smart cities and why they need a lot more social scientists to get involved

I spent a very interesting day a couple of weeks ago at the MK Future Cities conference, held at The Open University in Milton Keynes.  It looked to me like there were well over a hundred people there, mostly policymakers, businesses and various organisations with an interest in this thing called a ‘smart city’. Milton Keynes is a city with a lot of ‘smart’ stuff going on, and the day kicked off with a great talk from its council’s Director of Strategy on what’s happening and – more importantly – why and how it will matter to the city and its inhabitants.

Definitions of ‘smart cities’ proliferate (and indeed there is some muttering that the term is now past its sell-by date), but they’re generally understood to use data produced by digital technologies to do three things: enhance their sustainability by encouraging more efficient use of resources; increase their economic growth by innovating new products and markets; and become more open by enabling greater citizen participation in city governance.  I’m interested in them because, as I’ve posted about before, visualisations of different kinds are key to the smart city phenomenon. They proliferate as advertisements for selling smart city kit, they’re an important way of communicating ‘smart’ as an idea (and of course, these two things are often overlap), and visuals are also crucial to how smart cities are managed especially but not only in the form of the online data ‘dashboard’ (which are getting some attention now, with excellent recent discussions by Rob Kitchin and Shannon Mattern).


Smart cities are also proliferating – over half of UK cities claim to be smart, apparently – and so it seems important to think carefully about what sort of urban life they are offering.  I think right now that’s an open question.  There’s a lot of big corporations involved in selling smart city control-and-command centres, but there’s also a fair bit of discussion about how smart tech can also be designed and used by ordinary folk, for all sorts of ends other than profit.  (There’s a nice essay in First Monday exploring those latter possibilities, for example, from the Mobile City peeps Michiel de Lange and Martijn de Waal.)

From what I could gather of the make-up of the speakers and audience at the FutureCity event, it was pretty representative of who is driving the development of smart cities in the UK: local councils, tech enterprises small medium and large, and a bunch of other kinds of organisations, including universities, the UK-government-funded Catapults and a range of various interest and/or campaigning groups.  There were very few designers or architects; very few third sector organisations; and, bar one behavioural psychologist, no social scientists on the panels.

As a social scientist, though, various things struck me about the day, particularly about how social differences were – or were not – addressed.  Various thoughts follow.One striking thing about the day was the way in which almost every speaker began with some kind of statistics and visuals about urban population growth. This was the starting point for nearly everyone: cities are growing, the proportion of the world’s population living in cities is increasing rapidly, and this is going to be a massive problem for urban resources and infrastructure.  The other demographic trend repeatedly mentioned – often personified by the speaker’s grandma – was that the world’s population is also ageing rapidly, which was also generally assumed to be an almost equally massive problem in terms of future healthcare provision.  While neither of these facts are wrong, it did strike me that the way in which they framed every presentation, to the exclusion of any other kind of demographic, must surely be shaping the discussion of smart cities in quite specific ways.  What would happen to the debate if speakers started from other kinds of demographic information – the number of adults with caring responsibilities, for example?  Or the number of people sensitive to electro-magnetic fields?  And then we might also reflect on the fact that thinking about the social situations in which smart cities are embedded only in terms of the numbers of people and their resource requirements is also a pretty specific understanding of people, let alone cities.

Which leads me to my second comment about the day.  As I’ve said, most of the speakers talked about the inhabitants of smart cities in terms of population growth and ageing.  But there were also three other ways in which they were described: as ‘users’, as ‘citizens’ and, less often, as ‘publics’.  Each of these has rather different connotations, and Jennifer Gabrys has recently written a great paper on the ‘smart citzen’.  What they all share, though, is a kind of abstract, empty quality.  Both ‘citizen’ and ‘public’ appear in Western political discourse as (in theory at least) forms of social identity that anyone can occupy, regardless of their gender, class, religion, sexuality, race and so on.  The genealogy of ‘user’ is more diverse: it emerged in the academic discipline of cultural studies as a reference to the ways in which different people actively engage with media in different ways but in smart tech discussions it seems to be used simply to refer to the human bit of the human-computer (or app) interface, implicitly being reduced to various cognitive functions in the process.  None of these terms – citizen, user, public –  address the fact that people are different in all sorts of ways.  So while lots of the speakers talked about the importance of starting from the citizens of smart cities, none really addressed how social differences – like class, gender, able-bodiedness, and any number of others – might shape how smart tech finds its place in already-existing cities.

Now, the very first thing that struck me about the MK:Future City event (and the other smart city events that I’ve been to) is how male-dominated they are.  I guess around 80 per cent of the participants were white men in suits.  Mostly grey suits.  So smart cities seem to be being planned and created almost entirely by men.  Now, I have to be careful here.  Clearly, the fact that the technologies and policies that are being lauded as the saviours of our cities are apparently being created (mostly) by just one section of the population may not necessarily be significant in any way whatsover – especially if they all love their grandma and care about how smart tech can enable her to live a better life even when she’s less mobile.

But, contrariwise, I would suggest that there is evidence that suggests it may be having an effect on the kinds of smart visions that are being created, viz., the use of those empty and abstract categories to describe the people who are going to be living in smart cities and using smart tech.  Those categories are only really credible, perhaps, if you never have to think about your class or gender or race, because you occupy a position of relative privilege.  (Yes guys, I know it’s complicated.  But how is a woman with a baby and a toddler and week’s worth of shopping supposed to use a driverless pod?)  They are also only credible if you’ve never read any of the critical theory work that points out that the rhetoric of the ‘citizen’ and the ‘public’ being positions open to anyone to occupy ignores the fact that, in practice, those positions have been profoundly classed, gendered and racialised (and seem now to be being ‘religion-ised’ in much of the Global North too).  Hence my suggestion that discussions of smart cities need some social science input.

But I’m afraid the behavioural psychologist didn’t help much here.  Her contribution was to offer the acronym WIIFM – wiffem – as a way of understanding why people adopt, or don’t adopt, technologies.  What does WIIFM stand for?  ‘What’s in it for me’.  Yes, really.  To be fair, she did also comment that reducing human motivation to WIIFM might make people sound rather selfish.  But selfish doesn’t quite cover it. WIIFM also suggests people are single units unencumbered by any other responsibilities  (it isn’t WIIFTPIL, for example – what’s in it for for the people I love), that the human actions are based on cost-benefit-analysis of the crudest kind, and that the outcomes of decisions are fully understood.

Let me be clear: I find smart city discussions really interesting and exciting.  This is the future, after all, being made now, at a moment of extraordinary technical change the implications of which are barely emerging.  (John Lanchester has a great essay on this in the last issue of the London Review of Books.)  So it’s particularly disappointing to have to be going back to some pretty old feminist arguments – several of which I drew on for my book on Feminism and Geography, which came out in 1993 – and make these points.  But they have to be made, or the future in some pretty fundamental ways is going to look a lot like its past.  And this requires social scientists to start engaging with smart city discourse and technology.  Not simply dismissing it (as a recent blogpost by Andy Merrifield has done) because it’s all corporate capitalism, but thinking carefully about – and insisting that – smart tech is complex and diverse, that the organisations and people creating and using it are also various, and that its effects in the world are therefore going to be more unpredictable than IBM et al assume.

I should end by acknowledging that this this post has taken a very belt-and-braces approach to the question of how smart city discourses are excluding discussion about social difference.  I haven’t got complicated about what sorts of social differences might matter more, or less, in different kinds of smart cities; and I haven’t touched on what sorts of social (and cultural) theory might best help us address the relation between smart tech and urban social formations (though I reckon a sort of more-than-usually-socially-sensitive Science and Technology Studies might do it best – discuss).  And of course there’s some great scholarship already out there that’s helpful for thinking more about all this.  I’ll be sharing some of the work I’ve found really inspiring in my next blog post

13 thoughts on “smart cities and why they need a lot more social scientists to get involved

  1. Reblogged this on Visual Sociology NUIG and commented:
    Prof. Gillian Rose about Smart Cities, Visualizations and Social Sciences. For those of you working on Galway city and NUIG campus, I think you will find the debate around uniformity interesting and the links of the post quite inspiring.

  2. I agree that social scientists have something to add to the development of smart cities but it is not just a matter of ‘getting involved’

    As an engineer who worked with social scientists for more than 20 years in software systems engineering, I found the interaction to be stimulating, valuable and at times utterly frustrating. Those involved in any engineering endeavour have to make design decisions and compromises but my experience was that social scientists were quite reluctant to engage at this level. They were interested in observation, analysis and presenting their findings but not in making judgements about technologies and technology design.

    Engineers have to make judgements and design decisions which often involve difficult compromises which they know will make some people unhappy. Social scientists can, I believe, help them make better judgements but they have to engage with the engineering process and understand that it is different to an academic analytical process. Failure to do so, will mean that they will simply be ignored.

    • Thanks for this Ian. “Get involved” is a kind of placeholder phrase, it could refer to a number of different things. But I did intend it to mean something a bit more proactive (and compromised, probably) than just ‘watch and criticise’… some kind of co-production process perhaps. And given all the talk right now about the importance of ‘citizens’ to successful smart technologies (and cities), maybe the time is right for this sort of thing to appear?

      • I am working with the University of Bristol to scope how social scientists can work with engineers to co-create user-centric use cases in collaboration with citizen organisations and Bristol’s city council.

        We need to utilise P2P thinking, open innovation principles, agile development principles, hackathon methodologies, citizen summits, future search and large systems in a room. We have all the bits, we just need to pull them together to make things happen.

        Some social scientist was to sit back, describe the world and reflect, but many are open to applied research, action research and evaluation research, and these are more open to co-creation and more excited about the prospects. What I feel is missing are 1) inter-disciplinary funding opportunities on the topic, and 2) conference calls and journal publications (perhaps special issues) that social scientists can publish about their smart city research. As professors, you can do something about this. You can drive this….

      • Thanks Tally. I am actually just about to submit a funding application to explore how various smart projects rolling out in Milton Keynes have different notions of ‘users’ embedded in them – so yes, definitely up for driving things forward! But I think as well as all the techniques you describe, we need to add into the mix a much better understanding of who it is that attends citizen summits, hackathons, consultations, forums etc. All of these techniques make certain assumptions about what it is to be a participant – and if those assumptions are (inadvertantly) classed, gendered, racialised, age-specific, etc etc, those techniques will continue to embed only certain sorts of users into device interfaces. So it’s not only about getting people involved, but thinking really carefully about what sorts of people. But I suspect Bristol is probably already thinking hard about this?

  3. Pingback: Smart cities and why they need a lot more social scientists to get involved « Cidade Sintrópica

  4. Pingback: smart cities and why they need a lot more social scientists to get involved | Almere

  5. Indeed Bristol is looking into the participation of citizens and community groups into smart city development and planning. Their Bristol Brain project presented in COP21 in Paris is a testament to the aspirations to involve citizens in urban design and planning, putting citizens in the driving seat and it is worth our collaboration. Also, the recently awarded REPLICATE EU project by Bristol University will engage citizens in smart technologies development putting young Bristolians at the hardware core of smart city development. So, it worth our attention and potentially collaboration.

    On another note, and I hope you don’t mind me presenting this here, I have organised a track on Stakeholder engagement in smart city (re-)development for this year’s 4s/EASST Conference Barcelona 2016, in the hope to provide ‘space’ for exchanging views and approaches on the matter. I would be most delighted should you consider to participate and most grateful to disseminate the information to like minded academics and practitioners in any relevant field.

    • I was sent this comment by Debbi Withers via email:

      I don’t believe this is the case. As someone who lives in Bristol, and does not participate in the hacker/ maker subcultures, I have not seen one shred of civic participation / engagement on the issue of smart cities.
      When I have spoken to friends about it, including people who run community businesses in the city centre, they have never heard about the smart cities initiative, nor do they understand its implications for democracy, surveillance, etc. Surely they should have been consulted? If there has been a serious consultation, please provide links in this comment thread so I can see evidence. I’d also like to see the business plan for Bristol’s smart city initiative. The economics of smart cities need to be laid bare, so everyday city dwellers can understand how their labour/data generates profit for the council, corporations and the university. I’d also like to see an electricity bill. How energy efficient are all those super computers processing the data, day and night?

      Smart cities cannot just be built under our feet (even though they have been), so that our actions are tracked and re-purposed to generate value for the information economy under the rubric of city management, planning or efficiency. Want to solve the traffic problems in Bristol? Build better cycle lanes and give everyone a bicycle, sort out an affordable and well bus service. Common sense, and ecological principles, are routinely ignored when the ideology of smart cities/ big data etc take precedence. And it is an ideology, and everyone knows it. No one wants to live in a real-life bad version of a computer game, designed according to pernicious logics of modulation and control, which is how smart cities will mould the social eventually.

      We need more of the critical debate Prof Rose is presenting on her blog, rather than marketing bling and short-termist, vacuous thinking. I look forward to reading more.

      • Hi Prof. Gillian,

        It is so very true that more can and should be happening, and sometimes it is about networking and publicising to develop the critical mass necessary for value creation. May I direct the Debbi towards the CABOT institute? I trust that she will find likeminded people to connect to, if she hasn’t already connected:

        Click to access Future%20cities%20leaflet%20Final.pdf

        All the best,


  6. Hello again. Congratulations on the funding, and the conference track sounds great. I can’t get to Barcelona for it (unfortunately for me) but send me a link to your track and I’ll tweet it.

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