Week 2 – Smart Cities and Digital Culture (Miriam Harvey)

Two smart city aspects discussed in the BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed Smart cities podcast (Taylor, 2018) were the responsiveness of smart cities to humans, and the role of humans in shaping smart cities.

Townsend (2013) argues that the growth of urbanization, which has seen an increased concentration of people in cities, combined with the growth of ubiquitous wirelessly networked sensing and communicating technology, has created an opportunity for dynamic smart cities that can respond and adapt to humans. His vision of smart cities has a new layer of infrastructure that “invisibly […] reacts to us” as they “adapt on the fly, by pulling readings from vast arrays of sensors, feeding that data into software that can see the big picture, and taking action” (Townsend, 2013: xiii).

These sensors and software are part of the digital aspect of smart cities. This digital, smart aspect can be understood using’s Miller’s (2011) analysis of new digital media. He identifies interactivity as a new element not found in old broadcast media. Interactivity is described as “the responsiveness of a media object or piece of information to the preferences, needs or activities of the user” (p16), which is the same responsiveness seen in Townsend’s description of smart cities.

The responsiveness of smart cities is discussed in Taylor’s (2018) podcast, where Taylor introduces the smart city discussion by playing a clip from an IBM technology video animation entitled ‘Living in the city’ [3:15 minutes in]. It describes how (non-smart) cities “require us to live on their terms, but in five years the tables will turn with cities adapting to our terms.” The IBM clip continues with an explanation that is nearly identical to Townsend’s: “Systems will connect billions of events in real time, to anticipate movement and react to human preferences, patterns and demand. […] As we speak to our cities, they will listen”.

The second smart city aspect is the role of the humans as part of an assemblage of citizens and technology in a smart city. Townsend writes about the power people have to shape their experiences in a smart city, and how important that is in order to combat big tech companies and government’s focus on efficient, centrally controlled dehumanized infrastructure. In the BBC podcast, Oliver Zanetti challenges the idea put forward by Taylor that smart cities need ‘smart citizens’ to use its smart technology and instead introduces “activist citizens” [8:20 minutes in] which he defines as “not just a person who buys something, a person who moves around in the ways you’re instructed to do by the world at large. You’re actually someone who’s intervening in the way something works, making it work differently”.

Taylor introduces an example which illustrates the points made by Townsend and Zanetti about the democratisation of smart cities, where people can use technology for their benefit. Taylor plays a clip from a BBC news bulletin, Intune 2018 [8:51 minutes in] reporting on how Barcelona residents took action on noise levels using low cost sensors that can measure noise.

“By putting sensors by windows and on balconies the families were able to prove the noise levels at night were […] far higher that the World Health Organisation’s recommendations. Armed with their data, the residents went to the council who agreed to make some changes.”

Miller (2011:12) quotes Poster who saw the new interactive ‘internet model’, the digital culture, as having “a more active and critical subject”. The Barcelona example above fits this description very well, where smart city tools are not only available but are used in a critical manner by ‘activist citizens’ who are no longer passive and accepting of their environment and the information broadcast to them, and furthermore they now expect to be heard.



Miller, V. (2011) Understanding Digital Culture. In: Miller, V. Key Elements of Digital Media. Sage. pp 12-21.

Taylor, L. (2018). ‘Smart Cities’ in Thinking Allowed podcast (released 25/7/2018). BBC Sounds. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b0bbr3zn

Townsend, A.M., 2013. Smart Cities, New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp xi-18.


1 thought on “Week 2 – Smart Cities and Digital Culture (Miriam Harvey)

  1. Hi Miriam,
    I really enjoyed reading this post. It is very insightful, and you cleverly use the case studies to categorise ‘smart city’ technology by two clear characteristics: the responsiveness of smart cities to humans, and, the role of humans in shaping smart cities.
    How ‘responsive’ smart cities are, as you point out, dictated by the ability of the technology to “adapt on the fly” to the needs and desires of humans giving it data. (Townsend, 2013: xiii) This is achieved mostly by machine learning technologies which can predict and cater to different situations based on historic data and up-to-date information provided as people use devices on the go. I’d really be interested to find out if you think there are shortcomings to the methods of machine learning and the harvesting of ‘big data’ for these purposes – possibly the implications of the technology (and therefore data) being owned by private companies as opposed to public ownership?
    Some of these debates can be addressed using the second characteristic; the role of humans in shaping smart cities and what Zanetti described as “activist citizens” as opposed to passive consumers. Townsend also touched on “civic hackers”, and how smart technology, becoming increasingly less expensive and more accessible, has become ‘hi-jacked’ by individuals rather than just ‘applied’ to our lives by corporations.
    Would love to hear your thoughts and look forward to reading your post next week

    Townsend, A. 2013. Smart Cities. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, pp xi-18

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