Signage in Sydney

Signage in Sydney


In becoming a smarter city

Pragmatist experiments in Sydney's transport information systems


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 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 hero technologist that makes the whole project happen, and instead places people as just one kind of agency in the emerging systems. In this perspective, the role of design changes, to one that is about actively creating diversity in experimentation, always responding 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
 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.