Inadvertent Exclusion in Future Visions of Smart Cities

This blog by Gillian Rose explores the challenges of making smart cities more inclusive and the findings of her ESRC-funded project, Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes. One of the main outputs of the project, the Engaging Smart Cities toolkit, provides stakeholders with a valuable resource to develop more representative and welcoming to a broad constituency of users, including groups such as persons with disabilities frequently excluded from smart city visual imagery. This blog is reposted with the permission of the author. 

smart city

The way we portray future visions of cities matters, and bad portrayals risk leaving people out.

Images of future cities are everywhere, from photo-realistic mock-ups on hoardings around new urban developments to images to computer games and science fiction films. Smart cities, cities where digital tech and data are integrated into the urban fabric, are accompanied by their own visual materials, and those visual materials matter. Today’s images of smart cities are projections of what the future might be.

As a result, the way people are represented in these images is particularly important. If the public are not represented accurately, or not pictured at all, then what kinds of cities might that lead to? It might be that the way we present future cities risks inadvertently bringing about social exclusion within them.

The term ‘inadvertent exclusion’ was developed by the research project, Smart Cities in the Making (SCiM). Running between 2017 and 2019 at the University of Oxford and The Open University, the project was interested in how social differences like class, race, gender or sexuality were affected by emerging smart city programmes. Through our research, we found that smart city practitioners wanted to ensure the largest number of people possible would participate in new smart city developments. However, they didn’t always have the tools or strategies to make that happen. Though smart city projects never sought to exclude particular social groups, they could unintentionally make them less likely to feel included. Images of smart cities was one important way that this happened.

LUTZ Pathfinder is an autonomous vehicle project underway in Milton Keynes. It is based on small, low speed vehicles or ‘pods’ designed for first/last mile solutions to getting around cities. As part of SCiM, we did some research into the way that these pods are presented visually. We found that often the way they were represented reflected common critiques about the way that the people are shown in pictures of the smart city.

In promotional images, men were represented more frequently than women. Moreover, those men were most often of a high occupational status. In videos, they were pictured in business-wear on the way to meetings, making use of their free time to catch up on work, make calls, or do other economically productive tasks. Where women were pictured, the same was true. For example, in one video a businesswoman on her way from London to Milton Keynes was shown booking her pod from the comfort of a first class train carriage. Here, smart city images are speaking to a wealthy, commercial public while leaving others out.

Similar stories may be told in terms of age, ethnicity and disability. Promotional material most frequently represented the young or younger middle aged, who most often appeared white and who had no visually identifiable disability. In this way, the LUTZ Pathfinder project is not unusual. Potential users who differ from those norms might well be left questioning whether smart city projects are really for them.

It is important, too, to think about how we as viewers see such images. When images are online, it is rare that we stop and gaze at one image in particular. Instead, we are more likely to see them as part of a flow as we scan through social media or read articles. Theorists have called this hyperseeing, a way of looking which is casual rather than intense, where users gather feelings rather than undertake close image analysis. If there is an abundance of images representing only a limited cohort of people, this could influence how people feel about the wider smart city movement.

Our toolkit,, helps practitioners to reflect on these ideas. In terms of visuals production, we argue that more care needs to be taken to ensure that promotional material accurately represents real world diversity. We also argue that visuals producers need to be more attune to the reality of the cities they represent. The clean, smooth and bright images so often used by visualisers are nice, but that is not what cities usually look like. Cities are messy and imperfect, and to attract real citizens to the discussion they need to recognise the places they live in.

The toolkit also examines other key areas where unintended exclusion might take place. It looks at business practices, at councils, and at voluntary and community groups.

Tackling unintended exclusion is vital for everyone across the smart city milieu. Greater participation means greater effectiveness of many smart city projects. It means greater success for councils, and larger profits for developers. Ultimately, no-one designs smart city tech to exclude people intentionally, but unless it is actively mitigated, unintended exclusion remains a risk.