Background | Social Cities of Tomorrow

Social Cities of Tomorrow

Our everyday lives are increasingly shaped by digital media technologies, from smart cards and intelligent GPS systems to social media and smartphones. How can we use digital media technologies to make our cities more social, rather than just more hi-tech?

Social Cities of Tomorrow conference text

by: Michiel de Lange & Martijn de Waal

In today’s cities, our everyday lives are increasingly shaped by digital media technologies – from smart cards and intelligent GPS systems to social media and smartphones. In ‘Social Cities of Tomorrow’, citizens use digital technologies to make their cities more liveable and lively; they feel they belong to the city and that the city belongs to them; they engage in communally shared issues and have the power to act.

Main questions & promising areas for creating social cities

Can digital technologies enable citizens to act on collectively shared issues? Can principles from online culture help to form new collectives around communal resources in an urban context? Can media technologies bring about a sense of place and connection among urbanites, and a feeling of ‘ownership’ of their environment? These are the main questions that will be addressed during the international conference Social Cities of Tomorrow.

Collective issues exist on multiple scales. Some have a global scope, like social equity and environmental sustainability, or adequate water, food and energy supplies. Others are highly specific to local settings, like shrinking cities, ageing populations and empty spaces. On an intermediary level many cities face challenges such as the perceived decline of publicness, safety, social inclusion and cohesion, and the gap between citizens and policy. Typically, issues like these are not ‘owned’ by a single party. They are neither purely private matters nor public issues for which responsibility is outsourced to one institution, but ‘commons’-questions that involve multiple stakeholders and require collective forms of governance. This includes local governments and entrepreneurs, housing corporations, community workers, artists, urban designers, media creatives, and of course other citizens as well.

We see three promising interrelated developments where urban technologies may be used to create livable and lively cities.

1. Data-commons

Sensing technologies and networked urban media create vast amounts of data about a wide range of urban processes and practices. These data can become a valuable resource, a platform on top of which new services and infrastructures can be built. We will explore how these new resources can be harvested and opened up, and turned into useful information and applications that are available to everyone. Furthermore, we will investigate how these datasets can be used to bring out, visualise and manage collective issues.

2. Sense of place and a feeling of ‘ownership’

To engage people with communally shared issues, it is essential that people envision themselves as part of the urban fabric, and understand that their individual actions make a difference to the common good. They also need to trust other urbanites to act accordingly. How can digital media be employed to foster a shared sense of belonging and responsibility, and a feeling that indeed the city is ‘ours’ to take and shape? We will explore how digital tools for story-telling, urban games, data visualisations and interactive media facades can help foster a sense of place and a sense of ‘ownership’.

3. DIY urban design & networked publics

‘Networked publics’ are groups of people that use social media and other digital technologies to organise themselves around collective goals or issues. In online culture, networks of ‘professional amateurs’ create ‘user generated content’ or take part in ‘citizen science’ projects. Think of open source software or Wikipedia as successful examples. Can we port these principles from online culture, like self-organisation and collective action, to urban life in order to make it more ‘social’ as well? We will look at the ways in which new media technologies can be employed to involve citizens in designing their own city, and to include them in governing urban issues. We will explore how these technologies can be used to create and manage publics around common pool resources, varying from car sharing to urban gardening.

A new take on community and participation models

Our focus on collective issues, resource management and governance does not mean that we simply follow in the footsteps of community or participation models, which have been around for a long time. Community approaches envision a tight sense of togetherness rooted in physical or virtual locality. Most city dwellers however firmly reject small-town parochialism. Besides, complex urban issues often transcend purely local interests. ‘Participation’ on the other hand is a term that is usually associated with the top-down approaches of urban policy: citizens are expected to ‘participate’ in the structures that urban institutions deem right for them.

In Social Cities of Tomorrow these classic paradigms are recombined in a ‘flat’ networked approach to engagement with urban life through digital technologies and culture. The advent of digital media technologies in the urban sphere offers opportunities to organise citizen engagement neither in local bottom-up fashion, nor in institutionalised top-down fashion, but in peer-to-peer distributed ways. This reconciles individual and collective action, local bottom-up and top-down organisation, and commercial, educational, civic and governmental initiatives.

Turning ‘smart cities’ into social cities

The event Social Cities of Tomorrow is also intended as an alternative to the increasingly popular idea of ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ cities. More and more cities develop ‘smart city’ policies as a core part of their (economic) agendas. These visions promise to bring us a more efficient, convenient and personalised urban life with the aid of digital technologies. Recently, smart city visions have come under criticism along three broad lines. First, observers note that way-finding devices, location-based services, digital signage, and customer loyalty cards transform our cities in to consumer-optimised zones 1. Second, omnipresent cameras with face and gait recognition software, RFID-based access cards, smart meters, connected databases, and mobile network positioning, push cities toward revived ‘big brother’ scenarios of pervasive institutional control and surveillance 2. Third, mobile screens, portable audio devices and untethered online access to one’s familiar inner circle enable people to retreat from public life into privatised cocoons or capsules 3. Artists and media activists have used those same media technologies to question and subvert the logic of these three Cs of consumption, control, and capsularisation 4. While we recognise the value of these criticisms, many such interventions remain highly temporary and stick to an oppositional politics. How can we use the potential strengths of urban technologies to help forge more durable ‘project identities’ that depart from a collective sense of ownership 5?

‘Smart city’ practice takes the technology lab as the starting point to experiment with new urban services. The actual city is seen as the last and most difficult hurdle in successive phases of ‘deployment’ or ‘roll-out’, rather than the sole place where experiment truly proves its value. Smart city projects typically consist of a ‘triple helix’ of government, knowledge production (e.g. universities) and industry. Such consortia often ignore the role of citizens as equally important agents. At best, smart city policies follow in the footsteps of the participation model where citizens are mere ‘end-users’, rather than being engaged in the early stages of co-creation. In this context, we propose the ‘social city’ as an urgent, alternative take on urban design with digital technologies. Other than ‘smart city’ visions and practices, we urge designers to focus on the active role of citizens and use the city itself as the testbed for experiments.

We have elaborated our thoughts about Social Cities in the publication ‘Ownership in the Hybrid City':

You can download Ownership in the Hybrid City in English or in Dutch.

Further Reading


1 See: Crang, M., & Graham, S. (2007). Sentient Cities: Ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space. Information, Communication & Society, 10(6), 789-817; Shepard, M. (Ed.). (2011). Sentient city: ubiquitous computing, architecture, and the future of urban space. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

2 Greenfield, A., & Shepard, M. (2007). Urban Computing and Its Discontents. In T. S. Omar Khan, Mark Shepard (Eds.), Situated Technologies Pamphlet series Vol. 1, available from

3 See: De Cauter, L. (2004). The Capsular Civilization: on the city in the age of fear. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

4 Often this happens through ludic interventions that hark back to Situationist legacies of dérive and detournement.

5 This term is from Castells, M. (1997). The Power of Identity. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell. He distinguishes between the dominant ‘legitimizing identity’, the counter-active ‘resistance identity’, and the affirmative ‘project identity’ (p. 7-8).