Many authors and practitioners see “Smart Cities” as a competitive factor in the global network. But how can technology actually benefit humanity? In my Major Project (which is like a thesis, with pretty graphics), I investigated Smart Cities in a more local context, to find out how technology might help to directly empower citizens and communities. The emergence of participatory urbanism as opposed to top- down planning, and the fast-paced development and ubiquity of smart technology are two current topics in urban design. The two can be lined up; as communities are heterogeneous and evolving, urban design could be made responsive and flexible through technology.

Smart Cities are future urban areas that aim to help human beings overcome their problems. They use ICTs to improve urban function in its different aspects and they require collaboration of urban stakeholders. 

Mosannenzadeh and Vettorato (2014: 687)


In my limited research, I came across 15 different definitions of what a “smart” city is, the only consensus being that they involve cities and technology to some degree. Most seemed to take a corporate or policy perspective, which emphasizes the efficiency of urban resource systems such as transport or energy. This is certainly an important point; technology can streamline and optimize such systems. But this was not the perspective I was interested in.


Emerging Themes

Other approaches to smart cities focus on the citizen or community as the ultimate beneficiary of smart city initiatives. The first big cities such as London and New York City provide public online access to data about the built environment, enabling anyone to use those data. For instance, data can be used in apps that encourage citizens to participate in social issues and local decisionmaking. This gives rise to opportunities for participatory planning and e-Democracy.

There is also a more direct way technology enables interaction in and with the public realm: Ratti and Townsend (2011) call this “architecture that senses and responds“. “Ambient intelligence” (Erlandson & Psenka, 2014), “ubiquitous computing” (Weiser, 1991) and the “Internet of Things” (Ashton, 2009) are related concepts. These authors see the potential of an urban environment that is can learn patterns and respond to them.

Urban visualization on public displays can overcome some of the issues of motivation and accessibility of other media such as smartphones or websites. Vande Moere and Hill (2012: 25) describe it as a “visual representation of an urban environment through its intrinsic or related data” that is itself situated within that environment.
All this seemed plausible to me; many of the common criticisms of Smart Cities seemed to pertain to certain narrow definitions of the concept. However, I saw an opportunity to put even more emphasis on citizens, both in response to criticisms of top-down Smart Cities and the perceived potential of technologies to empower grass-roots initiatives.


Some Neat Examples

Admittedly, the following examples are only peripherally related to Smart Cities, but they illustrate how technology and data can allow citizens to engage with their environment.


The Site: Brüsseler Platz, Cologne

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 18.53.56

Featuring open space, greenery, amenities, and a church, Brüsseler Platz provides meaningful space for the community to gather.

Brüsseler Platz

The mixed-use neighbourhood includes at least two groups with clashing interests; young people on the one hand, who enjoy the space and its surrounding bars and kiosks, and local residents on the other hand, who feel disturbed by the noise generated by the former group. The issue has grown more acute in recent years, partly as a result of its own media coverage. Various attempts to appease the situation have proven unsuccessful, and recently the municipality has resorted to strict measures to clear the square at night.

My own  measurements, using the iPhone app SPLnFFT, confirmed average values of 80 dB(A) on a Saturday night. The image below shows the acoustic reaction to Germany’s first goal earlier that night (the maximum being just over 100 dB, measured at location 1).

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 19.18.20



The following designs use technology to engage citizens in an urban space.

VisualizationVisualization of Noise Levels. Data for visualization will come from a number of sources: 1. measurements of ambient noise levels, from fixed sensors or mobile apps, 2. real-time qualitative feedback from citizens, and 3. existing data bases such as weather, public transport schedules, or social media.

NoiseScapeNoiseScape. The Noisescape idea expands urban visualization by integrating localized data from an app that allows people to sense and upload the noise level of their personal environment in real-time. These data will be aggregated and mapped at the exact spot where they occur. Both residents and visitors can use this app to contribute data. For instance, someone who feels disturbed in their home could add their sensor data to the map along with a comment.

iPhone AppSmartphone App. An app will be one of the most important ways for the public to contribute data, but also to access and display it.








digital signage brüsseler-01










Digital Signage. Digital arrows show the direction of certain locations along with certain static and dynamic information. For instance, the distance to the Dom cathedral, but also the current number of people at Aachener Weiher, an alternative hangout place.

Fountain of TranqulityFountain of Tranquility. As long as the volume is below an acceptable threshold, a fountain rises at one end of the square. Its height is inversely proportional to the current noise level. In terms of placemaking, a fountain could enhance the square and its peaceful character.


Schematic Diagram

Schematic diagram



With the role of citizens in mind, designers can attempt to avoid technological biases and digital “exclusion”. Public visualization in particular has the potential to engage even people who are unable or unwilling to use personal electronic devices.

I would argue that, even though their outcome is nearly unpredictable due to their social nature, new technologies are worth exploring. One of the main critiques of Smart Cities expressed by De Lange and De Waal (2013) is that they are developed in the lab, and the real world is seen as the very last step of implementation. I agree that there is potential to deploy new technologies in the field and develop them as they are being used.

In the end, I return to the conclusion of previous authors that technology is helpful, but not sufficient to make a city “smart”. However, I believe that humanity will progress when we serve one another, and urban technology can assist us greatly on that journey – if we decide to use it in that way.


This article is dedicated to everyone who made my year at the Bartlett School of Planning an unforgettable experience.

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