Skip to content
Skip to main content
  • Video
  • 10 minutes

Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes

Updated Friday, 11 August 2017
Why research Milton Keynes? Professor Gillian Rose introduces a study of how cities are increasingly using digital data to improve their management and create new ways of living.

This page was published over 1 year ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see how we deal with older content.

A smart city uses digital data to improve the way that it's managed, and to support new opportunities or ways of life. In the following video, Professor Gillian Rose introduces research into how data and smart technologies are being combined with governance, policy and culture, and how this is producing the groundbreaking future of Milton Keynes.


Hello. My name's Gillian Rose. I'm a professor of cultural geography here in the geography department at the Open University. And I'm currently leading a research project called Smart Cities in the Making, learning from Milton Keynes. It's a two year research project. It started in January 2017, and it's funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, as well as the Open University. And in this podcast, what I'd like to do is tell you a little bit about what we're going to be looking at, why we think it's important, and why we think different people will benefit from the research findings that we're going to be coming up with.

But before I go any further, let me introduce the whole research team to you. There are eight of us in all. We're a mix of geographers, sociologists, planners, designers. And we think that interdisciplinary mix is actually quite important for getting to grips with lots of the challenges that are facing cities today.

So the project is called Smart Cities in the Making, but what is a smart city? Well, the simplest definition I think is that a smart city uses digital data to improve the way that it's managed. And that can happen a whole series of different ways. So the data can come from different places. It can come from big data sets.

So, for example, a lot of utility companies, infrastructure companies, already collect very large amounts of data, things like Transport for London collects all the data every time someone taps in and out using their oyster card in the London Underground and bus system. Water companies monitor household level water use, of course. Energy companies look at electricity use and so on. So there's a lot of big data already being collected in a lot of different places now.

The data in a small city can also come from sensors in the built environment. So these are sensors that can pick up different kinds of information about the urban environment. For example, something in the news right now, sensors can pick up levels of air pollution, for example. They can pick up water levels, and perhaps indicate whether flooding is likely. They can pick up information about traffic flow.

And also, data in a smart city can come from smartphones. Individual smart phones can be tracked and they generate data, but also things like geolocated tweets can be picked up. They're public access, and they can also form part of the data in a smart city.

Smart cities also vary in terms of their overall organisation. So some versions of smart cities, we might think of as quite top down. So there are control centres, which gather lots and lots of data together, and use it then to manage the city, perhaps its traffic flows, its population flows, and so on. In quite a kind of technocratic managerial kind of way is to improve efficiency or sustainability perhaps.

But other versions of smart cities-- think about the ways in which all that data might be put to use by city residents or by local workers perhaps to solve more specific and local problems that they're generated by their own ideas about what's important in their city. And an example of those kind of things-- our project is based in Milton Keynes, and a large smart city project there has generated quite a few examples of local people using data or creating data to engage with local issues.

Milton Keynes has an extensive cycleway, roadway network, for example. And a reporting app is being designed so that if you're cycling on the roadway, and there's some kind of problem with its usability, perhaps a whole build up of slippery leaves in the autumn or a pot hole has emerged, you can use the app to report that problem direct to the council.

Somebody is working on a breastfeeding app, where women can report places they feel happy about breastfeeding in public in the city. And another project, for example, has the initiated by a campaigner around the rights of visually impaired people to use cities easily. And she wants to get beacons embedded in the urban environment, particularly Milton Keynes' shopping centre, to enable visually impaired people to navigate their way around the city more easily.

Now, a lot of this work is currently dominated by tech companies, which means that hasn't been a huge amount of general discussion about what exactly improving a city by using all these different forms of digital data actually means. And one of the things our project really wants to think about is, what exactly does it mean to improve the city using digital data? But we've got a particular approach to thinking about that question, how do you improve city using data. And it's about really trying to think about the smart city from first principles, I guess.

So there's a lot of rhetoric bought by tech companies about what smart technologies can promise and so on. But perhaps as academics, we should take a step back from that rhetoric, and approach the city perhaps in a rather different way to understand how smart might be working within it. So we have the same starting point, I think, in our project, which is that a smart city uses digital data to improve its management somehow.

But I think we're rather less fixated in our research project on the idea of data and smart technologies specifically, because there are a lot of other aspects to a small city, which enable a city to become smart or not. For example, the kind of policies that its local authority has, really crucial are the kinds of support and enablement that's offered or not. And also local innovation cultures. For example, some places have very lively tech innovation cultures, and that kind of enables engagement with digital data in the city in ways that perhaps other places without that culture, without those skills, might find harder to undertake.

And those kinds of things-- and if you start to think about smart, beyond just the technology, those kind of issues mean that smart can be very different in different places. And one of the reasons we're interested in drilling down into aspects of smart in Milton Keynes in particular, is that although the city itself and the way it's being smart is different from other cities, nonetheless, within Milton Keynes, there are a lot of examples of different kinds of smart technologies, which means we can really start to get to grips with some of this diversity of smart and its effects.

And we're also quite keen to emphasise that smart is in the making, by which we mean that it isn't just one thing that gets imposed on the city in the same way in all cities, but it's constantly emerging as different people, with different agendas develop different kinds of technologies, and put them to different kinds of uses, and then maybe find that actually when they're out there in the wild, in the urban environment, other things start to happen with that tech, with that data, that were completely unanticipated. So we have a sense of smart as being something that's lively and constantly in the making. And that that's the way in which we can start to open up perhaps some more interesting questions about what smart might be doing, and how exactly it might improve the city using Milton Keynes as a case study from which to generalise to other cities later.

So what will SCiM actually study? Well, in terms of thinking around the potential of smart technologies to improve a city, I think what we're particularly interested in is the ways in which different people can engage in different ways with smart. I think without that understanding of social difference, it actually gets quite hard to figure out the effects of smart technologies, and then perhaps to come to some kind of judgement about whether they're an improvement to the city or not.

So we've got five different strands of smart activity that we're going to focus on. And in each case, we're interested in how social difference gets embedded or reproduced or perhaps transformed as they are enacted in Milton Keynes in the making. The first of these is smart data. We're particular interested how the generation and the collation, the hubbing, of data makes and enacts new or indeed existing forms of social difference.

We're interested in smart policy, and how smart gets embedded in governance practises in Milton Keynes, and again, what forms of social difference emerge as that happens. We're interested in the ways in which smart products get designed, and how different categories of social difference get enacted in smart tech workplaces and then in the products that get created there. The IT industry in the UK is very male dominated, for example. Does that make a difference to the kind of smart products that get designed in those male dominated workplaces?

We're interested in smart citizens. How do local people get enrolled into smart projects? And how then do certain kinds of social difference get enacted? Are particular people more likely to become engaged? What kinds of projects engage what kinds of people?

And then finally, we're interested in smart visualisations. Smart, in the making, is full of images. Sales images, explanatory images, in trying to articulate what smart is doing in a particular place, visionary images of what smart cities in the future will look like. They're quite powerful ways in which smart is made, and we're interested in exploring those too.

And once we've done all that, what we're hoping is that a whole range of people will benefit from our findings. Smart city citizens will perhaps be enabled to engage in smart more fully once we have a clear understanding of the kind of things that are engaging or not to different kinds of citizens. Smart city policymakers might hopefully be much clearer about what kinds of smart city activities can engage which kinds of citizens, and what kind of activities are needed to engage everyone fully and fairly and equally.

Smart city entrepreneurs and innovators might end up with a much better understanding of the markets for smart city products. Smart cities themselves, that whole idea of them being improved and better-- we might hopefully contribute to understanding more clearly what different sorts of tech and other aspects of smart will really improve cities. And finally, we're hoping to make an academic contribution as well, enabling urban studies scholars, who are increasingly interested in notions of smart, to understand the development of smart cities more fully.

Oh, I hope that's whetted your appetite for our research project. If you want to find out more, if you want to find out what we're doing, you want to get in touch, please go onto our website at And we'd be really happy to see you there and engage with any comments you might have. Thanks for listening.


Become an OU student

Ratings & Comments

Share this free course

Copyright information

Skip Rate and Review

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?