Archives for category: smart city

There’s no explicit connection between these three new publications bearing my name (except for the fact that they bear my name), but you can make one if you like.

The first is a Manifesto for Governing Life on Mars. This is the preliminary fruit of a six-month project funded by the Dubai Future Foundation, which ended with a workshop in December 2018. I and a couple of colleagues plan to follow up with a couple of academic publications.

Why think about this topic? Well, space exploration (and Mars settlement specifically) is in the news a lot at the moment, and large amounts of resources are being allocated towards it. The aim of this research was to draw attention to draw attention to some of the problematic political and social dimensions of settling Mars. Most current public discussion about settling Mars either proceeds in a highly technical way, or is entirely speculative/science-fictional. One initial aim here was to try to learn instead from experiments in setting up alternative communities on Earth.

The second is an article which I co-authored with Federico Caprotti (University of Exeter), and was recently published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. We were thinking about the difficulty of understanding the way that ‘big ideas’ in urban policy-making – and the ‘smart city’ in particular – land on the ground. If you start from the perspective of the vision, from on high, only part of what actually happens on the ground is visible.  But if you start on the ground, it’s difficult to see what ties it all together.  In this paper, we suggest that the idea of a ‘cultural economy’ of smart urbanism helpfully accounts for both the shaping effects of policy discourse and its varied concrete manifestations in real urban space.

Caprotti, F. and Cowley, R. (2019). Varieties of smart urbanism in the UK: discursive logics, the state, and local urban context. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12284


The third is a short chapter in a new book, Digital Objects, Digital Subjects, published by the University of Westminster Press.  It responds to a chapter in which Paul Rekret critiques the supposed ‘innocence’ of posthuman thinking. I propose that posthumanism (as a broad body of thinking) has a rather uneven appeal, and that it doesn’t exclude the possibility of other forms of thinking about ‘hybridity’ to emerge in future.

Cowley, R. (2019). Posthumanism as a Spectrum. In
Chandler, D. & Fuchs, C. (eds) Digital Objects, Digital Subjects: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Capitalism, Labour and Politics in the Age of Big Data. London: University of Westminster Press. ISBN: 978-1-912656-20-2.

digital objects digital subjects

London, 30 January 2019

Inside Smart Cities cover

Lots of research has been conducted into the way that ‘big ideas’ in policy-making seem to travel around the world increasingly rapidly, but also undergo processes of ‘translation’ as they are implemented in different places.  (Perhaps the fullest treatment of this phenomenon is provided in Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore’s 2015 book on ‘Fast Policy’.) It’s possible to interpret the ‘smart city’ concept through this lens – and I’m interested in the ways that it has come to land in China specifically.

I visited the city of Wuhan last year. Wuhan is one of China’s rising economic stars (and also one of the case studies in our smart eco-cities research project), but not yet part of the premier ‘Tier I’ league. My original hope was to set up some research looking into its longstanding and ongoing ‘twinning’ arrangement with the city of Manchester.  In the end, that particular line of enquiry didn’t go too far, but my visit did form the basis of a co-authored chapter in a book published by Routledge today.

The book as a whole explores the varied ways that ‘smart city’ technology is being implemented in real-world urban space around the world.  Our chapter on Wuhan explores the need to understand this process as part of a broader digitisation of everyday life – it suggests that analyses focused on policy-making or entrepreneurial governance arrangements are missing the big picture. Sticking with the ‘official’ version of the smart city, though, we try to identify what might be distinctive about the Chinese approach to all this, using the example of Wuhan as a relatively ‘ordinary’ city in the Chinese context (commentators usually tend to focus on more wealthy showcase cities on the East coast).

You can download a pdf of the ‘accepted manuscript’ here. (Accepted manuscript = the version before production, copy-editing and proof reading.)

Final Published Version:

Cowley, R., Caprotti, F., Ferretti, M. and Zhong, C. (2018). Ordinary Chinese Smart Cities: The Case of Wuhan.  In Karvonen, A., Cugurullo, F. and Caprotti, F. (eds) Inside Smart Cities: Place, Politics and Urban Innovation. London: Routledge, pp.45-64. ISBN: 978-0815348689.


Commentaries on future-oriented Chinese urban development tend to focus on showcase projects underway in wealthy coastal cities. This chapter instead sheds light on the way that the smart has been integrated into more ‘ordinary’ Chinese urban life, using the case of Wuhan, a ‘Tier II’ city in Central China. It explores the conditions of the emergence of Wuhan’s smart city activities from three perspectives. First, it outlines a series of ‘vertical’ enabling factors, whereby an international body of discourse and practice has been ‘translated’ into national Chinese urban policies. Second, it considers the simultaneous significance of ‘horizontal’ links between Wuhan’s local government, city governments abroad, local private enterprises, and foreign firms. Third, it relates Wuhan’s smart credentials to a broader process of digitalisation of everyday life in the city. It concludes by reflecting on the distinctive characteristics of Chinese smart urbanism, as exemplified by Wuhan, and finally draws out some implications for future research into smart cities elsewhere. Specifically, it proposes that the smart city is most usefully approached as a shifting and locally inflected concept which not only channels multiple policy agendas, but also reflects broader changes to urban space and governance in particular contexts.

London, 12 September 2018

A new publication in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, which I wrote with Federico Caprotti – now available on open access.  You can read it/download the pdf here.

I think of the paper as having two main roots. First, an earlier comment piece by Federico and me, which laid out a series of underexplored aspects of ‘urban experiments’ (the tendency for contemporary projects in cities to be conceptualised and promoted as ‘test beds’, ‘living labs’ etc etc).  Second, an interest which I’ve had since my PhD in the tensions between the long-term goals of sustainable development, and the short-termism of new forms of dispersed governance.

In the new article, ‘smart city’ ideas and practices are positioned as exemplifying the tendency towards experimental urban governance. However, if we accept Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s (2011) well-known thesis, experiments are rarely innocent: here, we argue that the smart city poses a disruptive challenge to the idea that we can ‘plan’ the future.

The article draws on some of the (UK) findings from our ‘smart eco-cities‘ research project, and is part of a rolling special issue of Environment and Planning D, edited by Ayona Datta and Nancy Odendaal.


Cowley, R. and Caprotti, F. (2018). Smart City as Anti-Planning in the UK. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0263775818787506.


Critical commentaries have often treated the smart city as a potentially problematic ‘top down’ tendency within policy-making and urban planning, which appears to serve the interests of already powerful corporate and political actors. This article, however, positions the smart city as significant in its implicit rejection of the strong normativity of traditional technologies of planning, in favour of an ontology of efficiency and emergence. It explores a series of prominent UK smart city initiatives (in Bristol, Manchester and Milton Keynes) as bundles of experimental local practices, drawing on the literature pointing to a growing valorisation of the ‘experimental’ over strong policy commitments in urban governance. It departs from this literature, however, by reading contemporary ‘smart experiments’ through Shapin and Schafer’s work on the emergence of 17th-century science, to advance a transhistorical understanding of experimentation as oriented towards societal reordering. From this perspective, the UK smart city merits attention primarily as an indicator of a wider set of shifts in approaches to governance. Its pragmatic orientation sits uneasily alongside ambitions to ‘standardise’ smart and sustainable urban development; and raises questions about the conscious overlap between the stated practical ambitions of smart city initiatives and pre-existing environmental and social policies.


London, 20 July 2018



Shapin, S. and Schaffer, S. (2011). Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Palgrave Communications

I had a short piece published yesterday in the ‘Politics of an Urban Age’ collection in Palgrave Communications.  It’s a commentary on certain tendencies within urban governance, which point away from strong ambitions to solve ‘big’ social and environmental challenges.  You can read it here on open access.

In fact, it’s part of a trio of comment papers – the other two by Federico Caprotti (on bringing human needs back to the centre of planning), and Simon Joss (on the need to reinvigorate public institutions and public debate).  All three can be found together on the collection webpage.

Future Cities: Renarrating Human Agency


The media coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the city of Houston in August 2017 reveals an ‘Anthropocenic’ sensibility, which tends to deny our ability to solve pressing environmental and social problems through strong and direct human action. This sensibility is reflected at city level in new forms of governance, exemplified here with reference to resilience, smart urbanism, and design-thinking. These have in common a cautious, inductive logic of change; their limited imaginations of space and time imply a dispersed sense of human agency. But if these new rationalities are unlikely to yield convincing solutions to problems such as Hurricane Harvey, perhaps there is a need to rethink the dominant framing of the Anthropocene, which underpins them.

Cowley, R. (2018). Future Cities: Renarrating Human AgencyPalgrave Communications, 4, article 41. DOI: 10.1057/s41599-018-0103-y

Downtown Parcel Coded

Our new article, published today in Urban Research & Practice, and available on open access….

The smart city and its publics: insights from across six UK cities


In response to policy-makers’ increasing claims to prioritise ‘people’ in smart city development, we explore the publicness of emerging practices across six UK cities: Bristol, Glasgow, London, Manchester, Milton Keynes, and Peterborough. Local smart city programmes are analysed as techno-public assemblages invoking variegated modalities of publicness. Our findings challenge the dystopian speculative critiques of the smart city, while nevertheless indicating the dominance of ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘service user’ modes of the public. We highlight the risk of bifurcation within smart city assemblages, such that the ‘civic’ and ‘political’ roles of the public become siloed into less obdurate strands of programmatic activity.

Cowley, R., Joss, S., & Dayot, Y. (2017). The smart city and its publics: insights from across six UK cities. Urban Research & Practice.


‘Smart City’ event by Close and Remote earlier this year

How would you fancy living in a city built by Google or IBM?

I was interested to read a short piece by Paul Doherty (2013) prophesising a change in the construction industry in the near future. He suggests that we will increasingly see large ICT companies acquiring a construction arm – comparing this to a ‘land-grab’ which is waiting to happen. This chimes with a trend identified in our own research (Joss, Cowley and Tomozeiu, 2013): that of the growing involvement of international IT firms in the development of the ‘eco-city’.

How do we feel about this? If we are to shift to less resource hungry and environmentally harmful modes of (urban) living, then we need to make best use of technology. If part of the challenge is to integrate the different complex systems within cities, then computing networks are rather good at collating information to allow us to do so efficiently. And if we are to take part in the new knowledge economy, our IT systems need to be as good as they can be.  To survive, we need to be smart, and our cities need to be smart. So far, so good.

What specifically, then, do plans for ‘Smart Cities’ envision? The first one I ever came across was that of ‘PlanIT Valley’ in Portugal. This has been designed by private developer Living PlanIT as a 4,000 acre high-tech district, based on the concept of a replicable ‘urban operating system’:

PlanIT Valley will enable the enhanced monitoring of the vital signs of urban life, the condition and performance of vehicles and infrastructure. As a result, managers will be able to optimize normal daily operations of the city and provide greater certainty in reacting to extraordinary events through real-time modeling and simulation. With a view to incorporating new developments, urban management control systems will be updated with the latest information and technology as these emerge. (Living PlanIT, undated)

In its narrow focus on infrastructural technology, this is a fairly extreme example of the genre.  But what interests me is that: (a) it is being promoted as a vision of a city rather than simply of a computing system which will contribute to the city’s life; and (b) it boasts “the legislated endorsement of Municipality of Paredes in northern Portugal and the national government” (ibid). In other words, it has official policy status; it is more than a purely speculative commercial venture.

Just to be fair, here is another – apparently more holistic – conception of the Smart City, published by IBM, which looks beyond the physical infrastructural dimensions of urban life:

IBM smart city

It’s easy to find other variations on the theme.  But I am suspicious of conceptual and practical projects of this type. My suspicions, I should declare, do not primarily relate to issues of personal privacy, nor to the commercial ambitions of the key actors involve. Nor are they rooted in technophobia. It’s difficult in any case to talk of cities, or social progress, without referring to technology – the relationship between technology and society has been endlessly discussed (see, for example, Smith and Marx, 1994); technology, “after all, is about the relationship between human aspiration and the natural environment” (Chant, 1999: 42); and the city itself is the greatest technological artefact of them all.

To begin outlining the grounds for my suspicions, I would like to describe an interesting spectacle, from at a recent event on the Smart City phenomenon, organised by Close and Remote in Deptford (South East London).  (The photograph at the top of this post was taken there – you can even see the back of my head.) Instead of a solid wall behind the four speakers, there was a floor-to-ceiling window. This allowed us to observe the random goings-on of the real life of the city behind the speakers’ presentations and representations. Deptford isn’t a wealthy part of town. Crazed individuals stopped to stare through the glass; teenagers shuffled by, pushing each other and joking; a woman with a pram dropped litter; a dishevelled elderly resident of the council flats across the road came out onto his balcony to stare vacantly at the sky for 15 minutes. The discussion was characterised overall by intelligent critique of the Smart City – but the scene still struck me as nicely allegorical, in that the idea of a Smart City is only a metaphor for the city itself.  Like all successful metaphors, it is a beguiling one; we are blinded by its apparent explanatory force; we forget that it is only partial in its description. In this case, we were literally able to see through it. And speaker Christian Nold caught this idea well in his characterisation of the Smart City as an essentially ‘ephemeral’ phenomenon.

This ephemerality has at least two dimensions.  First, as Nold suggested, the possibility that existing cities might be retrofitted to be ‘smart’ in anything other than a superficial way appears to be a tall order. Nold pointed to the sheer physicality of existing infrastructure – even looking at, say, London Underground alone. He took issue with the idea of the Smart City as a “thing of the future… a thing which is always deferred – the literature always talks about it as something that’s almost there, almost there…you just need to push a little bit further”. He suggested that this attitude hampers us from adopting a critical perspective on it as something which is “here right now”.

Second, it is ephemeral in the thinness of its engagement with the social and political dimensions of the city. In one way, this doesn’t matter; the remit of IT (or Engineering) companies is to provide hardware. Equally, it would be absurd to argue that their representatives are naïve technological determinists, ignorant of the need for this technology to be acceptable to the public, or unaware that it might be shaped by societal forces. If evidence were needed for this awareness, I’d say this recent talk by at the Urban Design Group is fairly typical; the speaker (Paul Reynolds, from design & engineering consultancy Atkins) made it clear that his talk was framed by an understanding of technology as subservient to society: “This is quite a fundamental thing…Although we talk about the city as an object, the buildings that make it up, and more and more about the data that underpins it, actually we do need to remember at the end of the day that it’s about the people. The way they interact with their city and their environment may be changing, but they’re still the most fundamental aspect”.

The commercial actors promoting the Smart City are clearly not, then, irresponsible megalomaniacs. What matters to me, though, and to repeat my earlier point, is that such plans are often presented as visions of the city as a whole (rather than as ephemeral layers thereof) – and that this discourse is being adopted by policy makers.  To quote Christian Nold again: “the people who are actually doing the state governance around the Internet of Things and Smart Cities … are taking their ideas from Cisco”. This is worrying if, in IBM’s diagram above, democratic governance extends only as far as ‘administration’, ‘planning’ and ‘management’.  And who are the ‘managers’ in PlanIT’s vision? Do they mysteriously exist prior to the city, hovering above it, disembedded from the social?  It feels like a return to post-WWII comprehensive or systems planning – the results of which were mixed at best.

Some of the basic unanswered questions about governance in this context were recently raised by Evgeny Morozov:

I have a lot of respect for these people as engineers but they are being asked to take on tasks that go far beyond engineering. Tasks that have to do with human and social engineering rather than technical engineering. Those are the kind of tasks I would prefer were taken on by human beings who are more well rounded, who know about philosophy and ethics, and know something about things other than efficiency, because it will not end well.

We did not elect them to help us solve our problems. Once Google is selected to run the infrastructure on which we are changing the world, Google will be there for ever. Democratic accountability will not be prevalent. You cannot file a public information request about Google. We are abandoning all the checks and balances we have built to keep our public officials in check for these cleaner, neater, more efficient technological solutions. Imperfection might be the price for democracy (Tucker, 2013).

Morozov, of course, has been accused of provocative exaggeration and technophobia; in practice, it seems likely that any future Googlopolis would be developed within existing legislative and democratic frameworks rather than in spite of them. But what of the ‘imperfection’ that Morozov valorises here? Might there be a value in seeing the irrationality of the city in a more positive light?

There are two ways to understand the tensions, conflicts and inequalities of city life – and these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. From one perspective, they constitute barriers to be overcome in a quest to move towards a utopian ideal of social flatness; from the other, they are themselves generative of democracy. The first approach – which seems to be dominant in mainstream plans for urban sustainability – is aligned with a ‘top-down’ managerial ethos. These plans may not quite display a simplistic assumption of a “static, ready-made public to be discovered and represented” (Mohr et al., 2013), but plurality is still reduced to a conceptualisation of different ‘stakeholder groups’; consensus is assumed to be achievable through formal processes of public consultation and negotiation. Such deliberative processes are typically to be accompanied by processes of ‘education’ to ensure that the unenlightened and excluded also get the message. PlanIT doesn’t even get this far: the public here is barely visible, replaced by a series of functional abstractions, and syntactically passive. People are envisioned as ‘humans’, extensions of the proposed technology, merely contributing to the aggregative ‘daily operations of the city’. When PlanIT refers to a city’s ability to react to possible ‘extraordinary events’, it is unclear whether these extend to unpredicted social actions.

The second approach to the contestations of urban life, however, tends towards a more dynamic notion of ‘emergent’ publics. I was recently alerted to how this idea was already present in the work of John Dewey (1989) back in 1927.  And Dewey argued that it is precisely in times of innovation and technological change that ‘publics’ are most likely to arise. He refers to Emerson’s idea that we “lie…in the lap of an immense intelligence” (219), but one which institutions of representative democracy appear poorly able to tap into. The ontological and normative conception of the state as ‘out there’, somehow representing the collective will of the public, as expressed through rational, deliberative discussion, seems increasingly outdated (Chandler, forthcoming 2014).

What is my position on Googlopolis then? I’m not against the idea of ‘plans’ or institutional direction, but I want to understand how we can plan for the sustainable city as fundamentally a space of unpredictable, dynamic public life.  Technological solutions and experimentation are inescapably part of the mix – but a truly smart, sustainable city only seems possible if its starting point is a desire to embrace the complexity of unfolding turmoil, rather than an idealisation of the city of the future as merely an efficient ‘system of systems’.

23 June, 2013, London


Chandler, D. (forthcoming 2014). Democracy Unbound? Non-Linear Politics and the Politicisation of Everyday Life. European Journal of Social Theory. 17(1).

Chant, C. (1999). The Near East. In: Chant, C. & Goodman, D. (eds.) Pre-industrial Cities and Technology. London: Routledge: 1-47.

Dewey, J. (1989) [1927]. The Public and its problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press (Ohio University Press).

Doherty, P. (2013). The Impact of Smart Cities on the Construction Industry. Construction Executive eNewsletter. 2(12). Available from: [accessed 21 June 2013].

Joss, S., Cowley, R. & Tomozeiu, D. (2013). Towards the ‘ubiquitous eco-city’: an analysis of the internationalisation of eco-city policy and practice. Urban Research and Practice. 6(1):54-74.

Living PlanIT (2013). PlanIT Valley – the living laboratory and benchmark for future urban communities. Available from: [accessed 17 June 2013].

Mohr, A., Rahman, S. & Gibbs, B. (2013).  Which publics? When? Exploring the Policy Potential of Involving Different Publics in Dialogue Around Science and Technology. Didcot: Sciencewise. Available from: [accessed 21 June 2013].

Morozov, E. (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist. London: Allen Lane.

Smith, M. & Marx, L. (eds.) (1994). Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Boston: MIT Press.

Tucker, I. (2013). ‘Evgeny Morozov: ‘We are abandoning all the checks and balances’’. The Guardian. 9 March 2013. Available from: [accessed 9 March 2013].

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