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Not a dashboard, not a sandcastle: unpacking the smart city discourse

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2018
Number of pages180
Awarding Institution
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


While the idea of the ‘Smart City’ has attracted increasing attention from academia, industry,
and government, this interest has largely had a technical and technological focus. This thesis
explores the notion of the smart city in several different but related fashions. I first review
and unpack the current research and literature on the smart city, as part of a Foucauldian
emphasis on the notion of ‘discourse’. My thesis then charts empirically some of the contours
of this current discourse through ethnographic interviews and a form of grounded analysis to
ascertain and identify some of the major themes and ideas. I then contribute to the current
discussion and debate regarding the smart city by introducing a novel Foucauldian theoretical
approach to features of this discourse, as well as considering Foucauldian notions of ‘gaze’
as applied to the smart city; and examining the extent to which the smart city might be
considered as a Foucauldian ‘heterotopia’. I conclude the thesis with design implications
in terms of knowledge production, civic engagement and policy potentials. Ultimately this
is an attempt to identify some of the important political and policy challenges facing the
idea, the discourse, of a ‘smart city’ to optimise human computing interaction, computing
supported collaborative work and design research input into the ‘smart city’ debate. In
order to develop an empirical basis for my research, I conducted ethnographic interviews
with both citizens from cities undergoing smart city transformation and experts who are
either leading or previously involved in these smart city developments. The citizens were
asked about their current experience with the cities they lived in, their understanding and
expectations of a smart city and what they envisioned for their cities. The experts were asked
questions regarding their prior experience with the “smart city”, their understandings of
what it means for a city to be ‘smart’, what policy potentials they’ve recognised in the smart
city, the implications smart cities have on democracy and finally the knowledge production,
dissemination and sharing in the smart city. The thesis first follows a sociological, ‘grounded’
thematic analysis of these interviews. It analyses and offers a synthesis of the responses
collected throughout the research with the current policies concerning various smart city
proximity, thereby providing a critical assessment of the values underlying the smart city. I
then contrast this with a Foucauldian theoretical approach to analyse the discursive formation
of the smart city, conceptualising the smart city as a heterotopia and then develop Foucault’s notion of ‘gaze’ to outline the different elements involved in what might be termed the
‘smart city gaze’. In so doing I bring another critical approach to smart city discussion to
demonstrate that the smart city concept is not a new novel approach to urban problems, it is a
continuation previous attempt to deploy information communication technology (ICT) in
cities with new add-ons such as data gathering, and internet of things features. In so doing
I hope to highlight both the inherited issues facing such a technology deployment, such as
digital inclusion and piracy ,and relatively newer issues that comes with the new features
of the technology in general but of the ‘smart city’ in particular– concerns, for example, of
the surveillance features embedded in the data gathering and internet of things approach
that may both threaten privacy whilst providing for possibilities such as ‘designing out’
crime, or encouraging civic engagement. The thesis accordingly concludes by exploring the
‘implications for design’ and presents some of the policy possibilities for UK smart cities that
are potentially useful for politicians, policy makers, planners, academics, and technology
companies. I believe that these perspectives for policy development can be used to inform
responsible development, spatially and socially inclusive technologies, and ultimately more
resilient and liveable cities. The thesis is structured as follows: I begin by presenting the
academic context and political status quo for this research, followed by an overview of the
methods I used during the project, highlighting some of the challenges I encountered while
applying these methods. This is followed by a discussion of the research results, as well as
the implications of the results, and the limitations of the project. The thesis is concluded by
outlining questions that were left unanswered for further research.