The limits of “active” participation in smart city design

By Mia Hassoun for the OII’s #DigitalInequality blog series

Lily, a doctor and single mother of two, lives in a smart home in a new public housing estate (HDB) outside Singapore’s city centre. Hers is an eco-friendly smart home, equipped with a pneumatic waste disposal system and devices that monitor household energy usage. I asked her if the smart home was a motivation for moving, and she laughed: “Not at all. We moved here because there’s more space. Ying and Justin love it because they can have their friends over, which we could never do before.” When I asked about her participation in the smart city, she responded: “Isn’t the point of the smart city that I don’t have to participate?”

In this blog post, I argue that rather than asking residents to become active citizens by adopting a republican citizenship model, scholarship on digital inequality must recognise that residents already actively participate in the political life of the smart city. People’s everyday practices and affective engagements in quotidian spaces like homes, schools, and community centres are themselves political expressions of citizenship (Campt 2014; Berlant 1997). Citizenship is mediated through and by the intimate public sphere: the state uses housing access and data-gathering technologies in domestic space to control who gets to belong in, represent and reproduce the nation’s future. Hence, intimate spaces are key sites where (smart) citizenship can be negotiated. State interventions target “mundane” domestic practices and can therefore be reimagined through those same practices, in those same spaces. Urban planners and smart city scholars alike tend to look for and encourage smart citizenship in state spaces like urban planning offices or an imagined public agora, but this misses a wide range of material and affective resident engagements which generate smart city futures. Neglecting intimate spaces also often misplaces where actual barriers to overcoming digital inequality exist. I propose that a perceived absence of active citizen participation indicates more than a failure of top-down planning initiatives to give citizens voice or power; it suggests a need to reimagine the very concept of the “active” smart citizen itself.

Many state planners told me they tried to engage citizens but “no one cares.”  They held citizen design workshops at their offices, setting up a digital urban analysis tool (“QUA-KIT”) and inviting residents in the afternoon during their workday. Residents sat around a meeting room table while planners explained participatory design processes—showing residents how to select different kinds of residential types (see Figure 1) and position them in an open area to design new housing complexes. Most residents looked uninterested after a few minutes. Planners consider this kind of session a textbook case of hands-on, participatory design, and it might rank relatively highly on Cardullo and Kitchin’s (2018) scaffold of smart citizen participation.


On temporarily set-up laptops, older residents largely created blocks of a uniform size and shape and stacked them in neat rows. I asked one woman what she was building, and she shrugged: “just putting things in a line, not actually making anything.”  A group of high school boys giggled as they built the tallest, most absurd towers possible. I caught up with Arnie, a Swiss planner from ETH Zurich, after the event. He sighed: “the public build these crazy structures, that surely they don’t actually want to see in practice, or they place a few blocks and lose interest. And it’s poorly attended, too. It’s hard to do citizen engagement here in Singapore, but it’s hard in Switzerland too.”

Many state planners cited lack of smart citizen participation as evidence that Singapore citizens expected the government to do everything. Alvin says he and other planners try to engage regularly with residents, but with little success. They put the “Master Plan” online for 90 days so that people can comment on it, he explains, but “people only care when it becomes clear that it will directly affect them, which is after that period.” James cites under-construction building sites as one such issue: “we let people use the land before we build on it, and they play soccer on it and get attached.” Planners sometimes have issues getting people to move for sociocultural reasons: no one wants to live near nursing homes, for example, so people protest but only after it’s “too late.” He says that people mostly and very actively complain on social media like Facebook, where they can easily give feedback to state officials since there is only one layer of governance and Singapore has a small population.

From Lily and the planners’ reflections, one might conclude that residents do not want to participate, despite planners’ best efforts. But James’ experience suggests that residents do participate and express strong preferences, just not in the consultation, feedback, or participatory design spaces that planners make. Over two years, I found lots of evidence of engagement with Singapore’s smart city project as residents practiced smart citizenship in myriad ways, but in spaces that did not adhere to traditional democratic participation as “having your say” in an agora or the “participatory design” imagined by planners in workshops held by state agencies: both which demand extra labour from already overworked people (especially marginalized populations). As Larry, a former planner, said: “Stop talking, stop asking people to talk. Watch what they do, do it with them, let them surprise you.”

Since states project political power through smart urban infrastructure via smart city planning practices, everyday material engagement with the city, despite seeming practical and mundane, is a form of political engagement (Leszczynski 2020; Billig 1995). Residents practice politics as active smart citizens by affectively and materially engaging with the smart city in their daily lives, for example, through play with and refusal of biometric and other data flows. For example, students in Singapore’s National Science Experiment wore smart sensors on a lanyard around their necks to gather data on their motion and environment. Ying, Lily’s daughter, told me that she presses a button on the sensor every time she feels happy, and inputs why, to add more data. She also used its camera to take pictures of her “fav hangout spots”, like Toa Payoh playground. When Ying presses the button on her sensor to indicate she is happy, she creates another data point for the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) that leads them to conclude playgrounds and community centres spark joy, generating further state investment in these design activities (Benita et al. 2020). She also learns how to visualise her data as part of the Smart Nation project, learning how to replicate or reimagine state visions of Singapore’s future through her lessons in smart data visualisation and through school trips to state agencies which place those lessons in a larger state sociotechnical imaginary. In doing so she uses play with data flows to develop and shape her own sense of self, citizenship, and nation, also changing the smart city as she engages with it.

When Lily, Ying and her brother Justin go to see the results of the NSE displayed at the URA’s Singapore City gallery, Justin plays with a data-gathering exhibition.  It asks him to make his future play space by touching the digital screens, playing with the sensor-enabled blocks in the exhibition, and drawing pictures. By reimagining traditional playground forms, Justin imagines different futures which will then be re-materialised into newly built playgrounds based upon his play.

Playgrounds are a key material-symbolic resource through which the state materialises future imaginaries and fosters affective identifications with the nation. Shaping children’s imaginaries from a young age, the state built playgrounds as “imaginative children spaces that conveyed a sense of national and cultural identity” (National Design Museum 2018). Playground design is a way to leave “strong impressions on many young minds” (ibid), salient examples of how the state projects imaginaries in the intimate public sphere. Engaging with and reimagining these play structures, as a result, is a form of affective political engagement that also reimagines the symbols themselves and the sociotechnical imaginaries they project. In drawing, planning, playing, touching, producing data, and processing data, Ying and Justin practice smart citizenship by interacting with the Smart Nation in myriad ways in their daily lives, both replicating and reimagining it through data flows and material and affective engagement with its infrastructures.

For many residents, especially marginalised groups, such material engagements in intimate spaces are rights claims, because they are building themselves into a future they were built out of. Some residents refuse data flows by, for example, attending private clinics to avoid transmitting their medical data to the state, since an HIV-positive diagnosis can lead to deportations. Queer informants also refused demographic data flows to live in public housing with partners, subverting Singapore’s strict housing policy which enforces racial quotas and heteronormative housing arrangements.  Some intimate data flows are harder to subvert: racial data recorded at birth determining where a resident can live, and citizenship status conferring the right to marry, work certain jobs, and even have children, for example. “Civic and political publicness” may therefore not be the appropriate concepts to privilege in “local techno-public smart assemblages” (Cowley, Joss and Dayot 2018:70).  Moving beyond “traditional fora as spaces of public engagement” may help us develop a more imaginative understanding of smart citizen spatialities (Cowley, Joss, and Dayot 2018:72).  Putting poor, female and/or minority bodies in political spaces or increasing the number of democratic spaces in a city, as feminist scholars argue, is only “partially sufficient to address historically and culturally embedded forms of disadvantage” (Cornwall and Goetz 2005: 783).

Instead of suggesting that residents need to increase their visibility in state spaces, I advocate for a shift from a general, standardised concept of the idealised republican smart citizen towards specific analyses of how differently embodied citizens want to—or already do—participate in the everyday production of the smart city. Understanding smart citizenship as involving affective, material practices makes modes of citizen (and non-citizen!) participation visible. It also explains why the idealisation of bottom-up, active, vocal participation in a democratic public sphere outlined in smart citizenship literature might engender unsuccessful attempts to reverse inequality in the smart city.

Works Cited 

Berlant, Lauren. 1997. The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books.

Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal Nationalism. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage.

Campt, Tina. 2014. Black Feminist Futures and the Practice of Fugitivity. Paper presented at the Barnard College Centre for Research on Women, New York,  NY,  US, October 7., accessed February 1, 2019.

Cardullo, Paolo, and Rob Kitchin. 2017. Being a ‘Citizen’ in the Smart City: Up and down the Scaffold of Smart Citizen Participation. GeoJournal 84(4):1-13. DOI:10.1007/s10708-018-9845-8.

Cornwall, Andrea, and Anne Marie Goetz. 2005. Democratizing Democracy: Feminist Perspectives. Democratization 12(5): 783–800.

Cowley, Robert, Simon Joss, and Youri Dayot. 2018. The Smart City and Its Publics: Insights from across Six UK Cities. Urban Research & Practice 11(1): 53–77.

Francisco Benita, Jan Perhac, Bige Tunçer, Remo Burkhard & Simon Schubiger (2020) 3D-4D visualisation of IoT data from Singapore’s National Science Experiment, Journal of Spatial Science, DOI: 10.1080/14498596.2020.1726219

Leszczynski, Agnieszka. 2020. Glitchy Vignettes of Platform Urbanism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 38(2). SAGE Publications Ltd STM: 189–208.


Margie Cheesman

Margie Cheesman is a digital anthropologist based at the Oxford Internet Institute. Margie works with communities using and making digitalisation projects. Her DPhil research examines the intervention of decentralised digital infrastructures (blockchains) in humanitarianism, and involves fieldwork in Jordan’s refugee camps. She is interested in how the development of money and identity infrastructures intersects with socio-economic inequalities and rights.