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Figure 1.

Imagine a day, like any other day, you wake up to the harsh sound of your alarm. Your room is freezing. The heating must not have come on yet and winter in Newcastle is not always so forgiving. You sleepily shuffle to the bathroom and wipe the mirror surface clean to check the damage from last night and hastily brush your teeth. You wonder what the day holds for you, perhaps, if the weather is nice, you can enjoy a picnic in the park on your lunch break and then take a stroll along the canal. Maybe Jenny from the upstairs department will finally have remembered to respond to your email. You wander next door to search for a clean shirt, alas you’re out of luck and have to dig in the wash bin for the least wrinkled one you possess. No time for a coffee you burst out of the front door and pile into your Ford Ka. It doesn’t start.

Sound familiar?

Now imagine a day, not like any other day, you wake up to a warm ray of sunlight and gentle noises. The smart watch you have round your wrist has been measuring your heart rate and calculated the optimum time to wake you using soft lighting and pleasant sounds. You feel refreshed from a good nights sleep. Your room is warm because your smart heating system has tracked the weather and remembered your preferences to ensure that you wake with just the right comfort. Making your way to the bathroom, your smart mirror uses facial recognition to log onto your emails and display the days weather forecast. It looks like you’ll be able to have a picnic in the park over your lunch break after all. Before picking up your toothbrush, you instruct your mirror to drop Jenny from the department upstairs a quick email. Your toothbrush flashes amber as you use it, you’re due a check-up at the dentist soon. Your smart chest of drawers has a crisp white shirt waiting for you as you head next door, it happens to be your favourite. Making your way downstairs you can hear your coffee machine preparing the perfect americano. Knocking it back you head to your car, which has already started to de-ice the windows and heat the interior. Your dashboard notifies you that you have a puncture but your tyre pressure monitoring system allows you to drive to work on time (“A day in the life of a smart city dweller,” n.d.).

You are living in a smart city. A city of the future, that might not be too far around the corner.

Tech group Y Combinator asks: ‘What should a city optimize for?’ A city cannot be defined as a computer just as computer data and processing cannot be compared to urban intelligence (Mattern, 2017). The question makes us wonder how a city can increase residents happiness, efficiency and success. But how do we go about measuring the success of a city? Increasingly we have come to realise that ‘the city as an information – processing machine has in recent years manifested as a cultural obsession with urban sites of data storage and transmission’ (Mattern, 2017). As we walk through our streets we can see evidence of this in CCTV, sensors, antennae and even drones. We can see the beginning transformations of a smart city.

Figure 2.

What is a smart city?

A smart city is an advanced city that applies information and communication technologies to improve the efficiency and outcomes of our urban environment, for example through transport, facilities and energy (“What Is A Smart City? | Computerworld,” n.d.).

There are many different types of smart cities, each can look very different and vary across continents. However there are a number of similarities that these cities have which we can use to define them. These technologies use data to analyse and fix issues with the economy, environment and social aspects of the city.  There are generally two methods of smart cities: top down and bottom up.

‘Top down…approaches are associated with pre-defined offerings’(“What is a Smart City?,” n.d.). This approach involves collecting data from sensors and translating it into a ‘single virtual platform’ so as to guide city activities more effectively (“What Is A Smart City? | Computerworld,” n.d.). Alternatively, the bottom up approach applies new technologies (through social media, apps etc) and data to allow inhabitants to craft results, develop skills and strengthen relationships with authorities. Most UK cities, including Newcastle, take this bottom down approach as many of our cities are already well established (“What is a Smart City?,” n.d.).

Figure 3.

In our own city of Newcastle, steps to make knowledgeable decisions when developing our urban environment is aided by organisations like Newcastle University’s Urban Observatory who collect data on pollution, flooding, traffic and even bats and bees. By 2050 it is predicted that more than 70% of the population will predominantly inhabit cities and there will be a large increase in urban sprawl, therefore it is vital that we take steps to safe guard our urban environment and the research undertaken by Urban Observatory can help us to achieve this. Using sensors positioned across Newcastle and Gateshead they can monitor the urban environment providing innovative technologies to expand the opportunities and performance of the smart city (“Our Urban Observatory – Who we Are – Newcastle University,” n.d.).

However the Urban Observatory face a number of challenges:

  • Ability of the technology to effectively cover large areas of the urban environment successfully.
  • ‘Digital security.’
  • Skepticism from residents and lack of trust regarding privacy.
  • Adequate funding.
  • The efficiency of the exchange and use of information by computers.
  • Requirements of existing structures and urban environment.

(“Smart cities face challenges and opportunities,” n.d.).

This post is in response to the ‘Smart Cities’ lecture by Sebastian Weise who spoke about the future of our cities, looking at case studies in Masdar, Santander and Toronto. I was particularly interested in his comments on the Urban Observatory in Newcastle which is what inspired this post.


A day in the life of a smart city dweller [WWW Document], n.d. . The Week UK. URL // (accessed 1.12.20).

Maros Krivy, 2018. Towards a critique of cybernetic urbanism: The smart city and the society of control, in: Planning Theory.

Mattern, S., 2017. A City Is Not a Computer. Places Journal.

Our Urban Observatory – Who we Are – Newcastle University [WWW Document], n.d. URL (accessed 1.12.20).

Smart cities face challenges and opportunities [WWW Document], n.d. . URL (accessed 1.12.20).

What Is A Smart City? | Computerworld [WWW Document], n.d. URL–how-to-define-a-smart-city.html (accessed 1.12.20).

What is a Smart City? [WWW Document], n.d. . Centre for Cities. URL (accessed 1.12.20).

Fig. 1 Morlinhaus Christoph , Wild Close ups of Computer Chips look like Cities, 2016,

Fig. 2 Rouse Margaret, Smart City, 2019,

Fig. 3 Urban Observatory Newcastle University, Our Urban Observatory, 2018,

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Planning and Landscape
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