Roadmaps to utopia: tales of the smart city

Blog by Alan-Miguel Valdez, Matthew Cook and Stephen Potter

13 Feb 2018, 11:45 a.m.
Alan-Miguel Valdez, Matthew Cook and Stephen Potter



“…Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

                        Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass


“Roadmaps to utopia: tales of the smart city” builds on our previous work looking at various sustainable innovation experiments deployed in an English new town called Milton Keynes (MK). MK has cultivated a reputation as a leading test-bed city and, just like Alice in the Red Queen’s race, this new town finds itself running as fast as it can manage just to keep its place. MK:Smart (, a £16 Million smart city programme, was the latest episode in its race towards utopia.


MK, like so many other smart cities, deployed sensing and data management infrastructures in order to improve the efficiency of its physical infrastructure and enable sustainable urban development. As we documented the development of the smart city programme, we gained the impression that the MK:Smart coalition was held together by a tacitly agreed roadmap.  Comparative research focused on similar programmes elsewhere, showed us that other smart cities seemed to follow slightly different versions of the same roadmap.  We observed that those metaphorical maps did not always provide a complete and accurate reflection of the situation on the ground, i.e. the map is not the territory.


Those informal observations were translated into a research programme with three distinct stages. First, we tried to make the tacit ‘smart city roadmap’ explicit and visible. We did not find a unique roadmap, but identified a common approach in a series of competing, complementary and overlapping visions outlined in smart city standards by BSI and ISO, promises made by ICT companies, and discourses used by leaders of pioneering smart cities. For the second stage of this research, we assessed the degree to which our particular ‘smart’ programme, MK:Smart, seemed to follow this invisible roadmap. Finally, we reflected on the degree to which the map seemed to provide an accurate representation of the processes taking place in smart cities and the degree to which cities following it seemed to attain (or not) the promised benefits.


Our work on MK:Smart reached its conclusion on June 2017 but our engagement with Milton Keynes continues through the Smart Cities in the Making Project ( ), which looks at the social effects of smart city technologies. In particular, SCiM-MK explores how smart patterns the social in cities. Just as we were wrapping up the last round of edits to our article, we had the opportunity to attend the Smart City Expo 2017 in Barcelona as part of our SCiM research. We visited the stands of the various smart cities, trying to develop an understanding of how the dozens of cities claiming to be smart were similar to (and different from) each other.


While we have not had time to do a formal analysis of the data gathered in Barcelona, our initial impression is that the smart city roadmap based on big data, as described in the article, is alive and well, invisible but omnipresent. However, it also seems that its own success is making it obsolete. Judging from the exhibits at the expo, it looks like cities don’t want to be just smart anymore. Now that hundreds of cities claim to be smart or experimental, ‘smart’ big data infrastructures may not be enough to raise the symbolic capital of a place. Most of the promotional materials we gathered at the expo are clearly designed to attract investment, with cities framing their smartness as a unique selling point. Since ‘smart’ by itself is not so unique anymore, cities need to offer something more and consequently projects are coalescing into smart regions, or becoming “smart and social”, “smart and sustainable”, “smart and inclusive”, “smart and connected”, “smart, automated and autonomous”. As smart cities find themselves in their own version of the Red Queen’s race, leading cities may be forced to reinvent their roadmaps, staging their proposals “in a future indefinitely postponed… where we are continually about to enter a new age, when we are continually anticipating what happens next” (Greenfield, 2013, p27). As more and more cities seem to be adopting the data-driven ‘smart city roadmap v1.0’, we are looking forward to research the emerging, competing visions for the smart city v2.0.


Greenfield, A. (2013). Against the smart city – The city is here for you to use. Do Projects.


Read the paper on Urban Studies - Online First here.



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