Smart City Data Narratives: To collect or not to collect?

Over the last year or so, I’ve been exploring smart cities from a citizen empowerment perspective (for some time, as an Edgeryders fellow; you can find my previous topics here). And since smart cities are a big, big, big market, there are competing narratives here: Are they an opportunity to increase efficiency of energy use or service delivery? A threat to privacy? A bit of both, or something else entirely?

These are legitimate lines of argument, and there are many more. But it’s important to remember that yes, these lines of arguments really are just narratives: Stories told to sell one concept (or product!) or another.

I’d like to share a few of the more interesting aspects that have crossed my radar, even though they’re in a bit of a complex relationship to another, and think out loud — and to humbly ask for your thinking on the matter.

In no particular order, some loosely connected dots:

  • Is collecting data for its potential (economic) benefit always worth it, wonders Bianca Wylie. The implication is, of course, that it isn’t, that there are real risks involved. And also, as someone from the IKEA smart home division once mentioned to me, data can be a liability, because handling data securely takes a lot of effort. How would you argue that for the city? Could it be framed in economic terms? Should it?
  • SDG goal 11 is about sustainable cities and communities, a goal to which smart cities might have some value to contribute to. (Complementary, see U4SSC (PDF), the United 4 Smart Sustainable Cities initiative that breaks SDG goal 11 down for the smart city context.)
  • The European Commission’s White Paper on Artificial Intelligence (“a European approach to excellence and trust”) lays out that among other things, one of Europe’s strong potentials for excellence lies in public sector and industrial data that is currently under-utilized but could be harnessed and made available in so-called “data pools”. Does this apply to smart cities? Should it?
  • When in Toronto the government(ish coordinating body) decided that Sidewalk Labs’ smart city proposal should be evaluated for its potential impact, that analysis was to be grounded on human rights and digital rights, specifically as per the UN human rights principles and the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights declaration.
  • I’ve argued that for data-driven infrastructures like smart city projects, we need a very high bar to assess risks. Concretely, that the guaranteed improvement must outweigh the worst case scenario.

(The latter few points also led us to launch a new initiative to offer that kind of evaluation and relevant trainings in which we look at smart city initiatives from, equally, human rights (UN) + digital rights (Cities Coalition), and how to align everything to also contribute to SDG goal 11. (We call it the Berlin Institute for Smart Cities and Civil Rights, and I’m curious to see where that will lead us.)

So I’m wondering how these things align, how they relate to one another. At the surface, the points mentioned above might imply that I argue against smart cities. I don’t! I think there are real opportunities here: For sustainability, for participation, for government service delivery. But what are the trade-offs, projecting 10, 20, 50 years into the future? These are big decisions we need to make, and make now.

No matter how you look at it, these are complex trade-offs — and complicated stories. What are promising approaches to navigate that maze? How can we get there without getting bogged down by party politics or overly simplified talking points? Developing meaningful language for this space is tricky; it’s also absolutely essential.


Completely agree, Peter. However, to the best of my knowledge, this work is largely done. The essential reading is Adam Greenfield’s pamphlet Against the smart city (review). I strongly recommend reading it; walking into a meeting with city planners or urbanists without having read it risks marking you as an amateur.

Here’s why: the intellectual debate on the smart city is over. And the verdict is: it is not an intellectually responsible concept. It never was – even I, a lowly economist, knew this – because it flies in the face of the super solid city planning wisdom spelled out by Jane Jacobs in The death and life of great American cities in 1961 (!) and adopted by the academic urban planning community ever since. Greenfield, however, did the work of going through the documents, and unmasking the smart city for what it always was: a tech vendor-driven effort to sell expensive, brittle, overspecified technology, based on early 20th century, discredited modernist ideology.

This is not to say the actual issue of smart cities is dead, nor that you are wasting your time looking into it. Tech vendors (IBM, Cisco, Siemens…) are powerful enough to keep this zombie idea shambling around. I do not see them taking hold, but they could still do quite some damage in places like Toronto.

Not sure… I guess a skilled politician could try to turn the table, shifting the discussion away from the kind of tech that vendors want taxpayers to buy and onto social mechanism that encourage active citizenship and participation. But that’s tricky, because everything that makes sense tends to decrease GDP (which is a bogus measure, but still widely used). In the past, I argued for an opportunistic redefinition of “smart city” in the participatory, open, human-powered sense: the bicycle repair café vs. the infamous Copenhagen Wheel (see link below). But it’s not an easy fight to pick. Europe has a strong neo-municipalist movement (Barcelona, Milan, Amsterdam, Bologna, Copenhagen…) that has largely ignored the early 2000s smart cities debate and focused on more productive issues, like fighting for control of corporate data produced on their citizens (Barcelona), enabling citizens to produce and maintain public goods (Bologna), and so on. However, they are the natural allies of the Toronto people. Good luck!


Hi Alberto,

In theory, I agree with you - the idea should be dead. I’m very familiar with Greenfield’s work in this space, it continues to have great impact on my thinking on these topics.

But whether we like it or not, the smart cities - invalid concept or not - are alive and kicking, and often in the worst possible version.

City governments around the world are working on or with proposals for smart city projects at a scale that indicates we have barely seen the tip of the iceberg yet. And if you wave a critical theorist’s book at them, they’ll politely nod you out of the door. Not because they’re rude or incompetent, but simply because that format is not a valid currency in that specific context. There, things happen through legislation, policy briefs, and ultimately boring but important things like procurement guidelines. It’s that translation that I’m trying to contribute - if you check my references, you’ll find Adam’s work (alongside many other critical theorists) represented plentiful there. On Monday, a new report that I co-authored around smart cities and (progressive) policies will be published by FEPS, a Brussels-based political foundation/think tank. The reference list might well be the most interesting part since you know the topic well - only here, their insights are condensed into a format that’s intended for the context of lawmakers, at city, national & European levels.

[Sent from a mobile, please apologize the brevity and typos.]

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Not exactly. The trend-setting city governments in the world (the Barcelonas, Milans etc.) have long since moved on from the smart city nonsense. It is the ones who are lagging behind who are left in the lurch, and in my experience most of them suspect there’s something wrong with this stuff. This is just my experience as a consultant, but fear sells. Shrugging a concept off as “nah, that was bullshit. People in the know, those you want to be like, they would not touch it with barge pole” makes for a pretty great sales pitch. The poor person will be like “wait, what? I am in danger here… I need a better map to navigate my way out”.

I see your point about format, but Greenfield writes in what? 2013? That thinking has long since been codified into a variety of formats, including successful policies and, conversely, street protests. You can just point to them, if you don’t want to be to academic-y.

Me, I do not want to work with clients who do not have a minimum of intellectual integrity. I am not the right person, they would be wasting time and money and everybody will be frustrated. If I point out to them solid evidence and they refuse to take it into account, there is no point going forward. But admittedly, this is because my social skills are all invested into tough love rather than velvet gloved diplomacy. Does not work for everybody.

Our (understaffed) local city govs are also slowly moving into these debates, exactly as described here - being super-late movers allows them to cherry-pick among the many pilots that have been conducted elsewhere, many of which have turned sour (efficiency gains of “smart” lighting never materialized etc) but some (ok few) continue to inspire. Barcelona et al are great examples, even they still hold on to the discourse (Smart World City expo etc) for whatever it’s worth but it seems tactical / branding, less investment in this on a conceptual level (but then the BCN fablab initiative is much older than the Colau-et-al democracy / sharing agenda). I am preparing a “Datenraum Stadt” seminar for the summer to accompany / support local digital urbanism initiatives, happy to include material produced by edgeryders. Also happy to report on local outcomes.

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Yes. That, IMHO, is proto-municipalist. Barcelona is a bit ambiguous, because they use plenty of buzzwords and spin. But Colau + Bria meant that they started using advanced municipalist language.

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I very much like the idea of new municipalisms, a refreshing departure from the (potentially localist) city / urban idiom. In German, local politics is “Kommunalpolitik”, i.e. literally a “municipal” politics of which cities (and villages and other territorialities) are the site. The municipal appears almost as a meta-political term here, open (or so I’d hope) to the “fearless city” initiatives guiding new forms of organizational development beyond the localism of “the city”. We’ll see, still exploring.

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