Platform urbanism – beyond the smart city

Is the platform revolution turning what we thought we knew about smart cities on its head and will it ultimately define the future of urbanism?

This question was considered by a panel of experts and policymakers during last week’s Festival of Urbanism.

Listeners heard that digital platforms – like fast delivery services, Uber, AirBnb, social media, online gaming and location apps – are changing not only how cities function and are organized, but also how citizens interact with them.

Panelist 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, platforms will shape the way cities are designed and governed, and the way citizens move through urban space.

Panelist Rory Brown, Executive Director of Smart Places at TfNSW, said the new urbanism isn’t about bells and whistles, it’s about data-driven decision-making and integrated technology.

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

Datafication of urban space

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

The city strategist Dr. Sarah Burns said that embedding technology in cities across a variety of screens, environments and multi-sensory spaces is at the heart of the concept.

“This has implications for the future of cities and the way we navigate cities, but also for the infrastructural design of cities and the way planners, engineers and designers do their jobs,” she said.

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

How we interact with platforms shapes how we experience and move through urban spaces and environments.

dr Sarah Barnes

But while smart cities are typically created as a conscious, centralized strategy by government and business, platform urbanism is more organic, says Dr. barnes

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“Personally, I see platform urbanism more as a series of different activities by different groups that, through their intertwining, create a city,” she said.

“The datafication of urban space” described Dr. Justine Humphry, Senior Lecturer in Digital Cultures at Sydney University, discusses platform urbanism.

“Platforms…help us understand the hybrid coded spaces that emerge from a blending of coded software flows with physical space,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mr Brown said the government could use platforms to enable smart places to go from launch to scale.

“The platform is about guidelines, guidelines, toolkits, best practices and showcasing what can be done – to help local governments take a winning initiative and make it their own,” he said .


dr Niels Van Doorn, assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam, said platform urbanism is an “incremental, highly political process of negotiation and experimentation” with the power to determine the future of cities – for better or for worse.

dr Van Doorn said the rapid rise of platform businesses like fast delivery services during the Covid pandemic is already transforming cities.

(Platforms) are changing how neighborhoods can function and who benefits from it

dr Neils Van Doorn

In Amsterdam, fast delivery companies like Getir have seen the transformation of small urban department stores into “dark shops” set up exclusively for online shopping.

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Later – as the companies were viewed as 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 empty, then they became dark shops, then they became art shops. It’s changing how neighborhoods can function and who benefits from it,” said Dr. Van Doorn.

Spaces of open innovation

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

Public access to the internet, phones and electricity can bring digital access to the homeless and marginalized, said Dr. Humphry, while Brown said platforms offer benefits in terms of collecting 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 embedded itself into the fabric of the city, suggested platform companies could become potential partners for the government.

Proactive Policing

But there is a dark side to platform urbanization.

dr Justine Humphry

Platforms can embed data collection and monitoring systems in urban spaces and shape social interaction in ways that may not be good for society, said Dr. barnes

This places the responsibility on the government to ensure data is appropriately housed, protected, analyzed and shared.

Also, not all value created via platforms is created equally, said Dr. Humphrey. Sensors, data, AI and technology like drones are already being used to monitor, remove and evict the homeless and police fringe groups.

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A number of ad-supported ‘kiosks’ have been launched in the UK, offering free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions.

Short-term rental platforms transform space in many ways… Platforms like these disrupt the spatiality of apartment access.

dr Justine Humphry

But it wasn’t long before they became hotbeds of drug trafficking. In response, the provider used an algorithm to block certain numbers. In other words, the technology has been used to proactively monitor communities, said Dr. Humphry.

“A key question is whether there may have been other ways to address the root causes of these problems that were a consequence of poverty,” she said.

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

“Short-rental platforms transform space in many ways…Platforms like this disrupt the spatiality of apartment access,” she said.

management and governance

The data generated by platform ecosystems will be crucial for the future work of planners and city politicians, said Dr. barns

“The work for governments is to know what’s happening in a place at any given time, so data partnerships that can support improved relationships between platform ecosystems are increasingly the subject of urban planning.”

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