Software is essential to the functioning of cities. It is deeply and pervasively embedded into the systems and infrastructure of the built environment and in the management and governance of urban societies. Software-enabled technologies and services augment and facilitate how we understand and plan cities, how we manage urban services and utilities, and how we live urban lives.

The Programmable City project, led by Professor Rob Kitchinis undertaking a sustained programme of research on how software makes a difference to how social, spatial and economic life takes place, providing a comprehensive and groundbreaking interdisciplinary analysis of the two core inter-related aspects of the emerging programmable city:

  • Translation: how cities are translated into code
  • Transduction: how code reshapes city life

The project, The Programmable City, will analyse how information on citizens and places are captured and processed as data, how software is used to govern and manage modern cities, and how our everyday behaviour within a city is influenced by software – from traffic management systems, to restaurant review apps on our phones which influence where we dine, to logistics systems that track and trace goods from farm to fork, to background information on citizens which influences the level of security experienced at airports.

The funding of €2.3 million will be used to a recruit a specialised team of four postdoctoral researcher and four PhD students. The research will focus on Boston, ranked number one in terms of smart cities across the world with 52 universities, including Harvard and MIT, and many start-up IT companies and open government initiatives, and Dublin, one of Europe’s key technology hubs and home to IBM’s Smarter Cities Technology Centre. The project will examine issues such as:

  • How are digital data generated and processed about cities and their citizens?      
  • How is ‘smart city’ software created by programmers?
  • How is the geography of software production organised?   
  • How is software used to regulate and govern city life?
  • How does software alter the form and nature of work?
  • To what extent does software change how places function and how people behave?

Discussing the research, Professor Rob Kitchin said: “I am delighted to be awarded the ERC grant which enables us to significantly extend our research work. Software is now essential to the functioning of cities, a vital element in the operation and governance of travel, the built environment, consumption, work, home life, services and utilities, and this project will address a serious gap in social science research by answering key questions concerning the nature of software and how it is reshaping how we understand, manage, work and live in the city

“The project will conduct an in-depth analysis of how policy and governance is codified in algorithms, how data are about citizens and places are collected and processed, how software and digital sensors are increasingly being embedded into everyday environments, and how new digital technologies are being used to routinely tackle everyday issues. 

“A good example is shopping and how retail companies are using software and data about products, staff and customers to organize complex supply chains of goods, to monitor stock levels, to process payments, to manage staff, to profile shoppers, to work out what sells best where and to whom, and where to put new stores.”

A diverse range of methodologies will be employed as part of the project, including numerous interviews, workplace ethnographies, digital audits, discourse analysis of policy and company documents, and the development of a new method, algorithm archaeology.  The project will provide new theoretical tools and rich empirical evidence for thinking through the new era of programmable urbanism.