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Author: Alberto Valz Gris, PhD candidate in Urban and Regional Development, Politecnico di Torino.

Supply chains have been remodelling the Earth’s surface across human history, generating a diverse and layered mesh of infrastructural and communication networks, exchange nodes and spaces of resource extraction and accumulation. They challenge us to think and know processes of urbanisation well beyond the well-established city scale. They trail along lines of urban metabolism, connecting densely built and populated spaces with the myriad of other environments, and sustaining their survival and growth. This relationship of production between differently urbanised global landscapes becomes especially relevant at a time when the increasing diffusion of labour automation technologies promises to heavily accelerate it. In addition, supply chains invite us to comprehend an urban world beyond binary oppositions too (e.g. local/global, natural/artificial, capitalist/anti-capitalist), and to join bigness with heterogeneity (Tsing, 2009) by juxtaposing multiple landscapes in an uneven planetary urban setting.

Given their intricate nature, researching global supply chains from the ground seems feasible by ‘following things’ (Cook et. al., 2004). And lithium-ion batteries promise to drive this inquiry onto challenging grounds. Firstly, they are a ubiquitous commodity: each one of us carries at least one or two throughout most of the day. They power our smartphones, laptops, watches and all sorts of portable devices. Moreover, they are an increasingly central commodity in supporting the wide-scale energy restructuring towards a carbon-free economy by powering electric vehicles and providing storage of renewable energies and electric grid backup. The increasing demand for battery packs (and storage capacity within these battery packs) has had significant effects throughout various sections of the li-ion supply chain: rising lithium prices, socio-environmental conflicts, territorial and geopolitical disputes, the emergence of new production models, and significant flows of capital. Li-ion batteries seem to guide us across a highly variegated set of urban formations—increasingly urbanised deserts, increasingly automated shipping ports, large-scale industrial compounds, and newly established smart urban clusters.

In the following weeks, an exploration of the first section of this global supply chain will be done, focusing on the socio-technical assemblages characterising lithium-rich landscapes in the Chilean and Argentinian northern provinces. Working ethnographically and relationally, the goal is to disentangle the more-than-human assemblages in which workers, minerals, endangered species, and machines constitute this stretch of economic activity and make urban space through their encounter.

Cook, I. (2004). Follow the thing: Papaya. Antipode, 36(4), 642-664.
Tsing, A. (2009). Supply chains and the human condition. Rethinking Marxism, 21(2), 148-176.


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