Over the last few years, the term “smart cities” has gained traction in academic, industry, and policy debates about the deployment of new media technologies in urban settings. It is mostly used to describe and market technologies that make city infrastructures more efficient, and personalize the experience of the city. Here, we want to propose the notion of ownership” as a lens to take an alternative look at the role of urban new media in the city. With the notion of ownership, we seek to investigate how digital media and culture allow citizens to engage with, organize around and act upon collective issues to engage in cocreating the social fabric and built form of the city. Taking ownership as the point of departure, we wish to broaden the debate about the role of new media technologies in urban design from an infrastructural to a social point of view, or from “city management” to “city making”.

1. Introduction

In today’s cities, our everyday lives are shaped by digital media technologies such as smart cards, surveillance cameras, quasiintelligent systems, smartphones, social media, locationbased services, wireless networks, and so on. These technologies are inextricably bound up with the city’s material form, social patterns and mental experiences. As a consequence, the city has become a hybrid of the physical and the digital. This is perhaps most evident in the global north, although in emerging countries, like Indonesia and China mobile phones, wireless networks and CCTV cameras have also become a dominant feature of urban life (Castells, et al., 2004; Qiu, 2007, 2009; de Lange, 2010). What does this mean for urban life and culture? And what are the implications for urban design, a discipline that has hitherto largely been concerned with the city’s built form?

In this contribution we do three things. First, we take a closer look at the notion of “smart cities” often invoked in policy and design discourses about the role of new media in the city. In this vision, the city is mainly understood as a series of infrastructures that must be managed as efficiently as possible. However, critics note that these technological imaginaries of a personalized, efficient and frictionfree urbanism ignore some of the basic tenets of what it means to live in cities (Crang and Graham, 2007).

Second, we want to fertilize the debates and controversies about smart cities by forwarding the notion of “ownership” as a lens to zoom in on what we believe is the key question largely ignored in smart city visions: how to engage and empower citizens to act on complex collective urban problems? As is explained in more detail below, we use “ownership” not to refer to an exclusive proprietorship, but to an inclusive form of engagement, responsibility and stewardship. At stake is the issue of how digital technologies shape the ways in which people in cities manage coexistence with strangers who are different and who often have conflicting interests and, at the same time, form new collectives or publics around shared issues of concern (see, for instance, Jacobs, 1992; Graham and Marvin, 2001; Latour, 2005). “Ownership” teases out a number of shifts that take place in the urban public domain characterized by tensions between individuals and collectives, between differences and similarities, and between conflict and collaboration.

Third, we discuss a number of ways in which the rise of urban media technologies affects the city’s built form. Much has been said and written about changing spatial patterns and social behaviors in the media city. Yet, less attention has been paid to the question of how urban new media shape the built form. The notion of ownership allows us to figure the connection between technology and the city as more intricate than direct links of causality or correlation. Therefore, ownership in our view provides a starting point for urban design professionals and citizens to reconsider their own role in city making.

Questions about the role of digital media technologies in shaping the social fabric and built form of urban life are all the more urgent in the context of challenges posed by rapid urbanization, the worldwide financial crisis that hits particularly hard on the architectural sector, sociocultural shifts in the relationship between the professional and the amateur, the status of expert knowledge, societies that face increasingly complex “wicked” problems, and governments retreating from public services. When grounds are shifting, urban design professionals as well as citizens need to reconsider their own role in city making.


De Lange, Michiel en Martijn de Waal ‘Owning the City: New Media and Citizen Engagement in Urban Design’. Piekarski, Karol ed. Data-Driven Methods for City Research and Exploration. Katowcie: Institution of Culture Katowice, 2016.

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