Digital Cities Digital Future

“The city is its people” (Hill, in Hemment & Townsend, 2013, p.88). But without the engagement of the people, citizens are in danger of becoming simply consumers of technology implemented by governments and corporations – building on and consolidating existing power structures following a neo-liberal ideology.

In 2007 the world’s population changed from rural to urban; the majority of people are now living in cities and this is a trend that is set to continue (Elliot, A. & Urry, J. 2010, p138). Alongside this are the extraordinary developments in technology – unimaginable a few decades ago – and the majority of the world’s citizens live not just in a city, but a digital city. While this growing urban population raises issues of sustainability, it could be that the solution is just waiting to be discovered within these digital cities.

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We are living in an urban world

In the concluding chapter of Mobile Lives most of the possible outcomes for the future of the city are bleak, however, a more optimistic outlook develops around smart technology, using sensors and monitoring (although this raises privacy questions) to facilitate low-carbon, sustainable lifestyles. (Elliot, A & Urry, J  2010,  Pg 147-48).


Sensors and monitoring could facilitate sustainability

And 3D printing, while at first seeming only to allow for the creation of more stuff, actually offers the opportunity for greater sustainability – there is a reason why designers and manufacturers are sharing the same anxieties as the entertainment industry a decade ago. Hacktivist Raul Krauthausen’s 3D printing of a wheelchair access ramp is an example of social production – using Creative Commons Licensing to share files.

3D printed wheelchair ramp

3D printed wheelchair ramp

When presented with such bleakly different futures from the world we live in now, there is a danger of becoming weighed-down with pessimism and not appreciate the amazing opportunities our digital cities offer us now. We don’t know what the future holds and maybe initiatives such as iSPEX, which allow individuals to monitor their own personal and individual damage to the atmosphere, or playful, interactive games such as Play the City that changes the familiar cityscape to one of active exploring, discovery and learning will allow us to create a future we’ve not even imagined.


Elliot, A & Urry, J. (2010) Mobile Lives, pp138. Routledge.

Hemment, D. & Townsend, A. (2013). Smart Citizens: FutureEverything [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 May 2016].

iSPEX (2012). Measure Aerosols With Your Smartphone. Available at: [Accessed 14 May 2016].

Krauthausen, R. (2013). Available at: / [Accessed 14 May 2016].

Play the City (2016) Available at: [Accessed: 14 May 2016].

Unicef. (2012). An Urban World. Available at: [accessed 1 May 2016].

Goods ‘On-Demand’

The easiest way to understand 3D printing – a printer that follows a computer’s instructions to layer raw materials thereby creating a three-dimensional object – is to think of it as a manufacturing rather than printing process. This is an additive process that allows the creation of complex designs that are impossible with traditional processes and while the technology is in its early stages, the possibilities seem almost limitless (Lipson, H. & Kurman, M. 2013 p65).

The prospect of being able to mix materials brings with it the possibility of creating something with properties outside the range of the base materials; even properties that don’t exist in nature creating what is known as an auxetic material. (Lipson, H. & Kurman, M. 2013 p266-268).

The creation of materials that don’t exist in nature is just one of the possibilities offered by 3D printing; it also enables the creation of shapes and structures that only exist in nature, leading to exciting projects such as architect Enrico Dini who, through printing a house in stone wants “to manufacture something with a behaviour we don’t have” (The Man Who Prints Houses 2011).


The Man Who Prints Houses

It is only through experimenting and projects such as Dini’s that the fullest potential of 3D printing can be realised. However, this is where innovation and economics clash with manufacturers of 3D printers providing their own proprietary materials and experimenting with anything else invalidating the warranty (Lipson, H. & Kurman, M. 2013 p82).

The alternative is for researchers to create their own 3D printers, such as the University of Bath’s “self- replicating rapid prototyper” or RepRap, a printer that can reproduce most of its own parts as well as goods that may lead to the emergence of home manufacturing (Söderberg, J. & Daoud, A. 2012 p66).


The University of Bath’s RepRap 3D printer

But this then leads to a conflict with intellectual property law, much as in the 90s and the advent of files-sharing music and films, there are already the first signs of designers and manufacturers lobbying for legal protection to impose restrictions on 3D printing. (Söderberg, J. & Daoud, A. 2012 p74).


Lipson, H. & Kurman, M. (2013). Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing, p65, p82 and pp 266-268. John Wiley.

RepRap. University of Bath. Available at: [accessed 8 May 2016].

Söderberg, J. & Daoud, A. (2012). Atoms Want to Be Free Too! Expanding the Critique of Intellectual Property to Physical Goods, p66 and p74. Triple-C 10 (1).

The Man Who Prints Houses. (2011). Directed by Jack Wake-Walker & Marc Webb. [Film Trailer]. Available at: [accessed 8 May 2016].

Can Technology Save Us?

That our carbon-based economy and the rate at which we squander the earth’s resources are unsustainable has been accepted by all but the most strenuous climate change deniers. With more countries wanting to buy into the ‘American Dream’ of rampant consumerism and unfettered mobility the rate of consumption of the world’s resources and subsequent release of pollution and greenhouse gases has nowhere near peaked, although the oil that supplies this demand may well have. The question is when and this will end, with several scenarios for a non-mobile, non-consumerist future (Elliot, A. & Urry, J. 2010, pp131-154).

America: The Best Country in the World at Being Last

America: The Best Country in the World at Being Last

May 23 2007 was transition day, the day that the world’s urban population overtook its rural. With an increasing percentage of people living in cities the city has a major role to play in providing a sustainable future (Elliot, A. & Urry, J. 2010, p138). How this can be done is one of the points raised by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Agenda (2011) that looks at how cities can thrive while reducing poverty and pollution and improving the use of resources.

Unicef's Urban World

The Urban World in 2010

Of the possible future scenarios suggested by Elliot and Urry (2010), one of the least apocalyptic is the digital network – a system of electronic regulators or sensors that allow technology to work out the least resource intensive and most efficient way of doing tasks. While this system would ensure the best use is made of scarce resources, it is one of constant and all-pervasive monitoring with objects, transport, people and carbon emissions constantly watched, compared and actioned for the optimum result.

The digital network may be a long way off, but local initiatives are appearing. The HackAIR collective provides a platform for apps to monitor air pollution. Mapping for Change’s Citizen Science monitors air quality across 30 locations in London. Data relating to air quality and pollution is collected and mapped raising awareness of problems for citizens to lobby policy-makers and engage in the democratic process. It is, perhaps, one of many foundation stones of a new society that uses technology to promote sustainability.

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Science in the City, Monitoring Air Quality in the Barbican



Elliot, A & Urry, J. (2010) Mobile Lives, pp131-154. Routledge.

Clean Air in London. (2016). Available at: [accessed 1 May 2016].

HackAIR. (2016). Available at: [accessed 1 May 2016].

Mapping for Change (2016). Available at: [accessed 1 May 2016].

Science in the City, Monitoring Air Quality in the Barbican. (2015). Available at: [accessed 1 May 2016].

Speth J.G. (2012) America: The Best Country in the World at Being Last – How Can We Change That? Available at:–_how_can_we_change_that [accessed 1 May 2016].

Unicef. (2012). An Urban World. Available at: [accessed 1 May 2016].

United Nations (2011). What is Sustainability? Available at: [accessed 1 May 2016].

From Netizens to Cityzens

Until recently much of the debate as to what makes a smart city, and the technology and innovation to reach that goal, has been driven by governments and corporate technology companies. However, there is a growing realisation that this ‘top-down’ approach leads to proprietary systems that often overlook the most important element of the city – the citizen. It is only by bringing individuals, communities and businesses into the debate that innovative, bespoke solutions can be designed through local innovation that can be replicated, leading to global collaboration (Hemment, D. & Townsend, A. 2013 pp1-3).

Open4Citizens (2016) is a Collective Awareness Platform (CAPS) project that puts the citizen at the centre of new technology, in this case access to data. Its aim is to give all citizens the means to benefit from the huge amount of data generated by cities, described as “open air data factories”.


An example of data generated by a city, in this case Manchester

By creating a platform for citizens to collaborate Open4Citizens will harness this resource, raising awareness of its availability, how to access it and how to use it. Most importantly they want to create a circle whereby data collected within a smart city is used where it is most important – for improving the lives of the citizens that generate it, thus allowing citizens to play a pivotal role in creating the city of the future through an innovative, collaborative ‘bottom-up approach’ that responds to their needs (Hemment, D. & Townsend, A. 2013 pp1-3).

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How Open4Citizens plan to engage people with their city through data

Government does have a role to play in this process by providing the infrastructure to allow access and ensuring it’s accessible and usable to everyone and not just those with coding skills (Maltby, P. 2013 pp57-61). But access and usability on their own are not enough and governments need to set aside their risk-aversion, self-interest and bureaucracy to allow innovations to flourish; good projects that have come out of community initiatives and hackathons are often failed to be adopted and a change in political approach is needed to remove barriers to innovation and truly involve the citizen (Madriz, M. 2013 pp67-70).


Hemment, D. & Townsend, A. Ed. (2013) Smart Citizens, pp1-3. Future Everything Publications. Available at: [accessed 23 April 2016].

Madriz, M. (2013). Hemment, D & Townsend, A. Ed. Smart Citizens, pp67-70. Future Everything Publications. Available at: [accessed 23 April 2016].

Maltby, P. (2013). Hemment, D & Townsend, A. Ed. Smart Citizens, pp57-61. Future Everything Publications. Available at: [accessed 23 April 2016].

Open4Citizens (2016). Available at: [accessed 23 April 2016].

Collective Awareness Platform (2016). 22 New CAPS Projects in Horizon 2020. Available at: [accessed 23 April 2016].


Familiar Places New Spaces

The ubiquity of mobile devices has allowed digital technology to enter the physical, urban space through a process known as augmented, or mediated reality. This has opened new possibilities for exploring both physical and digital spaces, and has been particularly influential in the world of gaming, with online players using city streets as their game board (De Souza e Silva, A & Sutko D. M. 2009 p1).

Mobile apps allow users to experience a place through multiple cartographies with the geographical space overlaid with technological, emotional and social layers allowing users to experience space in new ways (Hjorth, L. 2011 p357).

When this technology is used for location-based games it offers ways of exploring an urban environment that has drawn parallels with Baudelaire’s flâneur and the dérive of Situationist Internationalism of previous centuries, and with practitioners of parkour today (De Souza e Silva, A & Sutko D. M. 2009 p7). Blast Theory’s Uncle Roy All Around You (2003) is an early example of a game that is played out on the city’s streets by combining a physical and digital presence.


The digital and physical aspects of Uncle Roy All Around You

Urban mobile gaming also allows players to challenge accepted conventions; the South Korean DotPlay project involved workshops and community collaboration to use hacktivist and subversive techniques – reminiscent of that of the dérive – to produce a ‘politically correct and culturally free service’. (Hjorth, L. 2011 p365).

The location-based app CitySneak (BoomBox Games, 2005) challenged players to navigate an urban space while avoiding CCTV cameras. Players were given the location of cameras to be avoided and alerted on their mobile if they strayed into view – the aim was to follow ‘path of least surveillance’ (Brincken, J. Von & Konietzny , H. Ed. 2012).

As well as the playful element, CitySneak asked players to question issues of surveillance by making them aware of something that is usually hidden (De Souza e Silva, A & Sutko D. M. 2009 p209). Both DotPlay and City Sneak show how gaming can be used to provide a critique of power relationships and social control, raising the possibility of a new power-dynamic described by Deleuze (1992) as ‘The Societies of Control’ and a move away from the centralised panoptican to an all-pervading network of control.


Blast Theory. (2003). Uncle Roy All Around You. Available at: [accessed 17 April 2016].

Brincken, J. Von & Konietzny , H. Ed. (2012) Emotional Gaming, p253. Epodium

De Souza e Silva, A & Sutko D. M. (2009). Digital Cityscapes: Merging Digital and Urban Playscapes, pp1,7 and 209. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Deleuze, G. (1992) Societies of Control. Available at: [accessed 17 April 2016].

Tracing the Tunnels

Beneath Newhaven Fort and stretching into the surrounding area is a network of tunnels known as HMS Forward. During the Second World this was a Royal Navy Intelligence Centre. Many of these tunnels are now derelict and inaccessible, but still hold an interest (as underground and hidden things tend to do).

The proposed app will trace overground, this underground network using a series of ‘spots’ to tell the user what lies beneath their feet and so see their surroundings in a different way, as, according to Farman: “The meaning in of a story is affected by the place in which the story is told and, similarly, the meaning of a place tends to be told through stories” (2014, p6).

The user would be guided by the sounds of what once happened beneath their feet – typing, the tuning of radio frequencies, the voices of children exploring, ghosts stories and even a film crew – with the sounds getting louder, guiding the user to the spot.

Once the user is standing on the ground above a part of the tunnel with a story, they will hear about what happened beneath them. As they walk away the sounds of the tunnel will intermingle until they decide which they want to follow.

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The stories will not be ordered chronologically, but present a layered history of what has occurred beneath the ground throughout the history of the tunnels’ existence. This layering of multiple stories will provide a range of perspectives and does not require a beginning, middle or end (Farman, J. 2014, p9).

The sound experience can be combined with a mapping function to show the user’s route around the site, by following the path with loudest sounds they can trace a route on their mobile device of the tunnels. An additional element is the use of code or encryption that must be deciphered, thus emphasising their original purpose for intelligence gathering.


Farman, J. (2014). Site Specificity, Pervasive Computing, and the Reading Interface, pp6-9. Routledge.

Sounds are Worth a Thousand Words

The advent of mobile has freed computing from both a fixed location and the hegemony of the visual; allowing for new possibilities of using sound that are now being explored. The way in which we interact with sound can be divided into four categories of “placed sounds”, “sound platforms”, “sonifying mobility” and “musical instruments” (Behrendt, 2012), with placed sounds being the most developed.

The most obvious manifestation of placed sound is the tourist guide that, once accessed through their mobile device, accompanies visitors around sites, imparting historical information, narrative, music or a combination of all of these.

An example of this Soho Stories (National Trust, 2012) a walking guide that has been created with AppFurnace, and takes the user on a tour of London’s Soho in the twentieth century.

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Soho Stories from The National Trust

With a combination of music, street chatter, actuality and narrative, the mobile’s GPS locates the user and a different story is told according to the location. As the user leaves the vicinity the story they are listening fades away to be replaced with a fresh one for their new location, only to be picked up again should they walk the same way twice.

While content can be accessed in a virtual mode by selecting locations on a map, the full experience of the work is site-specific and includes the act of walking in Soho, thus changing the experience of the anytime, anywhere access to mobile.

The possibilities offered by sounds are also being explored in innovative ways by news media – telling stories that are easier for the ear to comprehend than the eye, in Fractions of a Second: An Olympic Musical (New York Times 2010), the differences between the first and last places in a selection of Olympic events is demonstrated by the time between notes, a much clearer way of communicating often minute intervals of time.

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Fractions of a Second: An Olympic Musical


Behrendt, F. 2012. The Sound of Locative Media. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 18(3)283-295. Sage. Available at:

Cox, A. 2010. Fractions of a Second: An Olympic Musical. New York Times. Available at: [accessed 5 March 2016]

National Trust, The. 2012. Soho Stories. AppFurnace. Available at:

Even Your Cat Can’t Hide…

The boundary between public and private, while never having been fixed is further blurred by the mediation of space by digital technology. The process of media object mutation (Berry et al, 2013, p2) is explained through the example of the camera a device used for representation combining with the phone, a device for transmission, allowing for a new creative response, but one that can have unforeseen consequences.

A work that demonstrates the consequences is Owen Mundy’s I Know Where Your Cat Lives (2014). By collecting images of cats from social networking sites, Mundy has used public data (that the user probably considered to be private) to extrapolate a new dataset and create a map showing the location the image was taken. That many users were unaware they were giving away such detailed information was demonstrated by the removal of some of the images (through the changing of privacy settings) after the work was published.

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I Know Where Your Cat Lives – the website.

This work was possible due to the ability to combine capta, creating a dataset (Kitchin and Dodge, 2011, p5) of everything possible to know about a person, (or their cat) from the information available, taking physical addresses from the virtual world. Another example comes from a Vice (2012) magazine interview, accompanied by a photograph, with John McAfee who was then on the run. Unfortunately the photograph came complete with exif data, thus revealing his whereabouts.

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The photo that got McAfee caught?

That privacy is given so little thought when using technology is one of the discussions on the Programmable City (2016) blog that considers the consequences of the internet of things, when the software that runs the ‘things‘ can so easily be hacked.

The fact that the undervaluing of privacy, and hacking is so prevalent is not that surprising considering that many of the functions of software are seen as extensions of already existing systems (previously un-networked so with fewer privacy implications) and the way coding is written – impossible to separate from the skills, background, political and cultural environment in which is it created (Kitchin and Dodge, 2011, pp6-20).

Berry, C, Harbord, J & Moore, R.O, (2013). Public Space, Media Space, p2. Palgrave Macmillan.

Kitchin, R. & Dodge, M., 2011, p5 Code/Space Software and Everyday Life, MITPress.

Mundy, O. (2014). I Know Where Your Cat Lives. [accessed 28 February 2016].

Programmable City, The, (2016). Privacy is an Afterthought when Convenience is King [accessed 28 February 2016].

Vice, (2012). We are with John McAfee Right Now Suckers. [accessed 28 February 2016].

Wired, (2012). How Trusting in Vice Led to John McAfee’s Downfall. [accessed 28 February 2016].

Our Data Driven Society

Miller (2011, p20) describes how databases are the source of much digital information and their ability to pull together data from many datasets allows the creation of something unique. Unique, rather than original; the information set matches the specific requirements of the individual but is created out of existing data.

But data was used long before the structured datasets that drive today’s information society. Several of the exhibits in the Big Bang Data Exhibition examine the role of data in improving health. Nurse, Florence Nightingale (1858) was a data pioneer, using data visualisation to show how many deaths amongst soldiers were the result, not of war wounds, but of sickness thus making her case for better nursing.

Florence Nightingale Museum Trust, London

Florence Nightingale Museum Trust, London

Data has a strong role to play in health today, according to NESTA’s John Loder, (2016) the amount of data we collect about ourselves – from smartphones, fitbits and health records – will help medical experts understand individual reactions to treatment, which can vary widely, thus creating a unique response to an illness or condition.

The sheer volume of data generated is demonstrated in the London Situation Room, which uses data for and by Londoners to give a sense of ‘the pulse’ of the city. Creative Producer, Ana Tiquia (2016) explains that the room was created to give Londoners the chance to explore the data, to ask what kind of stories they could tell and what the data tells us about how we live. One of the exhibits, Future Cities Catapult, gives visitors the chance to use data modeling techniques to make decisions on how the London of 2036 will look.

But while the gathering and usage of data offers many benefits, it is not without its downside as filmmaker Laura Poitras’s shows in her profile of NSA whistleblower William Binney, who – long before Snowden – revealed the US government’s top-secret programme to collect the personal data of US citizens, raising questions about privacy and surveillance.

NSA Whistleblower, William Binney, talks at the CIJ Summer School 2014


CIJ Summer School (2014). NSA Whistleblower, William Binney. Interview. [Accessed 22 February 2016]

Future Cities Catapult (2016). Exhibit [Accessed 22 February 2016]

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Nightingale, F. (1858). Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of British Army

Poitrs, L. (2016). Interview. [Accessed 22 February 2016]

Tiquia, A. (2016) Interview. [Accessed 22 February 2016]

What is a Smart City?

Many claims are being made for how technology will determine the future of the city – the technologically driven smart city – that in the words of Sassen (2003) ‘talks back’.

Promises range from the achievable: facilitating the flow of traffic and greater efficiency in energy consumption to the more extreme; allowing the survival of our species. There is also the somewhat controversial claim, given our reluctance to move away from the consumer society, that thanks to technology, climate change and limited resources do not mean having to cut back (Townsend, 2013, ppxii-xiii).

And while Townsend talks about grassroots movements with activists and citizens leading the way, it is still the large corporations that hold sway. New technologies have to work with existing infrastructures and cities designed for quite different times. Comparisons are made to the construction of roads in the US in the twentieth century, but further comparisons could be made a century before that with railway construction in the UK (Odlyzko, 2010).

The idea of city’s talking back is not a new one; the work of Dr John Snow to trace the source of a cholera outbreak in London relied on the gathering, processing and interpretation of information (Johnson, 2008) gleaned from the city. Technology allows us to speed up this process, gives us new tools to solve existing problems, opens these tools to a wider audience and can help us react to the results at far greater speed – often in real-time.

Street map showing deaths from in Soho in 1853

Street map showing deaths from in Soho in 1853

At the Networked Cities event in 2012, Roland Busch, gave the examples of how his company, Siemens, is working with city mayors, using technology to solve existing problems – in Berlin by creating energy efficient buildings and in London though a ten-year upgrade to the transport system.

He explained how they work to solve specific problems, but that a truly ‘smart city’ needs integration. Local councils should stop thinking in silos – transport, energy, education – but instead consider these as a whole, integrating services, and exploring, for example how transport can be connected with energy efficiency using ICT.

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