Week 3 – Critical Perspectives on Data and the Smart City

For me, the headline of the BBC article encapsulates the general mood of excitement-verging-on-anxiety currently surrounding both the conceptual and physical nature of Smart Cities. There exists an ambivalence towards their current value as opportunities for new freedoms, communities and chances for a sustainable future:

“Tomorrow’s cities: Just how smart is Songdo?” (Williamson, 2013) sums it up; a statement, backed up by the technology that created it, followed by a hesitancy to commit fully to its promise (the word ‘but’, right in the middle of the two, would fit well).

As Sadowski and Pasquale state: “Calculating the costs and benefits of the innovation is a Sisyphean, and deeply ideological task,” (2015, pg.2). The mood is the same throughout many similar case studies on Smart Cities and Smart City Technology. From the likes of the aforementioned researchers, even: “experts are divided on whether it will spell doom or salvation for the environment,” (Lewis, 2016), and citizens who have had a tangible glimpse of the modern smart city still feel the same. After visiting a Singaporean Smart City, Wired journalist Sara Watson concluded: “the model is compelling in theory, on the ground the reality is not seamless,” (2017).

The purpose of Watson’s case study was to see if the anxiety of Brexit Britain might be assuaged by the promise of the Smart-City future – could one unconnected island nation thrive as an interconnected hub? The comparison is intriguing. Sadowski and Pasquale see cities “getting smart” as solutions for austerity, urban system management, and generating a new flow of capital; the motivations of doing so being of a political economic nature (2015, pg.3), much like Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

Funnily enough, it is the very sort of empowerment that many Brexit voters believe(d) they would be rewarded with that may be essential for the skepticism surround Smart Cities to disappear. Shaw and Graham write in depth about Henri Lefebre’s ‘right to the city’ philosophy; “a powerful conceptual weapon for the collective good – it can represent the right to change ourselves by changing the city,” (2017, pg.5). They discuss an ‘informational right’ to such cities; a movement that demands transparency about the technologies of Smart Cities and the massive amounts of data they collects from their citizens: “a rallying call for snatching back power from the political and technical elites who reconfigure the city as a platform for corporate smartness,” (pg.11).

So, while new communities can certainly be built, connected, and the potential for empowerment exists, these cities still have to be built by someone, or some-bodies: “These new cities, like Eko Atlantic in Lagos in Nigeria and Waterfall City (South Africa), bring a new model where urban governance is shared between the private and public sector,” says Mira Slavov (cited in Giles, 2018), from the London School of Economics (the potential sharing also between ’empowered’ citizens exempt from her statement). Slavov was referring specifically to African Smart Cities, including Vision City, where the average price of a property is beyond the majority of the country. And if empowerment is still only available only to those who can afford it, then surely it doesn’t exist (?).

Confusion certainly does exist, however, over the sustainability of Smart City Technology. Lewis (2016) writes about two ends to the eco-friendly spectrum; low-power, low-data transmitting devices existing side-by-side with energy-hungry, data-gobbling surveillance systems – ironically gathering the very information that feeds into the monetary industries that fund the cities’ growth (Shaw & Graham, pg.8).

It seems clear that as Smart Cities develop, the belief in their development is itself a work in progress. Simultaneously interpreted as ‘Tomorrow’s Cities’, while being quizzed on their real capabilities and underlying intentions, the potential of freedom, community and sustainability remains open. As Charles Taylor states (in Sadowski and Pasquale, pg.10); “interpretation ‘is an attempt to make clear, to make sense of an object of study’ that is in ‘some way confused, incomplete, cloudy, seeming contradictory – in one way or another, unclear’.”

This is where we appear to be with Smart Cities. They may be for ‘tomorrow’, but they have not truly been accepted, yet, today.


Giles, C., (2018). African ‘smart cities:’ A high-tech solution to overpopulated megacities?. CNN. [online resource, accessed Feb 2018]. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/12/africa/africa-new-smart-cities/index.html

Lewis, D., (2016). Will the internet of things sacrifice or save the environment?. Guardian. [online resource, accessed Feb 2018]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/dec/12/will-the-internet-of-things-sacrifice-or-save-the-environment

Sadowksi, Pasquale, (2015). The spectrum of control: A social theory of the smart city. First Monday: 20: 7: 6.

Shaw, J., Graham, M., (2017). Our Digital Rights to the City. Meatspace Press.

Watson, S., (2017). What the UK can learn from Singapore’s smart city. Wired. [online resource, accessed Feb 2018]. Available at: http://www.wired.co.uk/article/sara-watson-singapore-smart-cities

Williamson, L., (2013). Tomorrow’s cities: Just how smart is Songdo? BBC. [online resource, accessed Feb 2018]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-23757738


One thought on “Week 3 – Critical Perspectives on Data and the Smart City

  1. Thanks for your thought provoking comments Simon! I expected a lot more enthusiasm about smart cities from the journalistic pieces and even from the citizens living in Songdo, for example. However it seems that while the politico-economic aims may be achieved to some extent, to make the cities truly sustainable and thriving, communities need to be present, engaged and participating. I am also glad to read your review of the African smart cities article by Giles C. I am very interested and hope to explore further what the concept of ‘tomorrow cities’ mean for cities that are still grappling with providing basic services to residents, dealing with huge populations living in slums; and still building up basic infrastructure.

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