Taking back our cities from advertisers

The digitisation of our cities is prompting calls for a re-think about who designs our public spaces

Linda McSweeny, University of Melbourne

Published 2 January 2018

The ad that helps convince you to buy that sofa or finally switch health insurers doesn’t appear on your smartphone by chance but pops up by tracking your digital footprint.

You may have clicked on a furniture retailer’s website just once and bingo, your screen hosts an array of ads for sofas every time you glance at your device, thanks to programmatic advertising.

Adverts already ‘follow’ us around the Internet; soon they could be doing the same on the streets. Picture: five eyed fox/Unsplash

Likewise, digital billboards plastered in public spaces can collect infinite data as we travel through squares, streets and entertainment venues, silently gathering information and profiles to target messaging based on our movements and behaviour.

Is it time to reconsider the way we design public spaces to factor in the role of the digital world and offer more control over how we interact with it?

The University of Melbourne’s Research Unit in Public Cultures says we must scrutinise the role of the built environment in the way we communicate.

While architecture and urban planning have traditionally taken formal responsibility for the design of urban spaces, it’s time to broaden the scope of who contributes to the make-up of our cities to include communication and media scholarship, says Professor of Media and Communication, Scott McQuire.

The rise of the smart billboard

Digital billboards can already respond to their environments intelligently; cameras can snap pedestrians as they approach the display, and then use facial recognition to display targeted messaging.

Increasingly, this kind of profiling is shifting beyond broad demographics such as gender, age and ethnicity, towards predictive modelling of psychological ‘types’ based on facial analysis, Professor McQuire says.

Billboards that target digital displays to individuals are coming. Picture: Simon Launay/Unsplash

“This shift raises all kinds of issues,” he says.

“What people see and experience in a shared public space may become increasingly segmented, as has been the experience with online media over recent years.

“Such technologies also have clear potential to contribute to social sorting in ways that separate people from each other, and reinforce hierarchies within public space.

“The growing direct economic value of data means that digital devices, services and networks have developed a strong orientation towards aggressive data acquisition.”

Professor McQuire says disentangling the potential for data to implement better urban programs, without compromising political and social freedom, is looming as a major challenge and one of the key political struggles of the 21st century.

Communications and media scholarship doesn’t offer a magic bullet, but it does offer a way of understanding the networked city as co-created by different social actors, Professor McQuire says.

“Fundamentally, I want to advance an understanding of the distributed authorship of urban space, in which the city is co-created by numerous actors and interventions combining digital and physical elements.

“I think this offers a better purchase on the changed nature and role of the built environment, and the challenges we face in nurturing a communicative cities agenda in the digital age.”

Building better cities

Professor McQuire argues a good communicative city is one that combines the resources of traditional public spaces with imaginative uses of digital infrastructure, to promote communication between inhabitants and city authorities.

But more than this, it should also help citizens communicate with each other, to enhance participation in social and civic life.

“Communication is key to improving liveability, inclusion and sustainability, yet it is not on the list of attributes that are measured in various city ranking scales,” Professor McQuire says.

He suggests initiatives such as digital art or games, which can support learning through experience and encourage people to engage with one another.

Changing the nature of digitisation in cities from solely focussed on advertising to having a broader civic agenda is urgent, he says, given the rapid and ongoing rollout of digital platforms.

Advertising could dominate cities, but we can intervene to broaden the digital experience in our cities. Picture: Benjamin Hung/Unsplash

“The digitisation of cities is happening now. This is a question for the current generation. It is our responsibility.”

If we don’t pull communications into urban planning priorities, we may end up with highly surveilled cities that foster commercial exploitation rather than social cohesion, Professor McQuire warns.

“Is the future city going to be dominated by surveillance and the commercialisation, by profit-oriented private companies, of all kinds of previously private behaviour, including intimate communication, or the seizure of such data by nation states in the name of security?

“Or will we find the political courage to enact new settings across the different domains and borders – geographical, architectural, cultural, legal, technological – that might foster diverse forms of public communication as a vital aspect of the capacity for urban inhabitants to collectively redefine their own social spaces?”

Extract taken from Professor McQuire’s speech to the Communicative Cities and Urban Space: Symposium and Workshop 2017, hosted by Fudan University in Shanghai. A Chinese translation of Professor McQuire’s book Geomedia: Networked cities and the future of public space (Polity 2016) was launched at the Workshop.

Banner image: Andrae Ricketts/Unsplash

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