Who shapes the smart city story?


What do a digital startup entrepreneur, a tech company employee, and an on-demand platform worker have in common? They are the ones who day-to-day design, produce, and execute digital solutions for the so-called smart city. Yet, rarely has the academic literature taken into account their own interpretation and reproduction of smart city discourses. Do digital workers around the world simply seek to mirror the Silicon Valley-inspired smart city?
In this blog, Mariana Fried, Jiska Engelbert, and Isabel Awad from the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens share the key arguments they raised at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers about their research on digital workers’ place in the smart city.

Despite digital workers’ central role in the infrastructural production and maintenance of the smart city, they seldom feature in the most prominent stories that promote smart solutions and in the literature on smart city discourse. As the picture below suggests, the invisibility of digital workers is evident, for example, in IBM’s efforts to promote the benefits of digital services and products for city governments.

IBM Industry city. www.ibm.com

Strikingly, digital workers have also been attributed a very limited role in the academic literature on smart cities. How can research acknowledge the place of digital workers in the smart city? And why is it essential to do so? We address these questions by underscoring, first, the crucial role of discourse in smartness.

The smart city as discourse

A growing body of research sees the so-called smart city as constituted not only by technological infrastructures (Internet of things, artificial intelligence, data sensors) but also, and more visibly, through discourse, that is, by the stories we tell and are told about the things that technology can do for urban life (Hollands 2008; Engelbert 2019). Smart city discourse circulates through expos, awards, funding competitions, rankings, corporate advertising, and municipal slogans. These discursive practices seemingly spread an indisputable consensus about the urgent challenges that cities face and a conviction that these challenges demand quick technological, entrepreneurial, and privately-driven solutions (Sadowski & Bendor, 2019).

Views of business-led technological innovation as solution to all urban problems and the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley as worth replicating everywhere else seem to travel easily. Mark Zuckerberg’s motto “Move Fast and Break Things” seems to inspire the rapid transformation of cities into innovation hubs where new apps are constantly created and political debates are avoided. In the discourse disseminated by public and private institutions around the world, it seems as if all cities wanted to be "The smartest city of…" or "The Silicon Valley of…" [complete sentence with any region in the world]. But is the same discourse simply mirrored in other cities?

Mere readers of a story?

We consider the power of this discourse seriously, but critically, by warning against the dangers of deterministic views. The influence and reach of the smart city discourse are large but not absolute, and, thus alternatives, variation, and change are possible. Specifically, we argue that careful consideration must be given to the role of digital workers and to their version of what a smart city is and should be.

Thus, we challenge the assumptions that tech company employees are just persuaded by a fun bro-culture to consent to corporate control (Zukin 2020); that digital startup entrepreneurs passively turn into biased-to-action subjects creating purely technological solutions for everything after engaging in hackathons (Irani 2015); and that on-demand platform workers are pushed by the smart city to become isolated, alienated individuals, competing against each other (Attoh et al. 2019).

Recent prominent cases help us challenge these assumptions. The organization of Google and Amazon workers for better working conditions, the rise of anti-racist and feminist startup incubators, and delivery workers’ collective demands for stronger regulation raise, at least, some questions about their role vis-à-vis techno solutionist narratives. Those who develop products for tech companies, those who design new ‘smart’ solutions, and those who then execute those solutions often do this for the very same cities they live in. Then, what are their readings and thus versions of the smart city?

Avenues for research

Given that both promotional discourses about the smart city and the literature studying them have too often overlooked digital workers’ place in it, research focused on their own (discursive) practices is much needed. Approaching the smart city ethnographically and studying what digital workers do with discourse -rather than just what discourse does to them- is important for multiple reasons.

Empirically, what we know so far about digital workers’ role cannot fully account for phenomena happening around us where digital workers show that they can have their own views of the relation between technology and the city and their own efforts to shape it. Ethically, restricting research to the study of certain discourses and their supposedly determining power neglects digital workers’ agency as social actors with meaningful reasons and strategies for co-creating urban imaginaries and cities.

Finally, understanding smart cities, both the potential ones and the actually existing ones, necessarily implies going beyond the most widespread version that defines itself as the only one and as applicable to any context. Research must attend to the ways space is produced by the lived experiences of people in it and look into the ways digital workers talk about their work and their cities if it intends to recognize the alternative versions of the smart city that are imaginable and being imagined.

Watch the presentation


Attoh, K., Wells, K., & Cullen, D. (2019). “We’re building their data”: Labor, alienation, and idiocy in the smart city. EPD: Society and Space, 37(6), 1007–1024.

Engelbert, J. (2019). Reading the neoliberal smart city narrative. In P. Cardullo, C. Di Feliciantonio, & R. Kitchin (Eds.), The right to the smart city (pp. 43-55). Emerald Publishing.

Hollands, R.G. (2008). Will the real smart city please stand up? City, 12(3), 303-320.

Irani, L. (2015). Hackathons and the making of entrepreneurial citizenship. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 40(5), 799-824.

Sadowski, J., & Bendor, R. (2019). Selling smartness: Corporate narratives and the smart city as a sociotechnical imaginary. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 44(3), 540-563.

Zukin, S. (2020b). The innovation complex: Cities, tech, and the new economy. Oxford University Press.

PhD student
dr. Jiska Engelbert
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