Platform Urbanism – Beyond the Smart City

Is the platform revolution upending what we thought we knew about smart cities and will it ultimately determine the future of urban planning?

This question was tackled by a panel of experts and decision-makers during the Festival of Urban Planning last week.

Members of the public have heard that digital platforms – like fast delivery services, Uber, AirBnb, social media, online games and location-based apps – are not only changing how cities work and are organized, but also the way citizens interact with them.

Panelists at the Platform Urbanization forum in Sydney on September 20, 2022. LR Dr Sarah Barns, Rory Brown, Dr Justine Humphry, Dr Sophia Maalsen and on screen Dr Dr Niels Van Doorn

Ultimately, the panel agreed that platforms will shape how cities are designed and governed, and how citizens move through urban space.

Panelist Rory Brown, executive director of smart places at TfNSW, said New Urbanism is not about bells and whistles, but about data-driven decision-making and embedded technology.

“I certainly don’t think of smart cities as smart lighting and smart trash cans, that’s not what it’s all about,” Brown said. “It’s about understanding the place.”

Datafication of urban space

It’s a cool buzzword, but what is platform urbanism?

Urban strategist Dr Sarah Burns said central to the concept is the integration of technology, through a variety of screens, environments and multi-sensory spaces, into cities.

“It matters for the future of cities and the way we navigate cities, but also for the design of city infrastructure and the way planners, engineers and designers do their jobs,” he said. she declared.

“I think of platform urbanism in the sense that we are all platform urbanists…how we interact with platforms shapes how we live and move in spaces and urban settings.

How we interact with platforms shapes our experience and movement through urban spaces and environments.

Dr Sarah Barnes

But whereas smart cities tend to be created as a deliberate, centralized strategy by government and business, platform urbanism is more organic, says Dr Barnes.

“I personally see platform urbanism as more of a range of different activities by different groups that create a city through their entanglement,” she said.

“The datafication of urban space” was how the senior lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney, Dr Justine Humphry, described platform urbanism.

“Platforms…help us understand the hybrid coded spaces that emerge in a mix of coded software streams with the physical space,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mr Brown said the government can use platforms to enable smart places to grow from seed to scale.

“The platform will focus on policies, advice, toolkits, best practices and showcasing what can be done – helping local government take a successful initiative and take ownership,” said- he declared.


Dr Niels Van Doorn, assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam, said platform urbanism was a “gradual and highly political process of negotiation and experimentation” with the power to dictate the future of cities – for better or for worse.

Dr Van Doorn said the rapid rise during the covid pandemic of platform companies like fast delivery services is already changing cities.

(Platforms) change how neighborhoods work and who benefits

Dr Neils Van Doorn

In Amsterdam, fast delivery companies like Getir have seen the transformation of small urban warehouses into “dark stores” created solely for online shopping.

Later – when the businesses became a public nuisance and faced regulatory backlash – the dark shops turned into supermarkets, and even art shops where local artists could display their work.

“First these places were vacant, then they became dark stores, then they became art stores. It changes how neighborhoods can operate and who benefits,” Dr Van Doorn said.

Open innovation spaces

Dr. Barnes sees platforms as potential tools to build a more participatory society, creating “spaces of open innovation where people can create their own value”.

Public access to the internet, phones and electricity can give homeless and marginalized people digital access, Dr Humphry said, while Mr Brown said platforms offer benefits in terms of collecting data. data that could be used to improve outcomes for places, businesses and the community.

Dr Van Doorn said the Getir experience in Amsterdam, where the company became embedded in the fabric of the city, suggested that platform companies could become potential partners for the government.

Predictive policing

But there is a dark side to the urbanization of platforms.

Dr Justine Humphry

Platforms can integrate data collection and surveillance systems into urban spaces, and can engineer social interaction in ways that might not be good for society, Dr Barnes said.

It is therefore incumbent on the government to ensure that data is properly hosted, protected, analyzed and shared.

Additionally, not all value created through platforms is created equally, Dr. Humphrey said. Sensors, data, AI and technology like drones are already being used to monitor, remove and relocate homeless and marginalized groups from policing.

In the UK, a series of ad-supported ‘kiosks’ have been deployed to provide free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet to access city services, maps and directions.

Short-term rental platforms reshape space in various ways… such platforms disrupt the spatiality of housing access.

Dr Justine Humphry

But it didn’t take long for them to become hotbeds of drug trafficking. In response, the provider used an algorithm to block certain numbers. In other words, the technology was used to predictively monitor communities, Dr Humphry said.

“A key question is that maybe there were other ways to address the root causes of these problems, which were a function of poverty,” she said.

Meanwhile, short-term rental platforms like AirBnb are contributing to urban housing insecurity, Dr Humphry said, potentially creating more homelessness by turning housing into something to be exploited for short-term profit. .

“Short rental platforms reshape space in various ways…platforms such as these disrupt the spatiality of housing access,” she said.

Management and governance

The data generated by platform ecosystems will be essential for the future work of urban planners and decision-makers, Dr Barns said.

“Governments’ job is to know what is happening in a place at a given time, so data partnerships that can support improved relationships between platform ecosystems are increasingly a matter of urban planning. “

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