Week 3: Smart Cities and Digital Culture

In exploring how processes of digitalisation, global connectivity and urbanisation are coming together, Townsend (2013) comments on the ways in which ‘automatic electromechanical labourers toil at dumb and dirty jobs once done by people’ (p.xi). However, as part of the fourth industrial revolution, the information revolution, it is evident that ‘lately, these dumb contraptions are getting a lot smarter’ (Townsend, 2013, p.xi). Within the modern world we live in today, a synergistic relationship exists between our physical, tangible space and geographical location, and the realm of computational code represented by 1s and 0s. As smart cities are designed to ease problems within congested spaces and make daily processes more efficient (Glover, 2019), this is a relationship which relies on the participation of citizens. Technologies rely upon our information to respond in the ways it is designed to, and no matter how unwittingly, this is data we provide through our activity online and through technological products.

The ‘symbiosis of place and cyberspace’ (Townsend, 2013, p.6) is highly apparent in the case study of Seoul, South Korea, where the redevelopment in the post-war era of 1950s enabled them to modernise and adapt responsively (Glover, 2019). As part of the podcast, Dr. Ellie Cosgrave examines the importance of adaptive, democratic and accountable methods used in order to accommodate individuals within spaces, questioning also how inequality is increased or decreased as a result (Glover, 2019). An impressive 6,000 data sets are available within Seoul, one of which analyses 3 billion phone calls to inform public transport access. This is a prime example of where databases become ‘pervasive’ (Miller, 2011) in digital and physical cultures. While privacy is questioned, the analysis of this data enables city planners and the relevant algorithms to identify the amount of people gathered within certain locales, and to measure the traffic in specific areas. Through this, planners can ensure public transport is effectively placed to ensure greater accessibility to all, thereby promoting social mobility and greener methods of transport. In utilising data in this way, we see that arguably, databases may just be ‘the dominant cultural form of our times’ (Manovich, 2001: 128 in Miller, 2011).

Furthermore, data surrounding public transport benefits users as apps enable consumers to understand when the next bus will leave, its route, and how many seats are available (Glover, 2011). We therefore see a ‘move to media as process‘ as the previously ‘static role viewer [transforms] to a role as active’ based on user participation (Miller, 2011, p.31) that contributes to information on these apps. Consequentially, a more immersive experience transfigures. While this is a convenient and efficient, notably, there is a disparity in relation to how the elderly access such technologies. Miller (2011) explores notions of telepresence, whereby our presence is not merely where we are physically, but our presence in an environment as dictated by communication mediums. For those unable to access the technologies needed to understand bus routes, seating numbers, and other insights afforded by data collection, a sense of isolation can develop as citizens’ lack of presence online negatively impacts their security and sense of person within the real world. Glover (2019) questions this within the podcast, and identifies that even if such marginalisation was addressed, newer technologies will continue to develop. Therefore, there is arguably always going to be a problem of accessibility, though this does not mean that progress offered by smart cities should not be realised.



Glover, F. (2019) ‘The Smart City: Seoul, South Korea, [The Compass], 10 April 2019. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3csz41r (Accessed: 21 February, 2023)

Townsend, A.M., (2013). Smart Cities, New York: W. W. Norton & Company

Miller, V. (2011) Understanding Digital Culture. In: Miller, V. Key Elements of Digital Media. Sage: pp 12-21

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