Research in the invisible city: Challenges for ‘knowing’ the smart city

Federico Caprotti
Exeter, UK 

 A chilly day in Bristol

On a chilly winter’s day in late 2016, a group of around 20 students were standing around in a park in Bristol, being debriefed by the academics who were leading their geography field trip to the city. Although the trip was a multi-day event with a range of both faculty-led and student-initiated activities, on this particular day our students seemed flummoxed, confused. We had asked them the simple question: find some evidence of the smart city being in existence in Bristol. The students had spent two hours walking around Bristol’s historic city centre, the regenerated harbourside, and other areas of town, and had come back with little past the Quick Response (QR) codes and real-time bus information to be found on public transport bus stops throughout the city.

Bristol is, of course, extremely active on the smart city and urban sustainable city landscape. Awarded the gong of European Green Capital in 2016, the city also has a wide-ranging and ambitious smart city vision and strategy. Indeed, Bristol city council and Bristol University have formed a consortium charged with delivering Bristol’s smart city projects. Glasgow may have stolen the limelight in 2013 when it won a competitive, national contest for £24m of central government funding for smart city demonstration projects, including a new smart city operations centre. However, Bristol (which also produced a smart city vision for the 2013 competition, and was awarded a smaller runner-up prize earlier) has its sights firmly set on smart city innovation. This is expressed through projects such as Bristol is Open, an experimental smart city and Internet of Things (IoT) platform; or Connecting Bristol, an umbrella organization that enables a range of smart city projects, from an initiative using environmental data sensing, to one promoting the organization of community fibre partnerships to improve broadband connectivity and speeds. All of this has meant that Bristol has quickly climbed the smart cities ladder, and in a 2016 survey commissioned by Huawei, a Chinese technology firm, Bristol was ranked alongside London as the UK’s leading smart city.

So in light of the above, when students went out into Bristol to look for it, they came back with the question: where was the smart city?

The invisible smart city

As a researcher who spends a large part of his working week thinking about future cities, (un)sustainable cities and urban technologies, the question posed by the students was at once dispiriting and interesting. Dispiriting, because it highlighted the fact that though the ‘smart city’ (widely defined as an urban development model based on the integration of digital technologies, real-time data, and sensor systems as a way of making the city more efficient)  exists in discourse (and especially in policy documents, grand strategies and slick presentations and websites) many smart city projects which should be visible are in fact nowhere to be seen. They exist on paper only, or are still in the early stages of development. However, the students’ inability to point to material evidence of the smart city is also interesting, for several reasons, and it raises the question of how the smart city challenges urban researchers and more traditional ideas of doing fieldwork in place in the urban context.

There are two main reasons why the students couldn’t find the smart city, and they both have implications for urban research. The first reason is that the smart city is characterised by its invisibility. Bristol’s fibre networks are material – they are thick cables, after all – but they are laid on the bottom of canals, or exist underground. Digital communications are not visible to the naked eye, and cannot be easily visualised travelling across urban space through wireless and wired networks. Smart city projects are often computer-based and have little or no actual visible, tangible physical presence. There is little easily verifiable evidence of data flows, sensing, and data processing that can be easily seen and recorded in the day-to-day city. The smart city is, in many ways, invisible.

The second reason why students couldn’t find the smart city is that, of course, they were part of it. It was a bit like asking fish to see water. It was striking that none of the students whom we asked to go out and ‘find’ the smart city actually used their smartphones to do so. At the same time, most of them seemed to be using their smartphones in some way that indicated reliance on the sorts of digital networks on which the smart city is predicated: maps with local information including real-time urban transport, various apps, social media, and others. And yet, when looking for the smart city, these networks – many of which admittedly have little to do with Bristol directly – didn’t quite seem to feature, or even register. They are simply a part of urban life.

This leads us to the question of using smartphones in urban research. I was recently having a conversation with Frans Sengers, at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and also a collaborator on our ESRC project on smart and eco-cities. We talked about his work on Chinese smart city projects – and it struck me when Frans highlighted how the Chinese smart city is most often made visible not through grand iconic architectural or infrastructural projects, but through the smartphone. This is obvious to anyone who has taken a journey on, say, Shanghai’s subway system, and seen the large take-up of smartphones and tablets: passengers using these during their journey, taking advantage of the wireless connections available underground.

The visibility of invisibility

So, in many ways, if we take the smartphone as a starting point, then the smart city becomes (at least partially) visible: smartphones enable the smart city to be performed. This point is of course nothing new: there exists a long lineage of work (in cultural economy, Science and Technology Studies, history of technology, relational economic geography, and on) that shows how technology (from power grids to communications tech), enables individuals and societies to perform specific economic sectors, ways of doing, and ways of being (Christophers, 2014). The smartphone is just one such technology.

Nonetheless, it is true that even though one may experience and perform the smart city (or a small part of it) through the interface of a smartphone or tablet, it still leaves large areas of urban invisibility around smart urbanism. This is because while smartphones may make the smart city legible, they do not necessarily make the ‘hardware’ any more visible. Thus, while a tablet or smartphone may receive data wirelessly, network infrastructure is in many cases buried, or difficult to see and experience. But it is still there.

This leads me to use a concept – the absent present – from Actor Network Theory and other approaches that I recently saw applied to urban sustainability by Anna Hult, an urban planning researcher at KTH Stockholm. Hult uses the term to investigate how certain aspects of urban sustainability discourse and narratives are made absent so as to elevate specific discursive constructions that have pretensions of being hegemonic. And this could be applied to research on the smart city as well: in some ways, the materiality of the smart city is an absent presence when doing urban research on smart cities.

To link this point to practice, I recently attended a half-day event organised by a major UK smart city development body that works with a city council. In the presentation, lots was said about the organisations involved in the smart city project; about the networks of knowledge, institutions and corporate partners which the project aimed to harness; and about the flows of political and financial resources and interest that were presumably going to make the project a success. Nonetheless, when I was taken for a walk in the project area, there was nothing that could be pointed at which was specifically smart. Instead, I was shown local cultural attractions, and other sites. And yet, the smart city was present – because we know, for a fact, that in the offices, infrastructure, corporations and public institutions that made up the site, the smart city was actively being shaped and performed. It was just hard to see.

What was also hard to see – and perhaps what makes the notion of absent presence more relevant here – was any counter-narrative, any alternative (re)interpretation of the project site, and any contestation of the project. This, too – the alternative to the actually existing smart city – was also an absence (but since we saw little evidence of real alternatives, then perhaps it was also not a presence – and debating that opens up a real can of worms).

In many ways, then, this is a call for visibility. This means visibility when doing fieldwork, when teaching students, when writing about and performing the smart city. Visibility is, in this sense, an action: making the smart city visible. In part, this is already done to a great extent by research that highlights networks, institutional arrangements, calculative devices and the negotiation of standards around the smart city and sustainable urbanism, as seen by the work of Simon Joss and colleagues on standards (Joss et al. 2015). But there is little research so far that gets to grips with the materiality and potential visibility of smart city infrastructure past smart city control rooms and city dashboards.

The uncontrollable smart city?

An oft-repeated critique of the smart city is that it is based on disturbing and quasi-Utopian illusions of control, and that it is simply the latest instalment in the continuing dance between technology and the city, nature and the city, nature and society. These critiques can be easily related to the smart city, since notions of control are in abundant evidence in many ways: When considering the promise of control that analysis of data flows in real time potentially brings about. Or when coming across the visualisation of (selected, and necessarily limited) urban processes in smart city control rooms or smart city operation platforms (Picon, 2015) and other techno-social material assemblages. In brief, these debates are nothing new.

And yet, the smart city and the emergence of governance through data and code (Barns 2016) makes these debates ever more relevant, and the invisibility of smart city infrastructures, networks and (sometimes) actors makes these questions pressing. These concerns were raised a long time ago by far-reaching thinkers – such as Jacques Ellul, who in his La Technique (French edition 1954; English edition 1964) argued that technique, rather than technology, has now outgrown the rational control made possible by human agency. By technique, Ellul signified what some social scientists may today call a socio-technical assemblage: the collection of technologies, scientific devices, organizations and actors that make social control possible. In this context, technique takes on a life of its own as the broad system of rules, technologies and ‘ways of doing’ becomes firmly entrenched, and conveys the meanings associated with the system: meanings around the need for ever-increasing efficiency, speed, replaceability, and order. This led Ellul to some sobering (and at times depressing) conclusions on the state of technological society – in the 1950s. Today, these reflections are more than relevant in a context where social systems such as the (smart) city are purportedly governable through flows of (invisible) data, can be modelled through aggregations of (invisible) citizen-provided as well as sensed (whether you consent or not) data, and can be controlled through the manipulation of these flows of information. (And although I cannot do justice to Ellul’s work here, please read Samuel Matlack’s excellent 2014 essay on The Technological Society here).

This leads to questions around freedom, urban democracy, and individual autonomy: What is the role of freedom in a system constrained by the dead hand of technique? What sort of democracy can we talk about when the political is reduced to the act of removing barriers to (economic, technological) efficiency without due care for the human dimension? Where is autonomy if all a citizen is free to do is move within the techno-economic system defined by technique? In this dim light, the smart city can start to resemble either the crowning of Soviet industrial utopia (all citizens are cogs, whether they realise it or not), or of Blade Runner-style urban dystopia. Reality, as usual, is far more complex and generally lies in between those extremes, but it is the pathway of urban reality that matters, and not necessarily where that reality is at any single point in time. In terms of urban research, these considerations lead to the point that qualitative research into the smart city needs to focus not simply on urban visions, actors, and projects presented in glossy pages and in snazzy apps. Informed, critical urban research has to be able to present alternatives, highlight areas of resistance, and re-interpretation of dominant narratives. Methodologically, this involves the researcher making a qualitative move away from the intricacies of specific smart city projects and initiatives, and towards awareness of the techno-social assemblage that is in evidence in the technological city today.

Credit: the research that went into the writing of this blog was supported by the ESRC (grant ES/L015978/1, ‘Smart eco-cities for a green economy: a comparative study of Europe and China’).


Barns, S. (2016). Mine your data: open data, digital strategies and entrepreneurial governance by code. Urban Geography, 4, pp. 554-571.

Christophers, B. (2014). From Marx to market and back again: performing the economy. Geoforum, 57, pp. 12-20. doi: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.08.007

Ellul, J. (1964). The Technological Society. Toronto: Vintage Books.

Joss, S., Cowley, R., de Jong, M., Müller, B., Park, B.S., Rees, W., Roseland, M., and Rydin, Y. (2015). Tomorrow’s City Today: Prospects for Standardising Sustainable Urban Development. University of Westminster, London.

Matlack, S. (2014). Confronting the technological society. The New Atlantis, 43(Summer/Fall 2014): 45-64. Available at:

Picon, A. (2015). Smart Cities: A Spatialised Intelligence. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Federico Caprotti

Federico Caprotti is Associate Professor in Human Geography at the Department of Geography, University of Exeter (Exeter, UK), where he currently leads the ESRC-NSFC-funded SMART-ECO ‘Smart Eco-Cities for a Green Economy’ EU-China research consortium.


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