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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.

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