urban living labs, smart cities – and culture?

I spent a really interesting day at a workshop on Urban Living Labs in Brussels on last week. I’m currently PI of a large research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council called ‘Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes‘. The aim of the project is to carry out a series of close up, in depth analyses of how specific ‘smart technologies’ are embedding themselves (or not) in the town of Milton Keynes; in particular, we’re interested in how existing forms of social differentiation are being reproduced and how new forms are also emerging in that process.


Milton Keynes is a new town, half way between London and Birmingham. It was founded in 1967, and its current population is around 260,000. From its beginning, it has always seen itself as an ‘urban laboratory’, and it has a long history of experimenting with innovations in energy and transport especially (the UK’s first solar-powered house went into action here in 1972, as did the UK’s first kerbside recycling collection service in 1992). More recently the city council has been very keen to attract new experiments into the city, under the rubric of ‘smart’. So for example, it’s one of the UK towns trialling driverless cars, and has developed a Data Hub with an innovation infrastructure to support local would-be entrepreneurs. It was really interesting at the workshop to hear Simon Marvin from the ‘Governance of Urban Sustainability Transitions: Advancing the Role of Living Labs‘ project place Milton Keynes into the wider landscape of living labs in Europe.

My own research interest in smart cities is kind of marginal to way that smart cities have been pitched and marketed, and also to the extensive practices of the diverse kinds of urban living labs that I learnt a lot about on the day.  I’m interested in how digital visualising technologies are shifting the way that urban spaces are experienced. So I’ve looked for example at how digital visualisations intervene in the urban design process, and more recently I’ve been examining what sort of visions of the smart city are being promoted by the tech companies selling smart hard and software on social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter.

Except that I don’t really think that these visualisations are that marginal to smart cities or to their close cousins, urban living labs, really. I think images and visions are actually very powerful ways in which certain kinds assumptions about what cities should be like in the future get normalised. So in lots of adverts for smart city tech, it’s assumed that everything important to a city’s functioning can be turned into reliable and secure data – including its people. It’s assumed that that data flows freely (most ads show data being beamed through the air via wifi networks). And it’s assumed that decisions about how to run a city are purely rational and technical ones of efficiency and sustainability.

The whole notion of a ‘lab’ on the face of it continues that commitment to technocratic solutions to urban challenges.  A lab assumes a place where conditions are controlled, data is gathered and analysed, and data is then shared with other scientists/labs in order to enhance knowledge. In fact, and of course, on all those countes cities are nothing like labs, as scholars like Andrew Karvonen and Bas van Heur (who were both at the workshop) have demonstrated. (Well, there is one similarity, now I come to think about it – both labs and smart cities tend to be run by men.)

What I did find surprising about the workshop day – and perhaps this is something generated by that whole notion of a town or city being understood as a lab – is that questions of culture and conflict weren’t broached at all. Smart cities are increasingly finding that to fulfill the vision of a good city that smart offers, the people who live in the city really have to be involved. That isn’t a process that can be achieved by data gathering. Instead, it’s one that involves how people feel about their city, how communication and engagement happens in the city, what histories of place and belonging shape the city.  All those are cultural things, not data things.

This is another reason why Milton Keynes will be such an interesting place to discover more about how smart technologies and polices actually work, because from its founding it has also had quite a distinctive vision of community development, trying to facilitate residents of the city to do what they want to do for their neighbourhoods. It’s an approach which has nurtured relatively high levels of voluntary action in the city, and we’ll be working with one of its leading organisations – Community Action MK – to work out just how that participatory culture is being mediated by smart technologies.

But, of course, neighbourhoods – let alone cities – are not full of one single group of people with the same interests, feelings, histories or agency. Not everyone in a smart city might agree about what kind of smart they want to be. ‘Smart citizens’ are not a homogeneous category, and I never got to grips during the workshop with how the notion of the lab would deal with radically opposed visions of what a lab might be experimenting to achieve. There are a lot of anxieties about data privacy in some places, for example, while in others research suggests that people are perfectly happy to give up ‘private’ data to commercial companies if it guarantees, say, a better bus service. How would a city-wide data hub negotiate between those positions?

The collaborative vision of urban improvement that’s at the heart of the smart city and the urban living lab is great, and was powerfully advocated by participants at the workshop who came from places with long histories of social democracy and welfare state support. But not all places – and cultures – have those histories, and even those that are seem to be under increasing challenge right now. So notions of cities as labs or as smart surely need to engage much more directly with the complexity of urban societies, the possibility that there will be (may be, at least) irreconcilable differences between different parts of those societies, and the role of values and priorities – culture! – in both of those.

seeing the city in digital times: a lecture

I gave a keynote lecture at the Neue Kulturgeographie XIV conference a couple of weeks ago, at the University of Bayreuth. My topic was ‘seeing the city in digital times’. I talked about the challenges of keeping cultural geography relevant as a critical project when so much visual culture is now digital, and I shared my recent work looking at how so-called ‘smart cities’are pictured on YouTube and Twitter.   You can hear my talk and see the presentation that accompanied it here.


Listen through til the end if you can (or indeed just skip to about an hour in) because I got some great questions afterwards.  It was a privilege to speak as such an energy-filled event – thankyou to my hosts Matt Hannah, Eberhard Rothfuss and Jan Hutta.

digital geographies sessions at the RGS/IBG conference 2017

I don’t have the time to do much more than report on a few things at the moment, so here’s a link to the website of the newly-formed Digital Geographies Working Group of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers.

The Group recently asked for sessions it could sponsor at the annual RGS/IBG conference this summer.  We ended up with twelve sessions, which you can (or will shortly be able to) explore here.   Do consider submitting a paper to the session organisers – the deadline is 6 February for most of them.

smart cities on Twitter: or, urban / cultural / visual / digital

I’ve been trying to work on a paper about how smart cities look on Twitter over the past few works.  One answer is this:

trial 3 brightness_median vs hue_median copy small.jpg

That’s a trial run I’ve done, working with the 900-odd images attached to a range of smart city-related hashtags, scraped over a week last month by my OU colleague Alistair Willis, and run through Lev Manovich’s ImagePlot software.  Saturation increases closer to the centre of the image, and hue is distributed much like a colour wheel.  Yes, smart cities are mostly either blue or orange!!

This is part of my effort to think about different visual methods that can respond – even if only partially – to the sheer scale of image circulation in digital visual culture now. It doesn’t touch on the dynamics of their circulation, but it does suggest, I think, a possible effect of the speed and numbers of images on social media platforms and the casual way in which they’re often seen: that we might see a certain sort of city as a colour field that enacts smart (for example) rather than a set of images that represent it. So the blue and orange mean almost nothing (though not entirely). What they might suggest, though, is something about the feel of the notion of the smart city, as it’s performed through Twitter.

What I’m now doing is digging a bit deeper into that ‘feeling’: what does a smart city hashtag on Twitter do with both smart cities and with the hashtag followers? What kinds of affect does it intensify?  I think I’m kind of getting towards an answer, but of course I need to do some more reading.  And here is my pile of books that I hope will help me think about what thousands of images of smart are and do, getting me away from smart and Twitter specifically and more towards thinking about the intersection of the urban, visual, cultural and digital. I’m also looking forward to reading a roundtable in the online journal Mediapolis, on the urban as an emergent key concept for media theory.


(I was going to make a snarky comment about it obviously being compulsory to use grey, black, red and white when designing the covers of these sorts of books – but then I realised that my workspace is pretty much the same colours….)



pre-register now for online advanced image elicitation methods research training

Three years ago now, I worked with Professor Helen Lomax and Dr Nick Mahony to produce three online advanced research training modules in image elicitation methods, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.   Module 1 looks at using image elicitation methods with ‘vulnerable’ research participants; module 2 examines discourses of elicitation and participation more generally; and module 3 looks at a couple of possible futures for digital image elicitation methods.


They’re free and open to all researchers, but are aimed primarily at PhD students, and this is the last year that they’ll run.

Pre-registration for module 1 is now open here, and closes on 25 November.

posthuman agency in the digitally mediated city

That’s the title of the paper that I’ve just had accepted by the Annals of the Association of American Geographers and here is its abstract:

Accounts by geographers of the ways in which urban spaces are digitally mediated have proliferated in the last few years.  This significant body of work pays particular attention to the production of urban space by software and digital hardware, and geographers have drawn on various kinds of posthumanist philosophies in order to theorise the agency of the technological nonhuman.  The agency of the human, however, has been left undertheorised in this work, often appearing in the form of excessive resistance to the agency granted to the digital.  This article contributes to understanding the digital mediation of cities by theorising a specifically posthuman agency: that is, a human agency both mediated through technics and diverse.  Drawing on the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler as well as a range of feminist digital scholarship, the article conceptualises posthuman agency as always already co-constituted with technologies.  Posthumans are simultaneously individuated and exteriorised in that co-constitution, and this permits agency understood as reinvention.  The article also insists that such sociotechnical agency is differentiated, particularly in terms of the spatialities and temporalities through which it is organised.  It concludes by arguing that geographers must reconfigure their understanding of digitally mediated cities and acknowledge the inventiveness and diversity of urban posthuman agency.

Annals divides each issue into four sections, and I think this will come out in the ‘Methods, Models, and GIS’ section (GIS stands for ‘Geographical Information System’).  If you’d told me early in my academic career that I’d ever have a paper in any way associated with ‘GIS’, I would never have believed you. I was taught that GIS was the positivist (boo) technological tool of the military-industrial complex (double boo).  Which I think at that point probably wasn’t too inaccurate.

But GIScience has changed a lot since then.  Not only has does it now include many different theoretical approaches, including feminist work of course, it’s now embedded in a much more extensive range of practices, including data visualisations in journalism and geolocated social media analysis.  So it’s expanding in all sorts of ways… and as I’ve argued before, I think at least some of the cultural geographers of the same sort of generation of me should be moving too, rethinking our work in the light of the practices and theorisations of ‘the digital’ that GIScience, among other things, is now generating.  My paper tries hard to draw on that digital expertise, even if my goal remains focussed on what cultural geography was so interested in thirty years ago (oh my god it is thirty years ago): the making and remaking of meanings.


is mycorrhizal geography becoming a thing?

I spent some time this week making the final revisions to a paper.  It’s about posthuman agency in the digitally mediated city (and I’m afraid that’s its actual title too, followed by “exteriorisation, interiorisation and reinvention”, just to make it sound a really fun read).  It’s a theory piece, surprise surprise, working with Bernard Stiegler to conceptualise posthuman agency as both technically mediated and also differentiated.  (Thanks must go to James Ash, Sam Kinsley, Kathryn Mitchell and Sarah Elwood, geographers who’ve already grappled with Stiegler and made my engagement with him a lot easier.)


from the film ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’. Nothing mushroom-like in sight but the nearest I could get to the story’s vision of both the city and its people saturated with a fungus.

The main literature my paper engages is the very rich body of work on digitally mediated cities, much of which has been written by geographers and much of which gives a great deal of agency to the technological without paying much attention to the complexities of ‘human’ agency (it’s usually left as just that, ‘humans’ who do things with technological devices).

I won’t give the whole paper way here (though I will post the abstract when it’s been definitely accepted).  Because right now I just want to share a thought prompted by my efforts to write about the sense of the urban that Stiegler’s work generated for me.  Here’s an edited version of my paper’s effort at articulating that sense:

…cities are particularly concentrated sites of the deployment of digital technologies, digitally mediated retentions and thus for the production of posthuman differentiation.  A posthuman, remember, is greedy for those external signs without which they cannot exist, and cities are sites in which those signs are produced, circulated and encountered most intensively.  Posthumans in cities are sociotechnically co-produced digitally with many different digital devices while doing many different things – communicating via Snapchat; travelling with Uber, Google Earth and Google Maps; being recorded by surveillance cameras and body heat sensors; playing PokemonGo; glancing at algorithm-generated advertisements on smartphone email apps; writing #blacklivesmatter in tweets; tagging and posting photos on Instagram; liking on FourSquare or Facebook; working on a computer generated image of an urban redevelopment project; viewing crowd-sourced i-documentaries, maps, witnessing plaforms and GIScience efforts to map marginalised urban lives; as well as the many things done with the platforms and databases that now insist that they are ‘the social’  – to name just a few, all of which generate data which is processed to generate innumerable tertiary retentions of many kinds, numeric, textual and visual.  Cities thus host and are mediated by dense gatherings of retentions (both digital and not) – critical, hegemonic, banal, silly – which accumulate into a vast “stratified constellation of technical memory matter, composed of resources that shape political and cultural imaginaries… with depth, height, scale, extensiveness and duration… moving in different directions… Its forms may change and its content migrate, accruing or shedding textures in the process” (Withers 2015, 17).  This is a reserve not only of retentions but of embodied practices, through which posthumans watch, touch, learn, think, hear, move and gesture, in streets, squares, parks and workplaces, mimicking, recombining, reinventing.  It is from this urban “media manifold” (Couldry 2011) that multiple forms of digital posthuman agencies emerge, as myriad retentions are encountered and reinvented.

As well as Stiegler and his geographer-interpreters, that quote makes clear another inspiration for my paper: a book by Deborah Withers called Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission, which uses Stiegler to talk about the work of archiving the UK feminist music scene of the 1980s (Stiegler is very interested in memory).  The book is wonderful, not least because it uses a fantastically suggestive vocabulary for describing what Stiegler calls ‘tertiary retentions’, which Withers also describes as  a “technical compost, an arena of composition and decomposition from which ideas, practices, knowledges and techniques emerge and diverge through dynamic processes of transformation, becoming, disintegration and solidification” (page 17).

Withers’s rich vocabulary is kind of implicitly organic somehow, suggesting change, growth, density, vegetal-ness.  I hope I’m not over-reading the ‘compost’ here… and if I am (ok, I am), maybe it’s because I also went to see the truly amazing film The Girl With All The Gifts a couple of weeks ago – about the posthuman in a rather different sense – and I couldn’t get its image of spore-saturated people and London out of my mind when I was writing this – hence the image above (though actually that’s the one thing I think the novel does better than the film – while the film pictures a kind of plant, the novel pictures a fungal mould thing that envelops London.  Oh and Radiohead was in the mix somewhere too – in my writing, not the film.).

Anyway, there I was, relishing and struggling with this feeling of the urban as a site of massified mycorrhizal tendril extensive mobile… with humans totally part of it…

… and I then came across a couple of great pieces in the ever-reliable Progress in Human Geography, one by Colin McFarlane on “geographies of urban density” and one by Ben Anderson.  Ben’s is a review of current cultural geography (I wasn’t quite sure where the cultural was in the essay, but who cares, it’s a great piece).  Both also evoke a similar language, of intensity, volume, densification, composition (ok, not compost, but close), morphing, extinction, decongestion, dispersal, flourishing, emergence…

This is all very suggestive, and is more complex than the by-now rather thin notion of ‘relational geographies’; as Ben notes, it’s surely a version of that kind of geography but its vocabulary multiplies the modalities of relationality in important ways.  And while its theoretical sources are diverse, I want to flag just one in particular  which I think hovers over much of this work as it addresses cities: not Stiegler but rather of the work of Nigel Thrift.  Thrift wrote a volley of papers five or six years ago now that, as far as I can see, went nowhere in geography as an academic discipline – I tried tracking their citations a year or so ago and came up with very little.  (I’ve listed them below, with a couple of more recent ones.)  Indeed, I remember reading them myself when they were new-ish and being fascinated by them but also not feeling able to do very much with them, they were so part of Thrift’s own project, formidably referenced and almost visionary, actually.

But I wonder now if what we’re seeing is a kind of fallout from that work, its spores seeding quietly and invisibly, in this work which shares Thrift’s interest in affect and bubbles and atmospheres and intensities (not his alone of course) but is putting it to use in critical and grounded accounts of cities (as McFarlane suggests) and to explore inequalities and violences (as Anderson suggests). One of the repeated criticisms of Thrift’s work is that it isn’t critical enough (nor, as I argue in that forthcoming paper, posthuman enough).  Perhaps we’re now seeing that critique come to fruition, as it were, in geographies which seem to me to be oddly fungal.

PS I’m not serious about mycorrhizal as the term for this sensibility, not least because my biology isn’t good enough to know if the term refers to what I’m trying to evoke (Wikipedia wasn’t very clear).  I did think about ‘volumetric’ as an alternative but I like the more organismic, vital feel of the fungal… and this is only a blog post after all.


Thrift, Nigel. “The Material Practices of Glamour.” Journal of Cultural Economy 1, no. 1 (2008): 9–23. doi:10.1080/17530350801913577.

Thrift, Nigel. “Different Atmospheres: Of Sloterdijk, China, and Site.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27, no. 1 (2009): 119 – 138. doi:10.1068/d6808.Thrift, Nigel. “Lifeworld Inc—and What to Do about It.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29, no. 1 (2011): 5 – 26. doi:10.1068/d0310.———. “The Insubstantial Pageant: Producing an Untoward Land.” Cultural Geographies 19, no. 2 (2012): 141–68. doi:10.1177/1474474011427268.———. “The Promise of Urban Informatics: Some Speculations.” Environment and Planning A 46, no. 6 (2014): 1263–66. doi:10.1068/a472c.———. “The ‘sentient’ City and What It May Portend.” Big Data & Society 1, no. 1 (2014): 1–21. doi:10.1177/2053951714532241.

ten top tips for making a smart city promotional video

I’ve just finished writing a chapter discussing the ways in which ‘smart cities’ are pictured in promotional videos. I’ve been working with twenty-one videos, all on YouTube, made by seven US and European companies: IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, Siemens, Thales and Vinci. The chapter is heading for a collection edited by Karin Fast called Geomedia, out next spring I think. It continues my efforts to think about how cities are being visually mediated in distinctively digital ways, and also in ways that are both representational and operative.


In the meanwhile, I’d like to offer these ten top tips for the makers of these videos.

  1. make sure that your video starts with an aerial view – of the planet or of a city, it doesn’t matter, just make sure you start from on high and zoom in.
  2. ensure that every single image – apart from talking head interviews – moves. Film must picture things moving, animations must constantly transform, and if you’re stuck with having to film something that doesn’t move, overlay some animated graphics onto it.
  3. make sure you only film crowded public spaces, preferably with lots of kinds of transport. Then add some more transport.
  4. you must have at least one shot of traffic, at night, streaming through a glowing urban landscape. In fact, make as many things glow and flow as you can.
  5. don’t interview women, unless they are so important that it’s really unavoidable (which means a national CEO or the director of strategy of a national organisation at least). If you have to interview a woman, see if you can get away with not naming her.
  6. use as many kinds of imagery as you possibly can: photorealist aerial views, massing study fly-throughs, panoramas (pan across them), maps with things moving across them, powerpoint bullet points lists (again, these must be animated), app interfaces, systems diagrams, electric circuit notation, documentary video, etc etc etc.
  7. if you have to mention the health sector in relation to smart cities, or retail, make sure you picture only female nurses and shoppers.
  8. avoid any suggestion that there might be any discussion about the purposes, merits, functionality, reliability, unintended consequences or cost of smart tech.
  9. avoid any suggestion that a smart city has surburbs or houses. If you must show a house, make sure there’s a female figure in it either cooking or with a child. In fact, all children must be shown with female figures regardless of location. If you feel like adding a pushchair to your urban scene, make sure it’s being pushed by a female figure, and if the children are in school, ensure the teachers are female.
  10. finally, use music but use it carefully. It must either be uplifting and orchestral, of the we-are-moving-into-glorious-futures kind (though try to avoid it sounding too much like Lord of the Rings); or, preferably, it must be the plinky plonky cutesy sort of soundtrack popularised by Apple some time ago.

Hope that helps, guys…