In becoming a smarter city

Pragmatist experiments in Sydney's transport information systems

The thesis was published in September 2018, and is available here through the UNSW library.


My thesis proposes a pragmatist sociology of the smart city discourse. This means the enquiry seeks to understand the smart city and conceptualise it as it is experienced in practice rather that ideologically, viewing the smart city as continually 'in the making' rather than a 'ready-made' concept. This is a novel perspective as the 'smart city' is typically described as a utopian state that can be achieved, rather than an activity.

The study includes an empirical exploration of practice in two transport cases in Sydney. Both of the accounts are visually narrated through the multiple constituting stakeholders and technologies. The visuals are intended to make practitioners think differently about what it is actually like to do the work of making smart cities. This different way of thinking is about the agency of not only people, but the technologies, politics, and nature that co-shape the development of a project. The resulting view reduces the perspective of the utopian technological solution, instead understands the smart city as ongoing processes. This perspective brings the inherent heterogeneity of urban political processes to the fore. In this perspective, the role of design changes: from following a linear process, to an emergent practice of extremely diverse experimentation, where designers continually respond to the immediate context as it is better understood.

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



Cities are primary centres of human population, productivity and environmental impacts. Their adaptation to the challenges of the 21st century is critical. Since the mid-2000s, the concept of the smart city has emerged, proposing digitally-mediated ‘solutions’ to these challenges. Yet, the smart city’s ill-defined and ideological discourse has little relevance to urban design and development initiatives undertaken within local contexts. There is insufficient guidance for practitioners, with many of the realities of practice hidden or excluded from the discourse, particularly the impact of the socio-material.

This thesis responds to this dilemma. It draws on the rich history of philosophical pragmatism to ‘reassemble’ the smart city discourse, making it responsive to the immediate and situated challenges of 21st century cities. The thesis strips out the ideology of the smart city, grounding the concept in the experience of existing projects. As a result, the research constitutes a reassembly of the smart city, understanding it as a concept ‘in the making’; one which includes other voices in the discourse. It reimagines the smart city in terms of post-anthropocentric urban politics: the Cosmopolitical.

To enact this contemporary pragmatist ontology, the thesis presents a visual history method, developed through empirical studies of two transport information system projects in Sydney, Australia. Over a three-year period, data on both projects were drawn from observations, oral histories and secondary sources, including media and reports. The data were then analysed, using Actor-network theory.

It is argued that these visual histories and the pragmatic positioning of the research explain smart city initiatives as necessarily heterogeneous processes, open to multiple interpretations. This lays the foundations for my proposal for a process-based ontology of ‘becoming' rather than ‘being’, asserted to adequately conceptualise the smart city for future initiatives. Practitioners are urged to adopt process-relational approaches, rather than more limited rational ways of conceiving and planning the smart city. Whilst challenging, pragmatism offers a significant contribution to understanding the smart city; an alternate epistemology and relevant ontology in the remaking of our cities for 21st century challenges.

The full thesis is available here through the UNSW library.