Platform urbanism – beyond the smart city

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

That question was addressed by a panel of experts and policy makers during the Festival of Urbanism last week.

Audience members 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 organised, but how citizens interact with them.

Panellists at the Platform Urbanisation forum in Sydney on September 20, 2022. L-R Dr Sarah Barns, Rory Brown, Dr Justine Humphry, Dr Sophia Maalsen and on the 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.

Panellist Rory Brown, executive director of smart places at TfNSW, said the new urbanism isn’t about bells and whistles, but about data-driven decision making and built-in technology.

“I certainly don’t view smart cities as smart lighting and smart bins, that’s not what it’s about,” Mr Brown said. “It’s about understanding place.”

Datafication of urban space

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

Urban strategist Dr Sarah Burns said that central to the concept is the embedding of technology, via a variety of screens, environments and multisensory spaces, in cities.

“This has significance for the future of cities and the way we navigate cities, but also the infrastructural design of cities and the ways in which planners, engineers and designers do their work,” she said.

“I think about platform urbanism in the sense that we’re all platform urbanists … how we interface with platforms shapes how we experience and move through urban spaces and settings.”

How we interface with platforms shapes how we experience and move through urban spaces and settings.

Dr Sarah Barnes

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, Mr Brown said government can use platforms to allow smart places to go from seed to scale.

“The platform is going to be about policy, guidance, toolkits, best practice, and showcasing what can be done – helping local government take a successful initiative and make it their own,” he said.


Dr Niels Van Doorn, Assistant Professor of New Media and Digital Culture at Amsterdam University, said platform urbanism was an “incremental, highly political process of negotiation and experimentation” with the power to dictate the future of cities – for better or 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 neighbourhoods can function and who benefits from it

Dr Neils Van Doorn

In Amsterdam rapid delivery companies like Getir saw the transformation of small urban warehouses into “dark stores” established purely for online shopping.

Later – when the companies became seen as a public nuisance and faced a regulatory backlash – the dark stores morphed into supermarkets, and even art stores where local artists could exhibit their work.

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

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 internet, phones and power can give homeless and marginalised people digital access, Dr Humphry said, while Mr Brown said platforms offered 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 government.

Predictive policing

But there’s a dark side to platform urbanisation.

Dr Justine Humphry

Platforms can embed systems of data harvesting and surveillance in urban spaces, and may engineer social interaction in ways that might not be good for society, Dr Barnes said.

This puts the onus on government to ensure data is appropriately housed, protected, analysed and shared.

Also, not all value created via platforms is created equally, Dr Humphrey said. Sensors, data, AI and technology like drones are already being been to monitor, remove and displace homeless people and police marginalised groups.

In the UK, a series of advertising-funded ‘kiosks’, have been rolled out to provide free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions.

Short letting platforms reshape space in a variety of ways … platforms such as these disrupt the spatiality of housing access.

Dr Justine Humphry

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

“A key question is that there may have been other ways of addressing the root causes of these issues, 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 transforming housing into something to be exploited for short term profit.

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

Mangement and governance

The data being generated through platform ecosystems will be critical to the future work of planers and urban policy makers, Dr Barns said.

“The work for governments is knowing what is happening in a place in any one time, so data partnerships that can support improved relationships between platform ecosystems is increasingly the stuff of urban planning.”

Comment below to have your say on this story.

If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at  

Sign up to the Government News newsletter

One thought on “Platform urbanism – beyond the smart city

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required