The emergence of the concept of Smart Cities and the possibility of digital forms of governance (“e-governance”) has brought to the spotlight issues of governance, privacy and consent between the corporations that embed the required infrastructure, governments, and citizens. While some scholars agree that integrating these technologies into the urban sphere may increase the quality of life of its users, other scholars argue that the power dynamics embedded in the infrastructure of these tools increases the dependance and vulnerability of citizens towards the companies that own them. As researchers, managers and policymakers of the urban-tech realm, Urban Technologists are uniquely positioned to critically reflect on the the role of technology in the evolution of life in and around cities. This work discusses the rhetoric behind the evolution of smart cities, the possibilities of e-governance, and the embedded power dynamics between citizens and corporations to identify possible solutions to the challenges discussed.

Key Words: Smart Cities, E-Governance, Power Dynamics, Citizens, Rights, Consent, Privacy



During recent years, discussions about “smart cities”, “e-governance” and Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) have predominated the urban technology sphere. Research questions have focused on the challenges these concepts present in terms of sustainability, power distribution and life quality. On one hand, some scholars argue that ICTs have the potential to improve the relationship between cities and its citizens through more inclusive and transparent decision-making networks. In other words, they propose ICTs as an innovative path to improve life quality in urban settings by incentivizing user/citizen participation. On the other hand, a critical approach questions the power dynamics that shape “smart cities” and the activities and systems that occur in them. Along those lines, critical scholars claim that “smart” technologies offer no guarantee about the quality of decisions made in cities (Viitanen and Kingston, 2013) Therefore, the challenge of implementation of ICTs is raised.

Big Data can be considered the fuel of ICTs. Hence, our role as urban technologists is defined by the management and sourcing of big data. We are faced with the shortfalls of mediating the forces that shape the embedding of technology in the urban sphere. The power dimension of this role requires a profound understanding of the social and environmental implications of our field. As urban technologist we should recognize how our decisions have a direct impact on socio-economics divides.  For example, the increasing information and socio-economic gap between those with access to and knowledge of digital tech is impacted by the networks we design for cities. Put differently, the design decisions made by urban technologists contribute to the activities, systems and power dynamics that run a city. The conglomeration of good and services, public transportation routes, and waste management policies are all mediated by urban technologist’s decision-making processes. For that reason, the way data is collected, organized and analyzed by tech professionals is crucial for the working of cities, and should include a social perspective

Graph 1: The authors present the areas of public work that may benefit from the integration of e-governance strategies (Whenshu Li et al., 2020)

“Smart Cities” rely on the participation of citizens to function. Citizens provide the data necessary to design ICTs that will hopefully improve overall life quality (Oliveira et al., 2020). Thus, the need to engage citizens in social decisions. However, for that to happen trusted, efficient and sustainable decision-making processes need to exist. The current trends in governance do not inspire trust or promote transparency, therefore new tools and pathways to real democracy are being explored. E-governance and disruptive concepts. such as Blockchain, respond to this need. Digital technologies are acting as the framework in which this innovative governance practices are being used. Oliviera et al. (2020) supports this claim by affirming that ICT has the potential to improve citizen engagement in social decisions “with the transformation of cities’ systems into decentralized and didactic tools”. In other words, ICTs enable participatory governance when conceptualized outside the traditional approach. Portals, blogs and comment sections on public proposals are no longer fulfilling citizens. People in cities are demanding not to be consulted when the proposal is finished, but to have a seat at the table since the beginning. Our role as urban technologists is to fulfill that demand through design.

The research questions that guide innovative development in the urban sphere must evolve around people’s needs and demands. The intersection between ICTs implementation and social sciences should be the focus of current and future urban technology research. There are many reasons to back this claim. One of them is that the challenge to engage citizen’s participation in local or regional city planning will be less since the proposals presented will be of their interest and will directly affect their daily lives. Simply put, citizen engagement with city planning will increase. Another reason to design with citizen’s needs and demands as a top priority is that the urban technologists developed will be more sustainable. When the social perspective is ignored, users are not compelled to interact with new technologies and eventually they become obsolete. Consequently, unsustainable urban futures are built. On the contrary, when design is approached taking into consideration different social perspectives and power dynamics the product is welcomed by citizens and adopted at a much faster rate (Whenshu Li et al., 2020) Ergo, the possibility of a more sustainable future. There lies the importance of people centered design processes versus “user integration”.

Graph 2: The authors present the areas of public work that may benefit from the integration of e-governance strategies (Source: Benson Chan and Strategy of Things,LLC)

A critical approach to smart cities, ICTS and e-governance questions the underlying logics that accompany the conception of “user integration”. The role of the word user should be the first point of questioning. The use of this word implies there is a division between the platform that offers a service and the person who consumes it. It therefore characterizes citizens not only as users, but also as consumers. This distinction is important because it allows us to understand the city as a “digital marketplace” in which citizens/consumers participate in the urban economy.

Notwithstanding, this participation is not always consensual. Ubiquitous computing has enabled data collection that not necessarily requires user awareness or active consent. This raises issues about the ethics of “smart cities” and the urban technology they employ. Understanding citizens only as users coopts their autonomy and decision-making capacity. Therefore, counter proposals that consider people outside of the capitalist logic of urban economy are paramount for the equation of “users rights” as citizens’ rights and is the first step in the legitimation of civil-digital rights.

Graph 3: This graph illustrates the layers of government initiatives that may be transformed into e-governance ecosystems. (Source:Benson Chan and Strategy of Things,LLC)

From the perspective of an urban technologist, employing tools and methods that promote alternative visions to the Big-Tech proposals allows for the development of cyber-human dynamics that are not centered on the idea of exploitation and extraction. The needs of people in the urban-digital realm go beyond the need to be provided behavior-based or geotagged adds. As mentioned before, citizens are searching for technologies that allow them to have an active role in the urban economy. Thereupon, the urgency for an urban economy that fosters exchange rather than extraction since data extraction economies assign citizens a passive role. Nonetheless, exchanged based urban economies must be paired with public policies that promote equity between citizen relationships, citizens to businesses and between citizens and governments. The role of urban technologist, among other things, is to help create the systems that empower people to take on an active performance in the digital transactions in the urban sphere. Yet, prior to discussing these possible solutions the operationalization of “active roles” in the urban sphere must be addressed.

Active participation in the urban-digital sphere depends on the capacity to decide when, how and which information is shared. In consequence, defining what entails an active role is instrumental to further this discussion. Gender perspectives provide an intersectional lens through which the power-dynamics and systems of the city can be examined. For example, Gender theory considers consent is not an inherently static status. It can be given, conditioned and taken away. In contrast, a myriad of Big-Tech tools and methods pray on the lack of visibility, knowledge and consent giving procedures. Therefore, the issue of consent is at the core of this discussion. The freedom to choose to participate, abstain or condition data exchanges in the urban economy is what distinguishes an active role from a passive one. In order to re-shape the procedures and methods through which consent over information sharing is mediated, citizens must have tools that allow them to control their data relationships. While states have being able to regulate their management of internet and data within national boundaries, policies regarding citizens’ rights on data management and usage have not granted nearly enough power to individuals. Until now, e-governance and Blockchain have been suggested as alternatives to address transparency and electoral issues. There needs to be a similar push in creating the data management infrastructure for individuals. The ability to centralize citizen’s decision making on the multitude of data sharing relationships is a constitutive step in expanding e-governance to personal data management relationships. An example of this would be an individual’s ability to pre-define the extent of data shared with third parties or the opportunity to monetize data sharing. Currently, these alternatives are scarcely available and data sharing options are preconditioned by tech-companies. Due to Blockchain’s capacity to provide transparency and legitimacy to online transactions, it may be used as the infrastructure through which these data and relationship management tools may be built upon.


The technical aspects relative to the production of digital services in urban management must be combined with ethical considerations on the relationship and power dynamics proscribed by the tools themselves. In order to fulfill Smart Cities, promise to better citizens quality of life, the conceptual structures used to describe and define these relationships must shift from a strictly commercial and extra8ctivist vocabulary. System protocols must be open-source, users must be treated as citizens, digital interactions must be based on consent and the implementation of tech services must be based on eliminating accessibility hurdles. The adoption of e-governance protocols must develop on par with the digital rights of its participants. The danger of disenfranchising large portions of the population through the unequal adoption of these tools continues.




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“Softening Tech: The Role of Urban Technologists and E-Governance” is a project of IAAC, Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia developed at Master in City and Technology in 2020/21 by students: Dongxuan Zhu, Aishath Nadh Ha Naseer, Mario Gonzalez and faculty: Mathilde Marengo