Week 2: Smart Cities and Digital Culture

When discussing ‘Smart Cities’ there are many examples that can be used, applying Miller (2011) and Manovich (2001) means that these examples can be analysed from multiple angles.

The first case study is that of the Barcelona residents who used smart technology to measure the noise of the nightlife outside their homes which was preventing them from sleeping. They took the information to the council and proved that the noise levels were affecting their health. The council then made changes based on this data and the residents’ lives have noticeably improved. Manovich’s theories have been expanded in many directions and Miller has divided them into three more categories: technical processes, cultural forms, and immersive experiences. (2011: 14) In this case study the ‘partygoers’ were interacting with smart technologies, the sound recorders/measuring equipment unknowingly which contributed to the dataset which brought and end to their nightlife.

“Interactivity” is embedded in the structure of technology (Miller, 2011: 16) however the forms in which Miller and Manovich describe is different to this example: the context of the interactivity in this case was surveillance, which in itself meant that citizens are interacting with the technologies unknowingly. This is indicative of how many people interact with ‘smart’ technologies daily.

The second example was a smart meter that Thames Water launched to help people measure and reduce their water consumption. In advance of this launch a select group of people from certain London boroughs were given free water-saving devices to save money, alongside house visits and interviews to see how they engaged with the devices. The results showed three types of reaction: engagement, resistance, and indifference.

The use of the “database” is prevalent throughout this example. Databases are vast collections of information which create meaning when layered with other datasets. (Miller, 2011: 20) The use of database is so common in our technological interactions that Miller argues that it is “becoming a cultural form in of itself” (2011: 21). Firstly, there was information about household water usage and location. It was then layered over learnings and assumptions of social and cultural norms to create narratives around people’s water usage.

Interestingly resistance to the house visits and water saving tips came from marginalised people who had insecure living arrangements. Indifference came mostly from the richest people in the area who did not feel the need to save money on water. Many respondents felt that water consumption was a private matter and they were unwilling to share data or discuss the topic. This shows that data driven technologies based on self-reporting is still influenced by cultural norms outside of technology and stereotypes surrounding individual consumption.

These two examples demonstrate that in some areas of society there is still space needed to allow for cultural norms rather than just straightforward data collection. Also, in the Barcelona example, it shows that much of the data collected on us is done so covertly as we are interacting with devices every day unknowingly.


Miller, V. (2011) ‘Understanding Digital Culture’ Key Elements of Digital Media London, Sage publications. pp 12-21.

Taylor, L. (2018) ‘Smart Cities’ Thinking Allowed podcast 25th July 2018. BBC Sounds accessed 10/02/2020: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b0bbr3zn



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.


Week 1 – introduction (Miriam Harvey)


I’m a distance learning student, studying this MA very slowly over a period of three to four years (one course per semester). I work full time in Berkshire utilising my digital skills in different roles, adapting my skills to changing digital requirements in the workplace.

Beyond the day job, I am interested in digital culture from a number of perspectives including its impact on an ageing population. About ten years ago my mother-in-law fell in her sheltered home. It took her an hour to crawl across the room to pull a cord that alerted a call centre, who were then able to use a speaker system to talk to her while calling me and an ambulance. Obviously, I saw a lot wrong in that system. More recently my mother used her Apple Watch to call for help when she needed an ambulance. Without any delays, this was a clear improvement on my mother-in-law’s experience a decade ago.

I was pleased to find an example of smart city technology in one of this week’s list of readings and weblinks that I know would be helpful to older members of my family, which was Internet of Things (IoT) sensors on traffic lights to detect if someone needs more time to cross a road (Bates, 2019). However, from personal experience, I am becoming increasingly aware of an over optimistic trust in technology to keep people safe and healthy. I expect I’ll be writing more about that in the coming weeks.




Bates, D. (2019). ‘How Smart Cities Can Make Seniors Independent?’ in Smart Cities Library (source Tantiv4 15 October 2019). Available from: https://www.smartcitieslibrary.com/how-smart-cities-can-make-seniors-independent/

Week 1 – Introduction to the module

Hi all,

For those who I have not yet met, my name is Meg and I am currently studying the MA part-time from Brighton. Previously I was working for an advertising agency in London specialising in TV, radio, cinema and outdoor media buying.

This is what led me to the Digital Cities module; part of selling outdoor media spaces to clients in an increasingly mobile and digitally-driven environment, is the development of ‘smart’ enabled physical locations. Encouraging individuals to connect and interact with physical spaces, and therefore advertisers, was always a strong pull for many clients. However, the end goal was always engagement with brands and, consequently, sales.

I am interested in learning more about how physical spaces are utilised for the purposes of social engagement as opposed to profit, how charities and other NGOs are using increasingly physical environments that can be accessed digitally to promote their social work and encourage citizens to engage with it.

I am also interested in how public transport utilises digital technologies to make information more accessible and people more informed of their services, and how this can change and shape commuters’ everyday experiences.

I look forward to having great discussions and working with you all.


Thank you