Week 2: Smart Cities & Digital Culture

For the purposes of this blog post, I will explain how concepts from Townsend’s 2013 ‘Smart Cities’, and Miller’s 2011 ‘Understanding Digital Culture’, relate to Future Catapult’s 2014 ‘Cities Unlocked: Realising the potential of people and places’ project.

The primary purpose of the Cities Unlocked project was to use an ambitious combination of smart city data and technology to provide social solutions to the challenges faced by people with sight loss. Creating more opportunities for more people people to safely, confidently and comfortably engage with their environment acknowledges not only Townsend’s prediction (pg.2) that up to 8 billion people could be living in cities by the end of this century, but that: “Smart cities need to … preserve opportunities for spontaneity, serendipity, and sociability,” (pg.16).

Townsend also states that: “smart cities must bee viewed holistically,” (pg.15) – and this is the exact approach that Future Cities Catapult took with their research (2014, pg.7); using a combination of existing mobile technologies, used and tested by the very people the research sought to benefit, in order to develop a headset which communicates with mobile applications and the environment to create a 3-D, augmented reality soundscape.

Although the development of the headset was the focal point of the research, fundamental to its success were the use of, and diversity of a range of decentralised, but networked devices (Miller, 2011, pg.15). These devices influenced choice, decision-making, and the design of future route-planning and associated technology that will be required to fully realise the project.

Subsequently, the headset was developed during by utilising the same symbiosis between cities and information that Townsend acknowledges has existed for thousands of years (2013, pg.4).

Looking at this process closely, we can even see Miller’s three major themes of digital media developing; the ‘technical processes’ are the building blocks of mobile technology and sensory communication required to make the project possible; the cultural forms are the way they are used in the environment by the test subjects with sight loss, and the immersive experience is the 3-D soundscape created to enhance their quality of life (2011, pg.14). The project also taps substantially into Miller’s second and third themes of ‘interactivity’; the sociological and psycho-socially orientated aspects of how this interactivity with digital media benefits the user (2011, pg.16). Future Cities Catapult even highlight that physical, emotional and even spiritual wellbeing are all aspects of life the project was created to improve (2014, pg.18). Along with the ‘holistic’ methods they used in undertaking the research, I find the acknowledgment of a more ethereal human trait – spiritual wellbeing – a pleasant surprise, when we’re essentially discussing the use of innovative digital technologies.

Townsend states that Smart Cities: “need to be open and participatory, but provide enough support for those who lack the resources to self-organize,” (2013, pg.16). Cities Unlocked is a project that gives partially-sighted people an invaluable resource to organise their lives on a larger scale, providing them with the opportunity to: “see, touch and feel [cities] in completely new ways,” (Townsend, 2013, pg.9).

489 Words


MADDEN, P., LEAMAN, R. & CORRIGAN, N. 2014. Cities Unlocked: Realising the potential of people & places. In: CATAPULT, F. C. (ed.). [online resource] accessed February 2018. Available at http://futurecities.catapult.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/CUReport_WEB.pdf
MILLER, V. 2011. Understanding Digital Culture. Key Elements of Digital Media. London: Sage.
TOWNSEND, A. 2013. Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

6 thoughts on “Week 2: Smart Cities & Digital Culture

  1. I liked your observation on how the spiritual well-being aspect of the project was a pleasant surprise for you. Hopefully, the more we go into this course, the more we will find how digital innovations are conceptualized and developed for the holistic well-being of humanity and not just for engineers looking to make a profit. An idea came up when reading your post that ties back to Miller again. He talks about how Benjamin said that photography and film brought a “democracy of culture, in that remarkable objects became more accessible” to the general public. The same seems to apply here in Cities Unlocked, where people with sight loss are brought closer to things, making them interact with the city where they live. Democracy, inclusion, diversity, all enhanced by technology.

  2. Hi Simon,

    It is insightful to read bout the Cities Unlocked project and it’s aim to help the visually impaired citizens engage with and feel like a part of the city. I recall Townsends’ discourse on the elements that make up a smart city, and the importance of citizens to participate in making up a city how they want; also from last week’s reading Shaw, J and Graham, M’s Our Digital Rights to the City which discusses citizens’ information rights to the city. I think that even for people living without disabilities, there seems to be a rather limited engagement with technology companies and government departments at the formulation stages of ‘smart living’ in cities. I wonder if this is because as city dwellers we have become too passive and only raise our voice when something fails to work? I think it is especially critical to involve people living with disabilities or normally excluded groups such as the elderly in developing tools and services that will make their lives in cities better.

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