Don’t panic: the smart city is here!

Ding Wang, in her own words, ‘has a special interest in pursuing degrees whose names consist of two random words’ (specifically Tourism Management, Design Ethnography, and now Digital Economy). Her research is concerned with smart cities and she is applying ethnographic methods to critique and interrogate the smart city conversation.

Editors note: Ding begins her post with a quote from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and so will I. The Guide includes the woeful tale of an alien species whose battle fleet sped across the wastes of space for thousands of years before they dived “screaming on to the first planet they came across – which happened to be the Earth – where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.” 

This massive miscalculation is rather how I felt after I attended a seminar about one famously blue technology company’s smart cities programme. The first third of the presentation was inspirational. It intelligently framed big problems: energy, pollution, food. Then, a series of technologies that the company had developed to provide ‘real, tangible, deliverable’ solutions to those problems were described. Suddenly the sheen, glamour, and optimism of the supposedly smart solutions disappeared and revealed what the smart cities programme meant in practice: a massively complex and expensive system to operate the traffic lights at intersections (or, robots). Similarly in this piece, Ding is not overly optimistic about the smart cities movement – at least that’s what her ethnographic nous is telling her. Just as the Vl’Hurg battle fleet got swallowed by a small dog due to a massive miscalculation, please let it not be us that massively miscalculates the scale of the confidence trick that ‘smart city’ rhetoric could turn out to be. (Alternatively, we could just ‘cheer up – [because] it might never happen’.)

This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley. The other articles in the series are “What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?“, “What’s the matter with Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!” and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

People who have read the book the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy will probably remember this passage from the beginning of the book (for people who have not read the book it comes highly recommended). I watched the film as a kid (please forgive my ill-advised choice: I regretted it), then I read the book in Chinese (yes, it was translated into Chinese, that’s how good the book is!) and somehow I felt the urge to revisit the book as an adult and in English. I was surprised at how engaged I was by the novel. I related to it even more than I did as a kid.

“Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.”

The planet Earth is described as an unhappy place where we think little widgets like digital watches are neat: I’d say both of these things are true. The more telling observation, or prediction to be more accurate, is that even those with the neat digital watches aren’t necessarily happier than anyone else (that is unless you believe the rhetoric advertising wearable tech!) Digital watches, or the plethora of other digital gadgets, don’t make us happy. Perhaps, then, we need something neater, bigger and better than just a watch. What about a whole digital city? But that name doesn’t sound quite right, right? After all, ‘digital’ is a word of its time, of the time that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was written – the late 1970s. When was the last time you saw a commercial for something calling itself a digital watch? Digital doesn’t cut the mustard any more. These days we like smart stuff (smartwatches, smartphones, smart energy meters… even smart forks). It’s not that we haven’t considered other prefixes (for example: intelligent, connected, ubiquitous) but we decided on smart because it just sounds so… smart. We live in smart times, and eat smart phones for breakfast. So, something that should make us happier… the thing that is neater, bigger, and better than just a watch… is the smart thing to end all smart things. More integration, more intelligence, more ubiquity. I guess the title gives it away, but of course I’m talking about smart cities.

To start, I want to pose this question here: if I am doing ethnographic research about smart cities, in smart cities, and with the people who are shaping smart cities, does this make what I do ‘smart city ethnography’? Although it may sound a little contrary – especially coming from an ethnographer writing on an ethnography blog – my answer is no.

Smart cities. They are touted as the best incarnation of alternative urban futures which promise to make our way of living more sustainable, more productive, and maybe even happier. Since this is the subject of my doctoral research I have read no end of texts about these new visions of future living. I’ve realised that smart cities are usually described according to a formula: the city is facing X, Y and Z problems… but we have technologies A, B and C. Deploy technology A, B or C (singularly or in combination) and problem X, Y and Z will be solved. ‘The smart city brings a happy ending for all!’ But… hang on for just a second, will this solution-driven future truly make people happy? Do people care about the technologies themselves? Before these questions can be addressed, we need to ask whether people even know about the term ‘smart city’? Not to mention what meaning this frequently uttered notion really encodes. Do citizens know that a smart city future that has been picked for them and is already on its way?

Myself and two other HighWirees (Vanessa Thomas and Louise Mullagh) presented our paper Where’s Wally? In Search of Citizen Perspectives on the Smart City at the 8th International Forum on Urbanism conference which was hosted in Songdo in South Korea. Songdo is one of a handful of new smart cities that were designed as such from the outset (whether the only way to make a smart city is to start as a smart city is another debate). I was curious, thrilled and psyched to see Songdo after reading so much about it. As an ethnographer (or, just ‘a person’ as Dhruv might say), I always observe and interpret the situations on my own terms. Visiting Songdon was no exception and in this case I had no words to describe it – I can summarise that many aspects of Songdo are not so ‘smart’ afterall.


The view looking from one of the luxury hotels to the conference centre on the right hand side.

The roads are wide…. but maybe a bit too wide, which makes crossing the road for pedestrians a daily challenge. It is clean, almost spotlessly clean – just as we would expect for our future city. But just as the dirt of New York or London are somewhat unavoidable, in Songdo it is the lack of people that is unavoidable. Walking around in Songdo, it is extremely difficult to recognise the city as a lived space! It is grand, with five luxury hotels occupying the four corners of a main junction. This reminded me of the ‘four banks’ in Chorlton, Manchester, one of the most bustling areas of one of Manchester’s most fashionable suburbs. But what was notable in Songdo was the ubiquitous lack of bustle, even at this epic crossroads of hostelry. Tellingly, the majority of the hotel rooms were empty; the rooms were almost exclusively occupied by people who were there for the urbanism conference.

All these observations made me wonder about the disparity between the multi-billion dollar investment that was put into building this smart city, and the fact that there aren’t many people living in it. Nobody uses it, or appreciates it, or makes it their own. What’s a smart city without anyone living there? This makes me pause to consider what qualities we want from our future smart cities.


One of the giant crossing challenges walking from the hotel to the conference centre.

After Songdo, my quest to understand the smart city continued, albeit in a slightly different manner. Given the absence of a true ‘smart city’ I again turned to my training in ethnography to conduct a study of the people who are behind the scenes in the smart city movement. Those people who influence the the creation, production, and conversations about smart cities. What kind of future are they crafting for us, and how?

My time studying design ethnography (as with Dhruv, I too was once in Dr Catriona Macaulay’s ‘gang’ at Dundee) left me with a great treasure: how to see the world through an ethnographic lens and an appreciation for this approach to unpacking and interpreting the world. The curiosity to question why; the appreciation of multi-disciplinarity; the compassion of having people at the heart of matters (there’s that word again). This seems to be very resonant with how HighWire encourages its students to do research, having a concern for all the factors above, and more as well. In HighWire, we are trained to listen, to question, and perhaps most importantly, to care. While writing this piece, I came to realise that maybe the greatest finding of my ethnographic inquiry is not about smart cities themselves, or about the people in the so-called smart cities, or about the people making the decisions about the so-called smart cities. Rather, my most profound finding is about me; my empathic ability, curiosity, and identity.

As for whether smart city ethnography is a thing or not, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter. Whether we get to label what we’re doing as ethnography or not, is neither here nor there; what matters are the human-centric principles and value propositions behind how we conduct research, and ultimately produce insights. It is those principles, that were so obviously missing from Songdo, and seem to be missing from smart city rhetoric full stop. Ethnography is a helpful way of framing and understanding the kind of researcher that I want to be, but in the end the labels we use just serve as a communication aid.

With all that said, the reason why I began this blog post by quoting the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy is that I still have an ambition. That ambition is to make my work some sort of guide to the smart city world. My passion for ethnographic work and my current immersion at the HighWire centre have something in common: to put people at the heart of things. This is precisely what I am hoping that those who influence the smart city agenda will also do one day (and what is so starkly missing from smart cities like Songdo).

I would like this blog to leave you with two things. The first is perhaps the most famous sentiment to come out of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t Panic.

Thanks to for the "Don't Panic" image.

Thanks to for the “Don’t Panic” image.

And second is to keep people at the heart of what you’re doing… whatever it is. Home is where the heart is, and cities are our homes: so a truly smart city is the one whose heart is defined not by technology but the people who live there.

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2 Responses to “Don’t panic: the smart city is here!”

  1. paul
    February 29, 2016 at 10:33 am #

    Got round to reading the article and loved it Ding, especially the talk of digital being old. I had a digital watch then. Its was cool. 🙂

    Have you heard of Naypyitaw in Myanmar? Another big, new city, with a lack of “bussle”.


  1. La discusión chilena en torno al concepto de Smart Cities | The Smart Citizen Project | Chile - May 29, 2016

    […] por sus ciudadanos terminando en un claro despilfarro de dinero. Por ejemplo, las iniciales notas etnográficas de Ding Wang en la ciudad tecno-inteligente de Songdo muestran como las Smart Cities pueden terminar sin […]

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