call for papers on assembling smart + social difference for EASST conference

The SCiM team is organising a session at the EASST conference in Lancaster, UK, in July. The conference homepage is here and you can find details of the call for papers here.


The conference will take place from 25-28 July at Lancaster University with the theme “Making science, technology and society together”.  The SCiM team is inviting contributions for a session on Assembling the smart city: exploring the contours of social difference. Smart cities are being figured as meeting places where multifarious things come together gathered by a vision of digital-led urban transformation. We invite papers that follow some aspect of this to better understand how Smart participates in patterning social difference. We seek insight into what sorts of ways of urban life specific versions of Smart make more or less possible; when, where, for whom?

Short abstracts of fewer than 300 characters and long abstracts of fewer than 250 words must be submitted via the conference’s online form (not by email) before midnight CET on February 14th, 2018.

Members of the SCiM team will be there, sharing some of the results of our research into the co-production of smart technologies, policies and practices with various processes of social differentiation both familiar and emergent. Do join us!

images, cities, talk and wonder

One of the things I enjoy most about Sight and Sound magazine is the column written by Mark Cousins. Often quirky and always extraordinarily well-informed, they can be interventions or meditations or enthusiasms – though actually, they are always enthusiasms to one degree or another. (I especially remember a fantastic discussion of Scarlett Johansson’s ability to be slow on screen, which totally made sense of her work and presence, not least in the weird Under the Skin.)


So I was really looking forward to hearing him talk at the excellent Festival of the Future City in Bristol last week. And he was indeed wonderful, talking to a selection of images of cities. Barely an academic reference made, and hugely insightful, using words to pull out particular and striking qualities in his images that a more systematic approach never could. So wonderful in fact that all I wanted to do here was list a few of his phrases. Here they are:

vabble – the visual equivalent of babble                      perspectival plunge

     the city whent it’s too alive, too dense, oppressive. or when it’s dying, toxic, poisonous

am I there yet               the Pompidou Centre is like a cathedral wrapped in elastic bands

           the city as a camera mount                           a centrifugal imagination

At the time, in the moment, they were quirky, eclectic, poetic, funny and powerful: carrying and extending some of the effects of his chosen images into the audience, making us see more and differently. Now I’ve written them down, without the images and outwith Mark’s performance, they don’t seem anywhere near as wonderful. But they were. In the moment they really were. Here’s hoping that his new book, The Story of Looking, achieves something similarly magical.

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 visualities in a spy movie

I went to see the film Jason Bourne a couple of weeks ago, the latest instalment in the Matt Damon/Paul Greengrass (mostly) spy thriller saga.  In my defence, it was a quiet week; I have argued that cultural geographers should be a lot more interested in popular (visual) culture (here, if you’re interested); and it was one of Sight and Sound magazine’s films of the month.  So off I went.


Coming out of the cinema, I felt I’d been turned into a sort of visual punchbag, subjected to frequent slapping image impact for the movie’s full 123 minutes and 10 seconds. Once my head cleared a bit, though, it did seem to me that there were some interesting things about that visual experience, several of which are pointed to by Sight and Sound‘s review of the movie, written by Henry K Miller and which you can read in full here.

Henry starts his review by saying that:

The triple crisis of the modern spy movie is the redundancy of human intelligence, of the secret agent, and of spectatorial agency.

Wow.  That’s quite a claim.  But in Bourneworld it’s true: the spy is replaced by digital databases; no one can hide from digital surveillance now; and since what is knowable and visible is mediated by digital tech, the filmic ‘realism’ of classic cinema is redundant.

This has various consequences.  For example, simply looking at the world isn’t enough any more to give movie spectators the evidence they need to figure out the plot; instead we have to be shown endless screens and their information (computer screens, desktop and laptop and wallsize, and phone screens, get a lot of screen time in the movie).

And if what screens show become a crucial part of the action so too, therefore, as Henry also points out, does the control room: the darkened room where CIA operatives stare at screens.  (Interestingly, the more senior the CIA official in Bourneworld, the less glued to a screen they are – though the movie also suggests that understanding the culture of the digital world is increasingly important for such characters).

The aesthetics of those screens are interesting too.  They carry all sorts of images, from photographs to printed text to maps to satellite images to real time data flows to animated algorithmic calculations to graphics of many kinds, and often switch from one to the other with complete ease (there’s no bugs or glitches in Bourneworld, though there are hackers, of course).  They have a visual profligacy which is typically digital (I’ve written about a different kind of example of this here.)  And data is shown in neon colours glowing on black backgrounds, which is very typical too: a lot of smart city visualisations use the same colour range.

In Jason Bourne, it’s screens that appear to offer greater insight into both the events structuring the film and into the films’ characters too.  You don’t go to any of the Bourne movies for extended, introspective dialogue, as several critics have pointed out, it’s true.  But it’s still striking that Bourne’s motivation and even creation is explained in the movie by an online document, which we read on a screen over Jason’s shoulder.  And the camerawork that captures the characters as human bodies (rather than the screen aesthetics that capture them as data) is relentlessly mobile and choppy, fragmenting what can be seen into near-incoherence.

And if the characters are often represented as the data trail that they leave as they move, the final fistfight seems to take particular pleasure in emphasising the embodied human as disposable ‘wetware’, with blood and grunts and close-ups of stranglings, very visceral, and very vulnerable: huge numbers of bodies are simply felled in the movie by assassins of various kinds.

All this happens at speed: everything happens fast in the film.  No-one starts a car slowly, or strolls aimlessly; engines are revved, walking is purposeful and more than likely to break into a run.  The camera wheels and pans relentlessly.  It’s all about flow – just like digital networks.

So, while the movie doesn’t advance the spy movie genre (though the final car chase is a pretty damn fine exemplar), or indeed the conventions of the franchise (as Henry also comments), it does offer an intriguing commentary on some of the visual recalibrations occurring as the visual field is more and more produced digitally.

(Oh I feel I should also mention that in the interests of gender balance, sort of, last week I watched Blake Lively defeat a monster shark in The Shallows.  SPOILER ALERT.  Also by using a screen: she records an SOS on a GoPro camera which then floats ashore.)

new paper on CGIs as postcolonial visualisations

Earlier this month, Clare Melhuish, Monica Degen and I published another paper from our ESRC-funded project ‘Architectural atmospheres’, which looked at how computer generated images intervene in the architectural design process.  This paper focusses particularly on how such images might be the sites for the postcolonial visualisation of urban redevelopment projects.

Doha fieldtrip Days 1 & 2 171

a model and CGIs of the Msheireb Downtown project, photographed in early 2011

The paper is called “‘The real modernity that is here’: understanding the role of digital visualisations in the production of a new urban imaginary at Msheireb Downtown, Doha”, and it’s out in City and Society volume 28 number 2.  Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores how Computer Generated Images (CGIs) have enabled the visualisation and negotiation of a new urban imaginary in the production of a large-scale urban development project in Doha, Qatar. CGIs were central not only to the marketing but also the design of Msheireb Downtown. Our study of their production and circulation across a transnational architectural and construction team reveals how their digital characteristics allowed for the development of a negotiated, hybridised urban imaginary, within the context of a re-imaging and re-positioning of cities in a shifting global order. We suggest that CGIs enabled the co-production of a postcolonial urban aesthetic, disrupting the historical Orientalist gaze on the Gulf region, in three ways. Firstly, they circulate through a global network of actors negotiating diverse forms of knowledge from different contexts; secondly, they are composed from a mix of inter-referenced cultural sources and indicators visualising hybrid identities; and thirdly, they evoke a particular urban atmosphere which is both place- and culture-specific, and cosmopolitan. The study emphasises the importance of research into the technical and aesthetic production processes which generate new urban spaces in the context of global market-led growth; and, by considering the circulation of CGIs between sites, contributes to the development of “a more properly postcolonial studies” (Robinson 2011, 17).

visualising the smart city as flow and glow

Earlier this year, I wrote a chapter for a book called Compact Cinematics – it’s edited by Pepita Hesselberth and Maria Poulaki and will be out from Bloomsbury early next year.  The chapter is called ‘Screening smart cities: managing data, views and vertigo’.  It’s a short chapter – Pepita and Maria hit upon the conceit of asking contributors to write compact pieces on examples of compact cinema, so we were given just 2,500 words – and it focuses on just one example of how smart cities are being visualised now: a promotional digital animation created by ISO Design for Siemens called Future Life.  What I explore in that chapter is why the animation is a really interesting example of the spatial and visual relations through which the smart city is being imagined into existence.



As well as on YouTube, you can view the animation on a panoramic screen in Siemens’s exhibition space in London, The Crystal.  It purports to show London, New York and Copenhagen in 2050, and it’s really provocative for thinking about how future cities are being imagined now.  And while in some ways the visuals are very familiar, with lots of pale white and grey buildings, lots of windows, thousands of trees and screens of all kinds, sunny skies and happy people, all managed from control centre using a holographic model of the city, there are also some rather more interesting aspects to this vision.

In my chapter I focus on the visuality and spatiality of the animation.  I think the visuality exemplifies what Thomas Elsaesser suggests are the ‘default values of digital visuality’: an immersive mobility in which the frame dissolves and the spectator is transported into the image.  The spatiality is thus highly and smoothly mobile, as the animation’s point of view shifts and glides up and down and over and through.  But there’s more to say about this animation, which in a longer chapter I would have explored.

For example, throughout the animation its types of visual content smoothly morph from one to another, from landscape photograph (or at least a photo-realistic computer generated image) to a 3D massing model, to a luminous flow of data or energy in a black empty space, to an aerial photographic view.  This visual profligacy – in which what were once very different kinds of images, wtih distinct materialisations, uses and ways of being seen are now available to a digital visualiser as a kind of drop-down visual menu, to be selected and used at will – also seems to me to be typical of digital visuals, though not many exemplify it to the extreme as this animation does.  There’s also a lot of interesting things to think about in terms of the temporality of this vision.  It’s a vision of the future seen through the current favoured aesthetic of architectural and real-time data visualisations; and a future which seems to have no past but also no sense of its own time passing, since nothing in its urban environments seems to have aged.

And in terms of things ageing – that chapter has already aged in my eyes, after I talked about the animation in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago, as a guest at the University of Amsterdam’s wonderful School for Cultural Analysis.  It’s not the first time I’ve shown the animation to academics, and  audiences always bring their own interpretations to the animation, of course.  A favourite game that developed in several previous audiences has been ‘spot the visual reference’: audience members like to discuss what influenced the animation, and the list they’ve developed collectively is long, from Disney to Bauhaus, from Hollywood superhero movies to nineteenth-century panoramas, from computer games to maquettes – and as I’ve already suggested, that eclecticism is part of what makes the animation uniquely digital I think.  It’s a high-end, smoothly edited, elegantly visioned, visual mash-up.

In Amsterdam, though, I got rather different kind of questions – closer to what the animation might be doing with audiences less familiar with the relatively recent cultural history of a small part of the world, I think.  My favourite came from Judith Naeff from Radboud University.   I’d always thought of the floating point of view that’s performed by much of the animation, hovering in a slightly wobbly way, engine buzzing quietly in the background, over cities pictured in various ways, was the viewpoint from a helicopter.  Judith, though, made a different and much better suggestion: that the animation inhabits the viewpoint of a drone camera.  Absolutely.  It’s a machinic vision, mediated not only by a camera (apparently) but also by a mobile machine: a hypermediated vision that’s increasingly shaping urban spaces.

You can read my chapter on the Future Life animation  here.  And here’s the Elsaesser reference:

Elsaesser, T., 2013. The “return” of 3-D: on some of the logics and genealogies of the image in the twenty-first century. Critical Inquiry, 39(2), pp.217–246.

more on ‘women’ and ‘smart’, mostly from smart women

My post last week on designing a smart city for ‘women’ generated a few different reactions on Twitter, as well as a range of resources for further thinking.  I thought it might be useful to gather them together.

Sam Kinsley (a smart man who blogs here) and Ayona Datta reflected on why smart city events are so full of men. Ayona pointed to the way in which tech businesses and startups are male-dominated, and also to the general ambience of ‘smart’ events.

Alexandra Notay usefully suggested some places to find female speakers on smart urbanism:

I got some nice reactions from people who I am now following and learning from.  For example, this one from the brilliantly named Urbanistas in London:

My favourite positive reaction, though, was probably this one, from City Regional Exchange in Cardiff.  I appreciated its self-critique – though who wouldn’t smile like that with £1.2bn…

I was also sent some very useful comments on how a specific part of ‘smart’ in cities is gendered: energy use.  Here’s geographer Harriet Bulkeley:

Harriet’s tweet also put me on to the work of Heather Lovell, who leads a project with the spot-on title of ‘smart grids messy society‘.

I also got to learn about the work of Yolande Strengers.  She kindly sent me links to several pieces she’s written on the gendering of smart homes specifically.  They’re great, and perfectly tread that line between acknowledging differences (especially gendered difference) but not reifying them.  Try this piece in The Conversation on how adverts for the smart home assume a male householder and no domestic labour. Or her excellent piece written for the Association for Computer Machinery here, on Resource Man: the rational, bill-paying individual assumed by the smart energy industry and also often by the smart city industry too (of course you want to travel the most efficient route home; of course you’ll reduce your water consumption if you see it’s more than your neighbours’).  (Her book is called Smart Energy Technologies in Everyday Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).)

Vanessa Thomas shared a paper she’s written with Ding Wang, Louise Mullagh and Nick Dunn that explores what they describe as ‘situated understandings of smart cities’ – you can find it here, in the open access online journal Sustainability.

Eoin O’Mahony also got exactly where I was heading with my argument.

Which was great, because other tweeters took my post in rather different directions.

Does ‘smart’ happen when #women and #gender are added?  That Modified Tweet really did modify my argument.  My post focussed on how we think about ‘women’, ‘gender’ and ‘adding’.  (And something that Yolande Strengers points out is just how white so many visuals of smart energy users are; ditto with smart cities.  It’s not just ‘women’ who are either ignored or stereotyped.)  I was suggesting that smart cities would become more open to all sorts of social differences if the data on which they rely was interrogated more carefully as it was made and used, so that its assumptions about social practices could be explored and multiplied.  Yolande’s work similarly takes a somewhat sideways approach to ‘adding women’: she focuses not on the situatedness of data but on the complicated messiness of what humans actually do with objects and technologies, arguing that smart energy devices in homes need to be designed to engage with that messiness.  Once you’re looking for messiness, whether in data or in what people do, you start to be genuinely open in your understanding of both technologies and what people do with them.

Whatever the precise tactic, ‘smart’ cities will surely be better achieved by engaging with the complexity of social life rather than by attempting to erase it.