Week 3 – Data and the smart city (Miriam Harvey)

Mosco (2019, ch 2) identifies a number of perspectives and aspects of digital smart cities, including technology, citizens, space-time, computer and platform. I would like to start by looking at platforms, which Mosco explains as follows:

“Materially, platforms are defined spaces with starting points and directions to get from those points to others within the platform. […] Platforms are not limited to cyberspace. They can also occupy material spaces and the city is a likely candidate for the term because it occupies a defined space that provides a starting point (your home, your workplace, your hotel) and markers that take people wherever they need to go in the city. […] It suggests that the city is not just a thing but is also a process” (p35).

Mosco’s description above implies that getting for one point to another is the key activity, but this should be interpreted more broadly and he continues with an introduction to the concept of the city as a service. He quotes Woods (2018) on this topic:

“The idea of the smart city platform encompasses both the technical aspects of the platform concept and an emerging vision of the city as a service, enabling an innovative ecosystem of urban service providers from a diversity of industries.”

I will explore this idea of the smart city platform and the city as a service, plus I will add later Mosco’s perspective of space-time, using my case study. The case study I have chosen is a platform in cyberspace utilising physical spaces in cities, with a peer to peer model that appears to by-pass government controls. My case study is Airbnb, which describes itself as an “economic empowerment engine [helping] millions of hospitality entrepreneurs monetize their spaces and their passions while keeping the financial benefits of tourism in their own communities” (Airbnb, n.d.)

In a Wired article, Temperton (2020) exposed a scam on Airbnb operating in London. The scam includes thousands of fake reviews, which consumers have to rely on to know whether to trust the Airbnb ‘hosts’. These reviews were for properties built with planning permission specifically for residential units (not short-term rentals). Temperton also shows how powerless or unwilling the government authorities were to enforce regulations that should have protected the interests of the local residents, who needed homes and not an Airbnb de facto hotel.

Temperton explains the challenges faced by regulators who do not have the data they need to do their job, quoting an unnamed academic as saying  “It’s the data that you need to govern the city, to regulate, to do urban planning. And Airbnb refuses to give this data, which makes it impossible for policymakers to effectively measure and monitor the phenomenon, let alone regulate it.” The data they need is a register of short-term rentals, to be able to protect the availability of residential housing stock.

Authorities need Airbnb to give them the data, as opposed to them collecting it themselves, because Airbnb has blurred the visible line between residential and commercial properties. They have successfully used another one of the smart city aspects identified by Mosco (2019:32-33), which is “the vision of smart cities as ‘space-time’ machines [where] Smart city technologies increase the elasticity and hence the value of space and time”. This elasticity is blurring boundaries, but a website that is trying to provide a clearer picture is Inside Airbnb (see screenshot).

screenshot of Airbnb data in LondonScreenshot from Inside Airbnb which “analyzi[es] publicly available information about a city’s Airbnb’s listings, […] so you can see how Airbnb is being used to compete with the residential housing market”. (Inside Airbnb, n.d.)

I conclude by asking what the biggest challenge would be if a government did try to regulate and control Airbnb.  Morozov and Bria (2018:17) argue that Airbnb has “immense power to mobilize users via their own apps and emails [which] means they can rally support against regulation relatively quickly.” They also claim that Airbnb is “organizing its fans into a worldwide movement with an explicit political agenda”. This sounds extreme, but there clearly is a power struggle between governments, big technology companies and the citizens when their interests are not aligned.



Airbnb (n.d.) About us. Available from https://news.airbnb.com/about-us/

Inside Airbnb (n.d.) About Inside Airbnb. Available from http://insideairbnb.com/about.html

Morozov, E. and Bria, F. (2018) RETHINKING THE SMART CITY Democratizing Urban Technology. Available from https://onlineopen.org/media/article/583/open_essay_2018_morozov_rethinking.pdf

Mosco, V. (2019) The Smart City in a Digital World. Emerald Publishing Limited. doi: 10.1108/9781787691353.

Temperton, J. (2020). ‘I stumbled across a huge Airbnb scam that’s taking over London’. Wired. 11 February. Available from https://www.wired.co.uk/article/airbnb-scam-london

Woods, E. (2018) cited in Mosco, V. (2019) The Smart City in a Digital World. Emerald Publishing Limited. doi: 10.1108/9781787691353. pp 35-36


3 thoughts on “Week 3 – Data and the smart city (Miriam Harvey)

  1. Hi Miriam,

    Fascinating post. I’ll admit to a bias: I don’t like Airbnb and will refuse to use it, even when going on holiday, even if that means paying more money. Hope you understand!

    There is a power struggle between government, big tech companies and citizens, as illustrated by your examples by Temperton (2020) and Inside Airbnb.
    Airbnb is emblematic of neo-liberal politics, of personal choice, prioritization of market principles and lack of regulation. I believe that the government will be able to do little to regulate Airbnb beyond what already exists on the platform (which is constantly flouted, claims Inside Airbnb) unless they were to do something along the lines of what the City of London has done to Uber (Topham, 2019) the results of which are still to be determined. As tourists, renters, homeowners, and citizens, we can reduce the power of Airbnb by simply not using it. We can only hope that, with Airbnb making less money, fewer people will use it as a source of income above long-term rents. What do you think? Could it ever be regulated? What would that look like?

    Moving on to Mosco’s aspects, the concept of ‘space-time’ being manipulated by smart cities is interesting: “turning cities into always-on, hyper-mobile places” (2019: 33) changes the way we experience the urban environment, and that includes finding places to stay on holiday. Mosco claims that “smart cities can turn urban areas into densely interconnected, inter-operable, resilient and sustainable systems” by overcoming space and time. (2019: 33) Do you think that Airbnb represents a resilient and sustainable system? Or, like Mosco, are you concerned that this power is being used to give priority to commodification and commercialisation? Is this a sustainable way of operating a city?

    Would love to know your thoughts. Your post really got me thinking!!

    Mosco, V. 2019. ‘How to Think about Smart Cities’ The Smart City in a Digital World Bingley, Emerald Publishing.

    Topham, G. 2019. ‘Uber loses London licence after TfL finds drivers faked identity’ The Guardian Online, 25th November 2019. accessed 20/02/2020

    • Hi Meg, thank you for your thoughts and questions. I think Airbnb should be regulated, but governments should develop a new approach to regulation to manage new, disruptive business models.

      Here’s my proposal. I think all short, medium and long term rentals should require a license, and platforms such as Airbnb should be legally accountable if it is party to a financial transaction involving an unlicensed rental. A condition of the license should include data collected by individuals, companies and platforms to be shared with national and local governments. Data would be the new form of tax payment. As Maria Sourbati says in her Week 3 lecture, the “flows of information” are critical for smart cities, and city governments need to gather information to plan housing and transportation.

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