Signage in Sydney

Signage in Sydney


In becoming a smarter city

Pragmatist experiments in Sydney's transport information systems


The thesis proposes a pragmatist sociology of the Smart City discourse. This means the inquiry seeks to understand the Smart City and conceptualise it as it is experienced in practice rather that ideologically, viewing the Smart City as 'in the making' rather than a 'ready-made' concept. 

The inquiry includes an empirical exploration of the variety of constituting practices of two related transport cases in Sydney, Australia. The accounts visually narrate these experimental projects consisting of multiple stakeholders, technologies and their negotiations towards the development of 'responsive environments' and 'real-time applications'. These visuals are intended to enact an alternative post-anthropocentric and arational understanding of renewing urban services in the challenges of the 21st century.

Key findings

  • The Smart City discourse is limited by its rational and comparative logic, which precludes other ways of conceiving initiatives in more relational and systemic ways
  • Projects in practice are developed in largely ad-hoc rather than rational ways, and comparative studies are less relevant than knowledge and relationships in the local context
  • The Smart City discourse can be usefully redefined in post-anthropocentric ways (by including the agency of technology, organisations and space) ways to better address systemic urban problems through an expanded sense of urban politics
  • An understanding of the Smart City discourse as emergent socio-material processes. This perspective is coherent with experience but challenging to think outside of the dominant western conception of the world of static entities
Signage in Sydney

Signage in Sydney


In cities, governments are tasked to manage increasing population, urban densities, technological change, resource constraints and escalating climate and economic risks. As primary centres of human population, productivity, and environmental impacts, the adaptation of cities to these challenges is critical. The Smart City has emerged since the mid 2000s as a discourse proposing digitally mediated solutions to many of these challenges. However, the Smart City is still an ill-defined and ideological discourse that offers insufficient guidance for practitioners to know how to create initiatives that are relevant to their immediate situated contexts.

This thesis responds to this dilemma, drawing on the rich history of philosophical pragmatism to make this discourse more relevant towards the situated challenges of 21st century cities. This approach understands the Smart city as continually ‘in the making’, which challenges many assumptions of the discourse. This results in a speculative ‘reassembly' of the concept. This reassembly proposes a performative enactment of a reimagined politics of a post-anthropocentric urban cosmos, the cosmopolitical. A speculative visualisation method is proposed, aimed at prefiguring a cosmopolitical ontology of design for these purposes. Two empirical studies apply this proposed approach revise the histories of the development of transport information systems in Sydney, Australia, serving as a means to demonstrate this reimagined Smart City discourse. The empirical research draws on, observations, semi-structured interviews in the form of practitioner oral histories collated with secondary related media and reports.

The pragmatist positioning of this research, and performative visual explanations of these situated cases are argued to more coherently explain the Smart City for the 21st century context as necessarily heterogeneous, in multiplicity and processual. The thesis concludes with an extensive proposal for a process-relational ontology of ‘becoming' rather than ‘being’, to adequately conceptualise the socio-material assemblages of the Smart City, urging its designers to adopt more suited process-relational approaches rather than rational planning models. Whilst challenging, pragmatism offers a significant contribution to reassembling the Smart City for 21st century cities, by providing an alternate epistemology and relevant ontology of remaking our cities.