Smart cities … treading the line between the possible, the probable and the desirable

By Morwen Johnson

Sometimes it feels like every city in the world is now claiming to be ‘smart’. Our research team regularly add new reports on the topic to our database. And with a policy agenda riding on the back of a multi-billion pound global industry, the positivist rhetoric around smart cities can seem overwhelming.

We’ve blogged before about the disconnect between what surveys suggest the public values in terms of quality of life in urban areas, and what smart cities are investing in. And last week I attended a conference in Glasgow ‘Designing smart cities: opportunities and regulatory challenges’ which refreshingly brought together a multi-disciplinary audience to look at smart cities in a more critical light.

The conference was rich and wide-ranging – too broad for me to try and summarise the discussions. Instead here are some reflections on the challenges which need to be explored.

Every smart city is a surveillance city

Look in any smart city prospectus or funding announcement and you’ll find mention of how data will be ‘managed’, ‘captured’, ‘monitored’, ‘shared’, ‘analysed’, ‘aggregated’, ‘interrogated’ etc. And this is inevitably presented as a benign activity happening for the common good, improving efficiency, saving money and making life better.

As David Murakami Wood pointed out at the conference however, this means that every smart city is by necessity a surveillance city – even if policymakers and stakeholders are reluctant to admit this.

Public debate is failing to keep up with the pace of change

Even for someone who takes a keen interest in urbanism and the built environment, any description of smart cities can risk leaving you feeling like a techno-illiterate dinosaur. It’s clear that there is also a huge amount of hype around the construction (or retrofitting) of smart cities – with vested interests keen to promote a positive message.

Do we really understand the possibilities being opened up when we embed technology in our urban infrastructure? And more importantly, what are the ethical questions raised around sharing and exploiting data? The pace of the development and rollout of new technologies within our urban environments seems to be running ahead of the desirable cycle of reflection and critique.

An interesting point was also made about language – and whether experts, technologists and policymakers need to adjust their use of language and jargon, in order for discussion about smart cities to be inclusive. Ubicomp … augmented reality … the Internet of Things … even the Cloud – how can the public give informed consent to participating in the smart city if the language used obscures and obfuscates what is happening with their data?

Where can we have a voice in the data city?

Following on from this point, cities are not ends in themselves – to be successful they must serve the interests and needs of the people who live, work and visit them. An interesting strand of the conference discussion considered what a bottom-up approach to smart cities would look like.

Alison Powell highlighted that there’s been a shift from seeing people as citizens to treating them as ‘citizen consumers’ – I’d add that within the built environment, this goes hand-in-hand with the commercialisation and privatisation of public space – and this has profound implications around questions of inclusion/exclusion. And also where power and decision-making sits – and who is profiting.

Although some general examples of community participation projects were mentioned during the conference, these didn’t seem to address the question of how ‘people’ can engage with smart cities. Not as problems to be managed or controlled – or as passive suppliers of data to sensors – but as creative and active participants.


I left the conference wondering where society is heading and how we, the Knowledge Exchange, can support our members in local government and the third sector to understand the extensive opportunities and implications of smart cities. We see a key part of our mission to be horizon scanning – and our briefings for members focus on drawing together analysis, emerging evidence and case studies.

Not all towns or cities have the resources, investment or desire to lead the way in technological innovation. But the challenge of bridging the gap between professionals and their vision and understanding of smart cities, and people in communities, is a universal one.

As William Gibson observed: “The future is already here … it’s just not very evenly distributed”.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on smart cities or public participation. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Our reading list prepared for last autumn’s Annual UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference looks at some recent literature on smart cities.

The conference Designing smart cities: opportunities and regulatory challenges was held at the University of Strathclyde on 31 March and 1 April 2015, supported by CREATe and Horizon.

The Idox Group is the leading applications provider to UK local government for core functions relating to land, people and property, such as its market leading planning systems. Over 90% of UK local authorities are now customers. Idox provides public sector organisations with tools to manage information and knowledge, documents, content, business processes and workflow as well as connecting directly with the citizen via the web.

6 thoughts on “Smart cities … treading the line between the possible, the probable and the desirable

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  4. Describing a city or place as Smart on account of surveillance and sensor technologies and accumulations of data, or even the local availability of analysis and presentational expertise, still falls some way short of what may be understood as ‘an intelligent community’. For sure, data needs to be collected, but way above that the ‘intelligent community’ has a greater sense of purpose.

    Most likely they’ll have started with the basics some time ago (or at least have recognised the imperatives) and put in place some enabling infrastructures that have been designed to be future-proofed – and eschewed the conventional technological cul-de-sacs championed by mainstream telcos. That will have enabled their collective vision to soar. Then they’ll be able to turn their attention to matters of education and expertise, enterprise and innovative capacities, and understood the value of digital inclusion and local advocacy. And in doing that local leaders will have grasped the need to take on a sense of empowerment and free their community and its environment from the controls of an over-centralised state managed by politicos in distant capitals.

    These intelligent communities may even be working towards elimination of all property taxation by increasingly substituting the local tax revenue streams with the profits of enterprises they have co-created with local investors and universities. We know this because it is happening around the world – Municipal Enterprise is alive and well and whole communities feel empowered by it. We also know this because places as different as (for example) Chattanooga in Eastern Tennessee and Linkopping in central Sweden have been so enlightened for a decade or more.

    Local leadership with a few (remarkably few) basic principles and a local determination to make their place better has enabled professionals to engage more deeply with citizens – but this takes far longer than the cycles of national governments.

    I would urge your members/readers to read two books: ‘The Resilience Dividend’ by Judith Rodin (Rockefeller Foundation) and ‘Brain Gain’ by Robert Bell and colleagues from the Intelligent Community Forum. The first observes that places and people are increasingly exposed to shocks and crisis – extreme weather or any number of disruptions like the closure of a major employer – but the challenge of recovery is not to get back to the way things were but to ‘move on’ and build the resilience needed to cope better in the future. In the second, ICF charts the challenges of places that have given rise to new visions – places and people that have been ‘shaken and stirred’ into action.

    Google these references and you’ll find plenty of commentaries – including my own essay on Municipal Enterprise. The ever enthusiastic technologists mean well – but their IoTs, sensors and data capturing need to be seen as contributors towards a greater vision for societal well-being and employment.


    • Thanks for the additional reading recommendations. Having worked on community regeneration projects myself, I completely agree that the focus on implementing technology in smart cities needs to be countered/balanced with a vision for how community resilience can be created/sustained at a local or neighbourhood level – to tackle inequalities and deprivation, and build capacity and skills. It is this question of what is driving current changes – are they happening because they are possible rather than as enablers for a socially just society – that I alluded to in the blog.


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