Students in the Spotlight: Nathan Olmstead

June 8, 2021 by School of Cities Staff

"Students in the Spotlight" is a conversation series with members of the SofC Urban Leadership Fellowship and Academy program


Nathan Olmstead's headshot

  • What are your research and engagement interests?

My current research attempts to engage some of the underlying assumptions that are guiding investments in digital infrastructure and urban technology. I am particularly interested in the way we treat so-called “real-time technologies” and how, even though these technologies are certainly changing the way we navigate the city, their relationship to space and time remains much more complicated. Using ideas of spectrality and haunting as a metaphor, I try to show the way in which complex intersections of past, present, and future continue to shape the relationship between technology and the city.

  • What has motivated your interests and journey? How do you hope to make a difference?

I began my university career studying psychology and religious studies. In both disciplines, I came to appreciate the roles power and identity play in shaping our everyday life. I think that these are the same kinds of questions that get ignored when we treat urban technology as a neutral artifact operating upon datafied subjects within the city. My hope with this project is to not only re-center these questions but, in doing so, lay the groundwork for alternative (and perhaps more equitable) visions of what comes next.

  • What’s the latest project you have been working on that you would like to share with the SofC audiences?

I am working on the opening sections of my dissertation, a forthcoming book chapter, and a more creative smart cities project that I am hoping to launch alongside other members of the SofC team. Given how rapidly the role of digital infrastructure is expanding – including throughout this pandemic, with things like contact tracing applications and online vaccination booking – I am also trying to keep my personal website more regularly updated with spurious thoughts about the urban technology landscape here in Canada. To learn more about my scholarship and various projects, you can visit my website.

  • As a student, researcher and or activist, what have you learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and its global impact? How do you envision post-pandemic recovery? What do you hope for?

I think that initiatives launched throughout this period of crisis, such as contact tracing apps, have a lot to teach us about our relationship to urban data and how we might rescue this relationship from the growing influence of the private sector. I also think that the pandemic provides an opportunity to question the types of top-down governmentality that have characterized not just digital governance but, also, our relationship to the environment more generally. I am hopeful that we will move forward in a way that is shaped by what we’ve been through, more confident in what’s possible when government responsibility takes center stage.

  • Please share with us your experiences at the SofC. How do you think being a member of the SofC Urban Leadership Fellowship and Academy Program has contributed to your scholarship and added to your experience as a student?

Working alongside the SofC has challenged me to consider the tangible impact of my research and the deliverables that I see emerging from my ongoing work. I have learned to apply my theoretical background to ongoing digital governance initiatives within Canada and developed a newfound appreciation for the hard work being done on the frontlines of urban development. Working as an Urban Leadership Fellow has empowered me to take early steps towards becoming more engaged in these frontline conversations and to think more critically about the ways in which my work might eventually be translated into more equitable proposals for the future of digital governance.


Student Bio:

Nathan Olmstead is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. His research interests include digital infrastructure, artificial intelligence, and political theory. His current project explores the ways in which ideas about time and progress inform the expanding world of data, algorithms, and digital governance. Leveraging post-structural and post-human notions of spectrality, his work investigates the relationship between alternative temporalities and more equitable forms of urban development. Originally from Northern Ontario, Nathan has also worked as a policy consultant and advocate on projects related to environmental sustainability, data policy, and animal welfare. His work has been published in journals such as Philosophy and Technology, Urban Studies, and Political Theology.