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Society, Politics & Law

Digital urban infrastructures: Smart cities in the making

Updated Tuesday, 23rd May 2017

Nick Bingham discusses 'smart cities' and how digital technologies are changing the ways in which cities are planned and maintained.

Smart Cities MK Project Logo Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Smart Cities MK Project Cities depend on circulations - of people, materials, goods, energy, and information - and it is urban infrastructures that make those circulations possible. Major networks of transportation, such as Crossrail, are one very obvious kind of urban infrastructure but - as we have sought to depict on the 'City in the Making' poster - there are many others. Networks of communication and supply, for example, are also crucial in allowing peoples and objects to be mobile, and all of these different networks are supported by less obvious aspects of urban infrastructure such as technical standards, bureaucratic systems, and regulatory governance. 

One of the challenges of designing the ‘City in the Making’ poster, that accompanies the Fifteen Billion Pound Railway series, was how to represent how cities and their infrastructures are being increasingly altered and shaped by digital technologies and data. We offer a few visual signals such as Wi-Fi signs, mobile phone masts, and data cables but, in reality, the changes taking place are much more pervasive than anything that these could indicate. In fact, all of the issues raised by urban infrastructures that we wrote about for the poster - from its design and engineering to its maintenance and sustainability - are transformed by the involvement of digital technologies and data.

The implications of such transformations are perhaps most visible in discussions of so-called ‘smart cities’. Though a rather loose term, ’smart city’ has become a way of describing urban areas in which digital technologies and the data which they generate, collect and analyse are used to better manage the complexity of cities and thus improve urban life. Enormous claims are being made about such initiatives - that they can make cities more efficient, more responsive, more sustainable - but how realistic are they? What differences do smart cities make to the urban fabric? Who benefits and who might lose out?

To explore these questions, a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and based at The Open University is currently examining Milton Keynes (the home of the OU) as a smart city ‘in the making’. Over the next couple of years, the Smart Cities in the Making team will be going beyond the hype to study the ways in which smart city projects and technologies touch down and become (or don’t become) part of people’s lives. How, for example, will policymakers, businesses, and community groups use the streams of data about Milton Keynes being collected and curated in the city’s new Data Hub? How might smart transport solutions like driverless pods fare on the streets of Milton Keynes? And how might the citizens of Milton Keynes use smart technologies in perhaps unexpected ways to shape its future? 

If you are interested in finding out more about the project, please visit our Smart Cities in the Making website.





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