SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

The knowledge politics of smart urbanism

Digital technologies are challenging contemporary social theory on cities and urbanism.

Over recent years the concept of ‘smart cities’ has rapidly gained attention in business, policy and academic circles. The concept emerges at the intersection of continuing urbanisation, new information technologies, shrinking city budgets, increased city responsibilities, and societal challenges such as economic restructuring, ageing populations and climate change.

With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council’s commitment to the international Open Research Area, Professor Adrian Smith is part of a 3-year pan-European project that will analyse encounters and tensions between formal, corporate-led smart city initiatives and the multitude of informal ‘do-it-yourself’ grassroots initiatives in smart urbanism. In all cases, a key question is how ‘smart’ developments, in all their diverse forms, nevertheless share particular ways of ‘knowing the city’ – based in computational networks, sensors and inferences - and how a new politics of knowing and intervening in the city is arising.

The study will analyse the knowledge politics of smart urbanism in eight European cities: Eindhoven, Amsterdam, Sheffield, Barcelona, Berlin, Hamburg, Lyon, Paris. Professor Smith will be working in close collaboration with Professor Simon Marvin and Dr Rachel Macrorie (Urban Institute, University of Sheffield). The project also involves other teams from Utrecht University, the University of Freiburg, Humbolt University, and Toulouse 1 University.

Professor Smith explains:

“I’ll be studying developments in Barcelona. There are some fascinating developments in play there right now, as city leaders are attempting to re-orientate the city towards ostensibly more democratic, solidarity- and community-based forms of urbanism. In doing so, the new administration seeks to recast and reshape some of the smart city initiatives launched by their predecessors, and introduce new issues like ‘technology sovereignty’. So there is a question here about who gets to know what about the city in ‘smart’ ways, what knowledge and experience gets eclipsed by these digital approaches, and how all this connects to more traditional forms of urban politics.”

The research project aims to draw on practical experiences from across all the cities in order to develop a framework for better appreciating the knowledge politics involved in smart urbanism. The framework will draw in conceptual resources from across the fields of urban geography, science and technology studies (STS) and socio-technical transitions. Practically, the project will identify ways in which digital technologies are shaping new emancipatory interfaces between business, city administration and citizen initiatives.

Further reading

Read Professor Smith's blog post for the Guardian on some earlier smart urbanism research in Barcelona.

Read more about Professor Smith's work in his recent book Grassroots Innovation Movements (Routledge, 2016).


* Photo courtesy of Thomas Quine, via Flickr