Armin Beverungen: How Amazon is Changing Cities

2022-03-11 In his current project "Automating the Logistical City: Space, Algorithms, Speculation", Armin Beverungen, in cooperation with Ilia Antenucci and Maja-Lee Voigt, is exploring how Amazon is changing urban spaces. For this purpose, the professor of organisation in digital cultures is investigating how the logistical revolution in retail triggered by Amazon is influencing cities and architectures by means of fulfilment centres and delivery routes.

 "I am focused on making these processes visible", Prof. Dr. Armin Beverungen explains the aim of his project. ©Brinkhoff-Mögenburg/Leuphana
"I am focused on making these processes visible", Prof. Dr. Armin Beverungen explains the aim of his project.

Jeff Bezos' flight into space, strikes at Amazon warehouses in Bad Hersfeld and Leipzig in December 2021, and no bathroom breaks for Amazon delivery drivers in the US - the Amazon Corporation is widely known. Amazon is also being covered scientifically, most recently with studies on work in the last mile, in Amazon delivery services. Beverungen is interested in another aspect that has been largely unexamined in the discourse so far: "How does Amazon change the city? I'm not just interested in whether shops have to shut down, but in what kind of infrastructure is in place, how cities are being automated and in the robots that might be arriving on our pavements next, alongside all the scooters that we're trying to get rid of." The debate about Amazon's second global headquarters, which was to be built in New York, was the starting point for the sociologist. New Yorkers, supported by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, successfully resisted the construction of the new headquarters. But Amazon's influence on cities is not only felt in New York but also in cities like Hamburg and its surroundings. There is a large warehouse in Winsen an der Luhe, and a distribution centre in the port of Hamburg from which parcels are delivered. "The first aim of the project is to shed some light on this and to look at what is happening in our cities, where are these warehouses being built? How do they also change a topography, i.e. where do new centres emerge and how are they linked? And how does that affect the city?" is how Beverungen describes the direction of his research project.

Will Amazon's success mean that sooner or later the city centres will be dead and the suburbs will be full of huge warehouses? "That would fall a little short," Beverungen explains, "because there is of course more to Amazon's infrastructure" - for example the warehouses (euphemistically called "fulfilment centres" by Amazon itself). In addition, there are supra-regional distribution centres, for example in Dortmund, which distribute goods between the warehouses. Since goods arrive there, these are often close to airports. There are also so-called smaller distribution centres, for example in the port of Hamburg or in Stade, where pre-sorted trolleys from the warehouses are handed out to often independent suppliers. "But Amazon wants even more," Beverungen points out, "in the USA they are buying up shop chains, such as Whole Foods, and are also opening their own shops. With these shops, Amazon is moving into the city centres. The empty spaces of the previous retailers - displaced by Amazon - are revived in this way. An infrastructure of suppliers, traders and vendors is then also created around them again."

There is a simple reason why the mail-order giant is so readily accepted by customers: "Shopping there is simply extremely pleasant and convenient." This convenience is contrasted by highly supervised and precarious work, which results in about 80% of warehouse employees leaving the company each year. "But that hardly matters to Amazon, in a sense," Beverungen points out, because Amazon demanded little in the way of qualifications and could thus quickly provide replacements. Meanwhile, the flow of goods is almost completely automated. Beverungen has already shown in his earlier studies on the sociology of work that this automation, however, means that there is always a lot of (albeit hardly fulfilling) human supplementary work to the machine activity. In addition, the corporation is working to extend automation to consumers as well. "Attempts are being made to predict what consumers will be ordering. Here a basic issue of capitalism becomes particularly clear: Are they concerned with profit or with wish fulfilment? Amazon, of course, says their goal is wish fulfilment, satisfaction. And automation makes it easier to accomplish that. Which is also why Amazon is so fascinating - because automation is so pervasive: from trying to influence our desires, to the way work is organised in the logistics chain, to the impact on cities. And because it is so pervasive, the issue of exploitation also arises in a completely different way than with other companies, namely not only towards workers but also towards consumers." 

 "I am focused on making these processes visible," Beverungen explains the aim of his project. "Interestingly enough, the scope for action - for trade unions, for consumers or even for cities - is not visible at all at the moment. Or at least very unclear, blurred. There must be people who are racking their brains in some cities in Germany. But many of them still have absolutely no idea what is going on." He is cautiously optimistic: "Of course, one can well imagine that something other than commerce can be done in this public space, for example in the pedestrian areas. Of course, it is a question of how urban development takes this up - and it doesn't necessarily have to result in empty, depressed cities."

Supported by the Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture with funds from the Lower Saxony Advance (Niedersächsisches Vorab) within the framework of the call for proposals "Digital Society".