction or exploitation. This is already noticeable in the distribution of risk within cities, which commonly follows class structured geographies and spatial distribution. Some efforts to improve urban ecologies and health have sought to grapple with the complexities of crisscrossing molecular flows to improve the health of humans and non-human life forms. Such is the case of the ‘one health’ approach (Zinsstag et al. 2020). But these approaches appear to focus on specific threats and risks without paying attention to emerging effects of molecular interactions. By pinpointing the emergent style of governance that has been identified here, I hope to contribute to a wider discussion about improved ways of dealing with the effects of urban molecular flows.



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Posted: Monday 8 February 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: urbantechnomolecular citymetabolicbiochemical flows