Week 2 – Smart Cities and Digital Culture

For this week’s blogpost, I will explain how Arup’s the future of the future built environment – Data cities relates to specific concepts from Townsend’s (2013) ‘Smart Cities’ book and from Miller’s (2011) ‘Key Elements of Digital Culture’.

By 2050, United Nations projections indicate, the urban population will expand to nearly 6.5 billion. By 2100, global population could top 10 billion, and cities could be home to as many as 8 billion people.” (Anthony M. Townsend)

The initial preconceptions of this new world, digitalised and interconnected through a international network of people, seemed to indicate that we could allow even more  geographical and physical distance between us, as technology was bringing us together through online digital technologies. Why move to Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Nairobi or Kuala Lumpur if I can stay away from large cities and still be immersed in cultural and social networks through my laptop or mobile phone?

As Townsend notes, “It seems counterintuitive that the growth of cities and the spread of information technology are so strongly linked.” (Townsend, page 6). However, cities are growing fast, and some of them within countries taking technological leaps with regards to their own development. Providing even more shocking statistics of this urban exponential growth, we learnt that “in 2001, China’s announced plans to build twenty new cities each year through 2020, to accommodate an estimated 12 million migrants arriv­ing annually from rural areas.” (Townsend, page 2).

Clearly, digital media, technology and the internet have not made cities a thing of the past. Quite the opposite, we are moving towards a more urbanised world immersed in digital culture.

Arup’s video on the future of the digital built environment illustrates how these cities will look like, and in many case, are already visible in many major cities. Arup discusses how the digital is changing the way we move around in these growing cities. This is where the digital becomes tangible through smart parking and smart buildings, and reversely, the physical incorporates the digital, evidenced in how architecture is now being conceived. A building can no longer be limited to the traditional definition of housing. Architects must now start including digital strategies in early stages of their planning of projects, meaning they must work beyond their scope and areas of expertise, including other disciplines and stakeholders in their designs. The video describes smart or digital cities not only from the perspective of a user interacting with a screen but in actual outputs and outcomes that can improve people’s lives, if technology is steered in the right direction.

By reading both Anthony Townsend’s Smart Cities, and Vincent Miller’s Key Elements of Digital Culture, we can dig deeper into what the Arup team refers to when discussing how technology changes interactivity amongst people. Townsend analyses the nature and nuances of how people and things are interconnecting with each other in these growing metropolis. Miller’s work on understanding digital culture describes the “technical processes (which) refer to the technological building blocks of digital media, cultural forms (which) refer to the ways in which digital media objects are created, encountered and used, and immersive experience (which) refers to the environments that digital media can create.” (Miller, page 14) The concept of interactivity as described by Miller is also useful to understand the new interactions taking place in these digital cities illustrated by Arup. According to Miller, the best definition for interactivity is provided by Jensen (1998): ‘A measure of media’s potential ability to let the user exert an influence on the context and/or form of the mediated communication’ (Miller, page 16). Arup’s digital cities are governed by this interactivity as its citizens rely increasingly more on digital media to mediate and influence their relationship with the environment around them.

Townsend defines smart cities as “places where information technology is wielded to address problems old and new. In the past, buildings and infrastructure shunted the flow of people and goods in rigid, predetermined ways. But smart cities can 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. They opti­mize heating and cooling in buildings, balance the flow of electricity through the power grid, and keep transportation networks moving. Sometimes, these interventions on our behalf will go unnoticed by humans, behind the scenes within the wires and walls of the city. But at other times, they’ll get right in our face, to help us solve our shared problems by urging each of us to make choices for the greater good of all.” (Townsend, preface xii)

This relates to the statements made by the Arup team who talk about how in these growing cities people are using technology to make their lives easier. They give examples of how people need access to information to get to their destinations through other routes or other means of transport if required. Or the concept of smart parking that aims at reducing friction in people lives.

But where is this information coming from? How does this relate to the building blocks of digital media described by Miller? In Understanding Digital Media – Key Elements of Digital Culture, Miller reminds us of the importance of databases, and how they permeate our daily interactions with people and things, becoming almost ubiquitous. “We tend to associate databases with computerised record-keeping systems or cumbersome workplace spreadsheets, but in actuality the spread of databases into everyday life and digital culture is pervasive, despite going relatively unnoticed. Online travel maps are one example, but it is the case that every web site, every online service, and the very internet itself, is a database. This leads Manovich (2001) to suggest that databases are becoming a, if not the, dominant cultural form of our times, and that ‘almost every practical act involves choosing from some menu, catalogue, or database’ (Manovich, 2001: 128).” (Miller page 20-21)

In spite of the many wonders described by Arup with regards to smart cities, they do something even more interesting by closing with a question, or perhaps a warning. What are the outcomes we are looking to achieve with technology and with the arise of these digital cities? Or should we focus on technology for technology’s sake? A good question to ask, especially by a predominantly engineer-staffed organisation that aims to Shape a Better World.

Townsend also challenges technocratic hegemony when it comes to the development of our cities. He too warns communities and leaders not to relinquish their ownership and accountability.  “We need to take the wheel back from the engineers, and let people and communities decide where we should steer.” (Townsend)

He goes even further by describing smart cities as “places where information technology is combined with infrastructure, architecture, everyday objects, and even our bodies to address social, economic, and environmental problems.(…) We need to empower ourselves to build future cities organically, from the bottom up, and do it in time to save ourselves from climate change.” (Townsend)

Thanks to Miller, Townsend and the team at Arup, we are introduced to the topics of digital media and smart cities. After reading the material and watching the video, it seems to me that perhaps one of the themes or questions that should remain in my mind throughout this course is, beyond the wonders of modern technologies and the new and interesting ways we can live our lives and communicate with each other, what outcomes can humanity achieve through the rise of digital cities and what do those journeys look like in such a diverse world?



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

Miller, V. (2011) Understanding Digital Culture. In: Miller, V. Key Elements of Digital Media. Sage: pp 12-2

Arup, The future built environment, http://video.arup.com/?v=1_ti3l9h7q

Are cities to be answered?

Townsend (2013, p.xii) defines smart cities as ‘places where information technology is wielded to address problems old and new’. Outlining a technology industry perspective, he describes a vision of smart cities that compute away congestion, global warming and declining health through automated sensors, software, digital networks and remote controls. For Vanalo (2013), the term is problematic rather than problem solving, (although he acknowledges there may be utility in the smart city concept) he is concerned with the possible effects of smart city discourses on cities and the people who live in them. Firstly, Vanalo (2013, p.2) suggests that such discourses may distance urban government from politics, by the re-framing the ‘urban question’ in terms of the environment and technology. Such a move broadens the ‘field of action’ for technicians, consultants and private companies, which as Morozov (2014) points out, certainly raises questions about checks and balances. Secondly, Vanalo (2013, p.3) describes the potential for what he calls ‘urban governmentality’. Referencing Foucault’s governmentality concept, in which ‘subjects perceive themselves and form their identities through processes of government which control, incite or suppress actions by deeming what is acceptable and what is unacceptable’ put simply the ‘conduct of conduct’ (Vanalo, 2013, p.3). He applies this concept to cities in Italy bidding for  EU research funding, competing to meet ‘smart city’ benchmarks and boost their rankings; ‘Cities are made responsible for the achievement of smartness, i.e. adherence to a specific model of technologically advanced, green and economically attractive city, while ‘diverse’ cities, those following different development paths, are implicitly re-framed as smart-deviant.’ (Vanalo, 2013, p.7). This reading of the smart city may seem an overly pessimistic, especially when set against breathless visions of efficient, green, healthy smart cities of the future, but I think it is useful that Vanalo identifies a potential depoliticization of urban issues, interests served and also questions the type of subjects or cities that discourses around this urban imaginary produce.

Morozov, E., 2014. Open City: Democracy, Technology and the City. Available at: < http://www.cccb.org/en/video-debates_open_city_evgeny_morozov_vo_en-45467 > [Accessed 13 February 2014].

Townsend, A.M., 2013. Smart cities: big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Vanalo, A., 2013.  Smartmentality: The Smart City as Disciplinary Strategy. Urban Studies. [eJournal] 1(16). Available through: Sage Journals website http://usj.sagepub.com [Accessed 13 February 2014].