Notes from #FutureFest18 — ‘Are smart cities broken? Reimagining urban technologies’

Usman Haque
5 min readJul 12, 2018

Below are notes from my introduction to the FutureFest18 session ‘Are smart cities broken? Reimagining urban technologies’ on July 16, 2018, a debate and discussion with Francesca Bria, Alison Powell, John Tolva. The session was recorded, so if video is released I will add it later.

Broken Smart Cities

  • Are smart cities broken? Yes! But the real question is how we do better, by our cities, by our technologies and by our communities?
  • We won’t try to define smart cities — the concept is too amorphous, too insubstantial, and founded largely on marketing crap from technology companies with short names.
  • There have been plenty of attempts at ‘smart cities’ that you will be familiar with already: Songdo, Masdar, here in UK we have Manchester (quote: “We are planning to seriously ‘productise’ CityVerve. We will milk the branding and the findings”), Glasgow. Even Alphabet (f.k.a. Google) is getting in on the act in Toronto; also hundreds of initiatives in India and China. By many accounts, if not all, these leave a lot to be desired (especially when they become ‘surveillance cities’ rather than ‘smart cities’).
  • On one hand we should be happy: the debate we in the industry had 5 or 6 years ago, trying to get people to talk about smart citizens not just smart cities, seems to have been settled, pretty much all ‘smart city’ initiatives claim to be about people, empowerment and engagement.
  • Interestingly, if you talk to people involved in those initiatives, you will find that they all claim they are the only one that’s truly about people, and that all the others are not…
  • There is plenty of material critiquing these initiatives, save it for another time.
Photo by ‘Now watching @uah and @a_b_powell talking about #smartcities #FutureFest18

Cities have to make radical decisions

  • This is the time to talk about what does work, what has worked, how we make our cities better, while preserving the creativity, diversity and heterogeneity that makes them valuable and desirable; and specifically how technology can help, not hinder, the process. It’s not obvious. It’s fundamental to why we do what we do at Umbrellium.
  • Crucial to get this right because cities, and the people who make decisions about the future of cities, are in a precarious place. Scale effects of: population change/migration/pressure; environmental change; technological change and by extension social change — so cities/decision-makers have to make good decisions and make them soon.
  • All these mean that cities are under massive pressure to do something, do something quickly, maybe even radical.
  • Yet cities (and decision-makers) cannot be seen to fail, to waste money, to experiment without impact. So when big technology companies come along and say they have the solution (and in some cases even come along with bags of money) it’s very difficult for a city to say no. A catch-22.
  • The key is to develop an urban technology model that binds together cities’ need to change/adapt/respond with people’s need to understand/participate/make decisions — to a certain extent it requires embracing the idea of shared risk (which I’ve written about more in Mutually Assured Construction). If you want true innovation, that means taking risk, which means people have to be involved, which means you get more innovation. (Note: I don’t particularly like the word ‘innovation’).

Key questions for discussion

  1. How do cities/communities/people work together with and through technology, in a way that balances risk and reward, taking account of technology innovation models, city’s economic models and urban policy models, as well as how people are affected by change. My short answer is that having people/residents/citizens involved directly in technology project governance and decision-making is not just a ‘nice-to-have’, it’s an imperative for any viable and sustainable system — it helps derisk, improve and solidify an initiative; the complexity of it also builds trust.
  2. Given the pace of technological and social change, with very small groups (of not incredibly diverse) people sitting largely in Silicon Valley, are making huge decisions about the way we’re going to live in our cities — decisions that affect millions of others. How do we who live in cities, who create cities, who design urban technology systems, who make decisions that affect the futures of cities — how do we address the social and ethical implications, how do we grab the reins back? My short answer is that urban technology companies need to look much more at small-scale hyperlocal context-based technological solutions, not just monolithic one-size-fits-all platforms. Very surprised to see McKinsey making a similar argument recently in the Harvard Business Review.
  3. We have seen how large technology companies have set the agenda for the music and entertainment business; for mapping, navigation and personal data; for autonomous vehicles and transportation systems; and now we’re seeing them set the agenda for the very fabric of our future cities. In face of such behemoths, what then is the role of designers, technologist and urbanists — urban technologists who know just how messy and complex it is to work in cities (especially when you want to preserve some of that messiness and complexity) and how can that role be more than just oppositional? My short answer is to keep building for real, to avoid grand vision statements that feed marketing machines, to keep practising and interacting with real people in real streets in real cities. Make real world deployments — which large tech companies usually lack — the evidence to show that it works.

(Other questions: how do you measure ‘smart’ anyway, and why not measure ‘engaged cities?’; is there even a viable economic model for urban technology that suits city cashflow, technology innovation and community participation?)


The three speakers Francesca Bria, Alison Powell, John Tolva then presented their perspectives and discussed some of these issues. Video to come…

With huge thanks to my fellow speakers and to Gyorgyi Galik for curating the session. For more on the work we do at Umbrellium please have a look at some of our recent initiatives



Usman Haque

Founding partner/creative director @Umbrellium • @Thingful • working on engaging cities •