TechTech Book Club: A Smart Cities Special

POSTED BY   Michele Baker
11th October 2018
TechTech Book Club: A Smart Cities Special

A fantastic evening last night for the inaugural TechTech Book Club meetup. Eight of us, over red wine or a tankard of ale, gathered in our private room at the Boot and Flogger in Southwark, and enjoyed a lively and engaging discussion on the positives and pitfalls of the so-called ‘Smart Cities’ phenomenon.

Feeding this discussion was the book of choice for this month, Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn? – a rather ambitious choice for the first meeting, being a collection of academic essays on the topic. Nonetheless, we were thrilled to see well-thumbed copies on the table, complete with extensive highlighting, page markers and comments in the margins. Well done to those who managed to get through it! Suffice to say, however, we will be looking at something lighter for our next meeting.


Read our notes and key points from the book and our discussions here


TechTech Book Club Group


“What happens in book club, stays in book club”


The discussion quickly transcended the reading material, as the ownership and control of data became a key talking point. So many informed insights and perspectives from everyone in the group made this a really poignant discussion, and one that certainly affects us all as the deluge of data floods in, largely into corporate hands. It became clear that each of us has different attitudes to what data we are prepared to share, and whether offering up that data will empower or disempower us.

It was also really interesting to discuss the cultural differences that alter perceptions on smart cities and surveillance states, as well as the differences in key problems faced by cities across the globe – for example, traffic lights in San Diego versus waste management in India.

There was the issue of centralisation versus decentralisation in cities, and how we may, as citizens, be able to claw back autonomy in order to reap more of the benefits of technology, rather than necessarily submitting to a potentially dystopian technocracy.

We also touched on concerns that smart city and smart home technologies could exacerbate financial and class divides in society, leading to a ‘non-digital underclass’ of citizens effectively blocked out of their own cities as they are unable to access the products and services available to those with the means to purchase them.

To be honest, we could have continued for many hours. There are so many facets to the smart cities, big data, quantified-self phenomenon, there was a general consensus that there is much more still to be covered. But that will have to wait for another day. The great technological era in which we are living offers up a huge array of talking points, and the wealth of literature for us to choose from to feed these discussions is seemingly endless.

Smart UrbanismAnd that is, essentially, what the TechTech Book Club is for. A chance to get into the nitty-gritty of the changes we are seeing rise up around us, to talk our views and knowledge through with friends and strangers. There’s so much to learn, and I know that the group from last night are hungry to keep exploring.

We are all really excited about what the next TechTech Book Club meeting has in store. And we invite you to join us next month.

There are a few ways to get involved. We recommend joining our WhatsApp group, which you can do by hitting this link. Then, there’s the Facebook Group, and also the email newsletter which offers regular updates and general techy insight.


Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn?

Ed. Simon Marvin, Andrés Luque-Ayala and Colin McFarlane



Some points from the book


  • IBM and Cisco (and other multinational corporations) are supporting smart cities. However, the drive behind this is less philanthropic than for the purpose of selling their expensive ‘urban solutions’ – is the paradigm, therefore, just a powerful form of product marketing?


  • There is a concern that there is too much naive faith in technology to provide solutions to complex problems, with little attention being paid to the ‘urban context’. Cities are messy, vastly multi-faceted, quantifying the most poignant issues for solution is nigh-on impossible with the use of data alone. Without attention to the actual context of what is happening ‘on the ground’, there is a strong reason to believe that it is not the people of the city that will benefit from the use of technology, but the corporations whose influence on society may be detrimental.


  • In contrast to the inherently fierce capitalist rhetoric (focused on economic growth) other factions of smart city spokespeople seek a more socially intelligent and ecologically relevant set of solutions. The aim should be more focused on promoting social justice, alleviating inequalities, than driving forward the capitalist machine.


  • Though the opposing voice of ‘alternative’ viewpoints on how the smart cities phenomenon can be enacted for the public good does in many ways contradict the prevailing economic interests of corporations, there are various overlaps between the two factions. A solution could be to encourage discussions between these two factions to achieve a more inclusive and socially just smart cities paradigm.


A compromise between the needs of the people and those of corporations may achieve a workable balance that drives economic growth, fostering innovation and efficiency, whilst simultaneously benefitting residents of the city to a significant degree. Maintaining tangible democracy (rather than ushering in an era of technocracy) and good government is key if the smart cities phenomenon is to be a successful and positive evolution.

In Cape Town, for example, with data on public services freely available to the public, activists and engaged citizens are able to hold local government accountable through social media. Decentralising the democratic model is a mantra in the smart cities discourse, and this must be followed through. Indeed, Cape Town’s recent drought has driven citizens to social media again, both to share water saving approaches and information, and to compare published smart meter data for individual households and neighbourhoods. Sometimes the panopticon is distributed.

Trikala, in Greece, is also adopting a similar model where residents can report a problem and it gets dealt with – similar to raising a ‘ticket’ to get a problem dealt with – and this is all centrally managed via a central control room. Given the well documented bureaucratic processes that Greece is well known for – problems/issues traditionally only got dealt with if you knew the local politician. So technology is being used to improve services, increase transparency and become more efficient. A massive step change for Greece and perhaps a signal that it is coming through the other side of a very bad economic depression? So can the adoption of tech for cities rejuvenate an economy by making it more inclusive? Or does it pose the question that in order for the concept of a smart city to move from idea to reality only happen when there is a need for radical change?



  • Innovation, the use of public space in creative ways and the fostering of forward-thinking and original new companies, encourages the entrepreneurship that will drive economic growth which will have (hopefully) a trickle-down effect of benefitting the city and its residents through investment in infrastructure.


  • At this early stage, it is difficult to ascertain how the move to a smart city world will play out. We do not, at this point, have enough empirical evidence, nor theoretical insight, required in order to assess the implications.


  • A top-down approach to the city, one which ignores the fact that a city is about the people and communities which make up the character and uniqueness of the place, focusing on tech-infused buildings and tools, is a mistake.


What does technocratic governance mean?



“Technocracy is a proposed system of governance where decision-makers are selected on the basis of their expertise in their areas of responsibility, particularly scientific knowledge. This system explicitly contrasts with the notion that elected representatives should be the primary decision-makers in government, though it does not necessarily imply eliminating elected representatives. Leadership skills for decision-makers are selected on the basis of specialized knowledge and performance, rather than political affiliations or parliamentary skills.

The term technocracy was originally used to advocate the application of the scientific method to solving social problems. Concern could be given to sustainability within the resource base, instead of monetary profitability, so as to ensure continued operation of all social-industrial functions. In its most extreme sense technocracy is an entire government run as a technical or engineering problem and is mostly hypothetical. In more practical use, technocracy is any portion of a bureaucracy that is run by technologists. A government in which elected officials appoint experts and professionals to administer individual government functions and recommend legislation can be considered technocratic. Some uses of the word refer to a form of meritocracy, where the ablest are in charge, ostensibly without the influence of special interest groups.”

*(Italics mine)

Discuss: Based on this definition, is technocratic governance a bad thing?



  • Are smart cities inherently ideological?
  • Can technological advancement be free of bias?
  • Is the smart cities discourse merely a justification for neoliberal development and displacement?
  • Do private firms necessarily have an incentive to disregard citizens’ needs in favour of opaque and potentially exploitative maneuvers?
  • “Looking at history, one can make the argument that the greatest periods of economic growth and productivity have occurred when we have integrated innovation into the physical environment, especially in cities.” – Discuss
  • What would a city look like if we started from scratch in the internet era?
  • How does data privacy feed into the smart cities paradigm?
  • What is an ‘e-citizen’?
  • Should we call them ‘smart cities’ or ‘smarter cities’?


Quotes from the book


“Promoted by international organisations, the corporate sector and national and local governments alike, the dominant vision is of the meshing of intelligent infrastructure, high tech urban development, the digital economy and e-citizens”


“This novel form of urbanism… provides a flexible and responsive means of addressing the challenges of urban growth and renewal, responding to climate change, increasing resilience, promoting sustainable economic growth and building a more socially inclusive society”


“There is a lack of comparative analysis and a dearth of knowledge about the range of urban contexts within which forms of smart and digital urbanisation are emerging internationally.”


“Smart urbanisation is projected, often following normative or teleological approaches, as a solution brought to the present to deal with a series of uban maladies, such as issues of transport congestion, resource limitation, climate change and even the need to expand democratic access.”


“[A] lack of critical evaluation, compounded with an emphasis on technological solutions that disregard the social and political domains, is a vital omission.”


“There is a growing interest in the political ecologies and cyborgian nature of cities.”


“The ways in which the social, economic and political potential of smart urbanism is fundamentally produced with and through technologies remains beyond the reach of social science perspectives.”


“Smart urbanisation may serve to further deepen the splintering of urban networks that dominated the last part of the twentieth century for many cities … creating deep divides between those with access to ‘smart’ and those without.”


“What constitutes a smart city is not universally agreed upon”


“A smart city is one whose urban fabric is increasingly instrumented, composed of ‘everyware’ … software-enabled infrastructure and networked digital devices and sensors that are used to augment urban management and governance. Here, a smart city is one that can be monitored, managed and regulated in real time using ICT infrastructure and ubiquitous computing that generate big data.”


“A smart city is one whose economy is increasingly driven by technology-inspired innovation and entrepreneurship that, in turn, will attract businesses and jobs, create efficiencies and savings and raise the productivity and competitiveness of government and businesses … Here, the focus is on the formulation and adoption of policies that use ICT to reshape human capital, creativity, education, sustainability, governance and economic activity to produce knowledge-driven, competitive, resilient urban systems.”


“The data within these systems are not neutral and objective in nature, but are situated, contingent and relational, framed by the ideas, techniques, technologies, people and context that conceive, produce, process, manage, analyse and store them.”


“Critical scholars, policy analysts and community organisations [have] concerns [which] can be divided into five broad themes: the growth of technocratic governance; the hollowing out of the state and the corporatisation of city governance; the creation of buggy, brittle and hackable city systems; the production of panoptic surveillance, predictive profiling and social sorting; and the promotion of an instrumental rationality and realist epistemology.”


“A technocratic approach fails to recognise the wider effects of culture, politics, policy, governance and capital in shaping city life and urban systems … As such, they largely paper over cracks rather than fixing them.”


“Technocratic control and command systems tend to centralise power and decision-making into a select set of administrative offices, rather than distributing power.”


“While such companies might be fostering innovative and useful interventions there are three related anxieties concerning their foray into roles traditionally delivered by the state, especially those involving regulation and governance. First, it actively promotes a neoliberal political economy, the marketisation of public services and the hollowing out of the state, wherein city functions are administered for private profit. Second, it potentially creates a technological lock-in or corporate path dependency that ties cities to particular technological platforms and vendors over a long period of time, creating monopoly positions.”


“Digital technologies for running and managing city services and infrastructures [are] creating environments which are inherently buggy and brittle and are prone to viruses, glitches, crashes and security hacks. … software … sold in full knowledge that they are inherently partial, provisional, porous and open to failure … if they fail, there are no alternatives until the system is fixed/rebooted. The fear for some commentators is the creation of highly vulnerable and costly urban systems, rather than robust systems that create efficiencies and resilience.”


Further Reading:




Notes on the session:


  1. Who owns the data of our lives?
  2. Corporations are needed to bring about smart solutions but they may have different intentions for the use
  3. Serious difference between attitudes and expectations of Europe and rest of world – Nick
  4. Control of data is paramount to a potential society that receives benefits without the threats of ultimate control
  5. Is there a threat that there becomes a Non-Digital Underclass – depends on whether Smart City benefits are passive or active digital benefits.


Don’t worry, we’ll never share details with anyone.

TechTech Book Club: A Smart Cities Special

Michele Baker

Michele Baker is the Senior Content Strategist at TDMB. She began her journey into tech marketing via a Masters in Creative Writing, evolving from a prize-winning poet and short story writer to a futuristic content guru. Michele now writes endlessly about all aspects of technology, hosts the TDMB Presents… tech podcast, and speaks at numerous tech and marketing events.

Get in Touch With Michele Baker

01306 632 854

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