Smart Cities: Urban laboratories and experiment

Martin Tironi

School of Design UC

The growth of Smart Cities.

One of the most currently used expressions is that the twenty-first century is the century of cities. According to forecasts made by the UN, by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, and each month around 200,000 people will integrate into city life. In the face of the emerging megacity phenomenon and the growing need for infrastructures and multiplication of environmental impacts, capital cities will be increasingly subjected to pressure in terms of converting into Smart Cities (Mitchell, 2003; Urry & Denis, 2009; Caragliu and at 2009).

While William J. Mitchell (2003) is one of the leading exponents of intelligent cities, the truth is that this is a particularly polysemous and vague concept. This is probably why it has turned into a highly used term when proposing or justifying urban reforms of a different nature. It is a notion which may refer to sustainable urban development (smart environment); to the incorporation of information and communication technologies in the management of services (smart economy); to the generation of participatory spaces in terms of collaboration and innovation (smart governance).

The idea of the Smart City1 has without a doubt most significantly penetrated the field of urban mobility. Kingsley Denis and John Urry, in their book After the car (2009), argue that if the twenty-first century was the century of the car, with the manufacture of more than a billion cars, current trends point towards the emergence of a new system of intelligent mobility, with the introduction of new technological, social and political innovations. By overcoming multiple resistance from ecological groups (Tironi, 2012), Paris, for example, is currently considered as one of the ‘laboratory cities” of intelligent mobility. With the implementation of Vélib’ (2007) – 20 thousand bicycles spread throughout more than 1,400 collection and drop-off stations – and the launch of Autolib’ (2011), the world’s most ambitious self-service electric vehicle programme, with 3,000 cars, 1,200 stations and more than 6,000 charging terminals – the French capital is implementing the doctrines of the smart cities. Both projects are defined as intelligent modes of transport by offering users greater travel flexibility than conventional public transport systems like the underground and the bus. For one Paris municipality expert, Autolib’ illustrates an important development, because if Paris was designed for cars in the 1960s and 1970s, nowadays the aim is to develop the car for the city2.

Vélib’ by JCDecaux and Autolib’ by Bolloré provide two prestigious showcases of an increasingly competitive market involving mobility in ‘intelligent cities’. There are already more than 130 self-service public bicycle programmes around the world (New York has just launched its own public bicycle system) and car sharing services are starting to multiply under different structures (Drivy, CitizenCar, Zipcar, Flexcar, etc.).

Architectures and digital users

It is important to reiterate that this redefinition of forms of mobility (smart mobility) is accompanied by highly digitalized architectures, with multimedia systems and services deployed throughout the entire city. Cars and mobility programmes will stop being isolated artefacts, becoming part of an enormous interactive network, which is synchronized with computers situated in different public or private locations. In the Smart City, the territory is conceived as ‘geographies encoded by software’ (Graham & Marvin, 2002) with charging points, display screens, virtual sensors, wireless connections and monitoring devices.

This not only involves intelligent devices for travel purposes, but instead an entire city (including households) conceived as ‘intelligent environments’. The different services belonging to the urban territory (roads, bus stops, maps, rubbish dumps, banks, public toilets, signs, shops, energy, etc.) operate to generate a self-programmable “networked territory”.

Added to these conditions are what we would call the sociological imaginations of the Smart Cities. As a condition of possibility, these intelligent environments and infrastructures require a ‘smart citizen’. This involves active users in mobility management who are responsive to the appearance of new applications which allow them to surf the digital city. This in fact refers to cyborg subjects (Gray, 2002 ; Sheller and Urry, 2006), in other words, individuals interconnected, connected and socialized by the use of new technologies (smartphones, tablets, etc.). If the user is not able to manage an iPhone or understand a computer interface with free access, they will not be empowered to transform into a ‘node’ of the multiple devices which allow movement and residence in the intelligent city. In other words, users require cognitive and material equipment in order to be able to navigate in this amalgamation of information artefacts. A central element in this literature is the place of the citizens ordinary in production of smart city. Some even speak of «citizens as sensors» (Goodchild, 2007) to refer to the creativity and the ability of the citizens to become «captors» of the new problems connected to the ecology of the city. In the intelligent city, the user becomes a hyper-actor, simultaneously having to obtain a variety of functions, applications and services. But it doesn’t stop there. Under the ‘open innovation’ project (Chesbrough, 2003), also called ‘collaborative intelligence of innovation”, the imagery of the Smart Cities assumes users capable of engaging in the design process of technologies and able to transit from a ‘possession’ economy to an ‘access’ economy (Rifkin, 2000).

Problematizations of Smart Cities

Despite the ambiguity of the concept, there is no doubt that the emergence of Smart Cities in urban debates is an increasingly important reality. Behind this project, there are numerous economic investments and sophisticated urban marketing strategies. Nevertheless, and in order to avoid the risk of becoming the lawyers of the ‘intelligent city’ and its growing budget in terms of mobility and dematerialization of urban space, we believe it is necessary to introduce certain precautions in respect of methodology which allow this notion to be studied in terms of limits and effects. Adhering to the Smart Cities Project, conceiving it as a force installed as the product of a ‘change in paradigm’ plants the problem of forgetting the

concrete assemblages which render possible the construction of these networks and intelligent subjects. This article subsequently develops some elements for discussion in the study of the ‘intelligent city’ and asks that the effects of the practice of urban experimentation be taken seriously.3

Considering socio-technical assemblage terms.

The study of the ‘intelligent city’ demands an anti-dualist perspective, where no type of moral superiority of the ‘socio-cultural’ elements is assumed above the ‘materials’ or vice versa. This perspective, which we could refer to as socio-technical assemblages (Graham & Marvin; Farias & Bender, 2009), emphasizes the hybrid character and heterogeneity of the entities and relations studied. In this way, it is necessary to tackle the notion of ‘intelligent cities’ as the result of the co-production processes where economies and emotions, politics and beliefs, technological systems and social groups, are mixed. For example, the self- service electric vehicle system in Paris (Autolib’) is a transport project looking to transform individuals’ mobility habits but, at the same time, constitutes an economic operation by Bolloré (battery test), a political project by the municipality of Paris (the idea of a sustainable city) and a material and digital infrastructure which is integrated into the urban environment of the city. Addressing Autolib’ as a compositional operation (Latour, 2010) allows for a move away from a static and essentialist perspective of the city and for the analysis of multiple records (political, economic, technical, social, etc.) written into the electric car programme.

The ‘immobile’ of the intelligent city

Under the premise of permanent circulation and mobility enabled by new communication technologies, the promoters of cyber cities tend to forget the socio-material conditions which allow for the construction of these spaces, movement and intelligent users (Latour & Hermant, 1998). As a result, instead of assuming the digital city to be something inevitable, and the mobility of the users to be a natural condition, it is necessary to explore these places, knowledge and operations which produce material and to explore these categories politically. The notions of ‘mobility’, ‘user’ and even ‘city’ cannot be taken as starting points, but instead as the controversial product of multiple compositional and configurational practices. As indicated by Latour (2009) «we can only talk about mobility because there is an immobile infrastructure. When the mobility of an element increases, the immobility of the infrastructure increases accordingly».

Let’s illustrate this point. The ‘cyborg citizen’ type who presupposes the smart city should be studied using the specific devices and politics which produce it. For example, the user of the self-service bicycle programme in Paris (Vélib’) did not learn to be ‘intelligent’ naturally and to correctly return their bicycle after each usage. Indeed, the first years of operation saw approximately 16,000 bicycles vandalized. One of the reasons involved the incorrect return of bicycles to their stations. JCDecaux, the company responsible for the programme, had to develop ‘domestication’ tools which helped the user to become a ‘more intelligent client’. It turned up the volume and illuminated the bicycle docking stations so as to indicate if the bicycle had been returned correctly. The ‘intelligence’, in this case, is not an abstractproperty, but is instead placed and distributed in the act of the user, in the bicycle docking station and in the hundreds of maintenance personnel who work on a daily basis. In this sense, it is necessary to study the instruments which produce the smart citizens and which permit the implementation of ‘intelligent landscapes” in contemporary city life.

The city as an experimental laboratory.

Denis and Urry (2009) suggest that the ‘post-automobile’ system urgently requires ‘disruptive experiments and innovations’, by testing the most respected forms of mobility and urban organisation using the environment. Today the recourse to experimentation has become recurrent by implementing the idea of the ‘intelligent city’. The city is in this way transformed into an immense ‘laboratory’ of tests and analyses. Different cities are for example carrying out more or less ‘intelligent’ urban innovation experiments, linked to environmental protection, the development of new digital applications or services or ‘green living experiments’ (Marres, 2012).

It is interesting to systematically analyse the effects that these ‘urban laboratorisation’ processes have (Karvonen and Heur, 2011). In other words, to examine which elements are being experimented (users, spaces, technologies, politics, etc.), which type of protocols are present and which forms of political action are produced. Urban studies have a huge interest in taking these experiments seriously, analysing them not only as areas of verification for new projects, but also as urban territory areas of creation and transformation. In this sense, far from being the automatic result of technological progress, Smart Cities should be understood to be the consequence of collective and political experiments which require analysis in terms of different facets. How are the boundaries of these experiments delimited and who are the compromised actors? Do we assist with experimental forms of creating urban projects? Why talk about experimental projects and not about urban politics tout court? These are some of the questions which the notion of ‘intelligent city’ allows to be opened and explored. If one of the roles of the ‘intelligent cities’ is to more effectively manage the mobility of people, objects and goods, it is therefore interesting to examine the type of technical and social experiments carried out so as to achieve this objective.


Martin Tironi.

Sociologist, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Master in Sociology, Université Paris Sorbonne V, PhD and post-doctorate studies, Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation (CSI), École des Mines de Paris Investigator and professor, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile School of Design. Martin Tironi’s research concerns the infrastructures of mobility, the production and the maintenance of sociotechnical devices, design anthropology and critical approach of smart cities. Following an approach directly stemming from Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Actor Network Theory, his PhD thesis The city as an experiment the case of Vélib’ in Paris aimed at exploring the various socio-spatial practices composing the infrastructure of the public bicycle sharing system in Paris. I am currently involved in a 3-year research (Fondecyt) project which focuses on «Smart City Paradigm» and is conceptualized as a form of social experimentation and algorithm governability.

To cite this article: Tironi, M. (2013). “Smart Cities: Urban laboratories and experiments”., 17 October 2013.


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