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What makes a city smart? Smart city signage messages in Vienna and “Smartseille”


Many cities want to be seen as “smart” today, offering digital services, integrated transportation networks, and an efficient energy infrastructure. From a communicative perspective, however, the signs and banners at smart city construction sites don’t really emphasize the technological aspects all that much and focus more on joyful living and nature. What’s the reason for this contrast? This is what linguist Sara Matrisciano-Mayerhofer from WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business) wanted to find out in her latest research.

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The smart city has become a recurring theme in urban planning: By employing digital technologies, smart cities aim to save energy, improve traffic flow, and streamline public administration – all of this to increase the quality of city life. To make this vision a reality, many European cities, including Vienna, have developed their own smart city strategies.

But here’s the crux: “There’s no universally accepted definition of what a smart city actually is. Even the research community can’t agree on this question,” says Sara Matrisciano-Mayerhofer, an assistant professor at WU’s Institute for Romance Languages and an expert on linguistics in a business context. She analyzed how cities use the term “smart city” in their communications – not only in dry strategy papers but also in the real world: on construction site fences and banners for smart city projects under development in Vienna and Marseille.

“Construction sites are especially interesting because most people don’t like them,” Matrisciano-Mayerhofer explains. In the case of smart city construction sites, complaints about noise, dirt, and traffic disruptions can easily turn into criticism of the smart city idea itself. And on another level, digitalization and the use of sensors fuel worries about mass surveillance and the misuse of personal data. All this means that special care is called for when communicating messages at construction sites. “These messages are not only intended to inform the public about the progress of the construction work but also to spark enthusiasm for what is being created, turning the building projects into a projection screen for everything that is regarded as desirable.”

Smart Cities: A green dream?

Happy kids and smiling faces – the new neighborhood introduces itself, radiating good vibes and telling a story of lush greenery and a relaxing atmosphere in the new smart city quarter. That’s what the fence signage showed at a construction site in Vienna’s Seestadt urban development area. Similar images were also used in Marseille: The banners for the Écoquartier Smartseille development project show Léo, Lisa, and Carlo – a happy family enjoying breakfast in an apartment with a nice view of the sea. Another banner shows a city full of trees, where people are walking and riding their bicycles.

What construction site fences and banners don’t usually show are references to the intelligent communication and information technologies – the most characteristic features of smart city projects. “The smart neighborhoods convey a vision that is contrary to the hypermodern and cold cityscapes devoid of people that many tech companies use when communicating about smart cities,” explains WU researcher Sara Matrisciano-Mayerhofer. Instead, the construction site signage gives a voice to the actual or fictitious inhabitants of the new neighborhoods, presenting the smart city as an urban space that is alive and full of stories, names, and faces.

Networks can be more than just data cables

This type of communication aims to increase the public acceptance of smart city construction projects. But on top of that, it also has a positive side effect: It infuses the smart city concept with new meaning, expanding the scope of the concept from digital technology to the vision of a city that is all about its people and their well-being. “In this case, smartness is not so much about anonymity, stress, and concrete, but more about community, nature, and the joyful living,” Sara Matrisciano-Mayerhofer points out.

So does this mean that smart cities engage in misleading communications? Not at all, says Sara Matrisciano-Mayerhofer, “The smart city concept also derives its meaning from how the term is used by the cities themselves and their inhabitants. In this sense, it can stand for a high quality of life, trees, and bicycle paths just as much as it can refer to technology and sensors.” As she points out, “I, for one, would like to live in a city where ‘smart’ means more than just using intelligent network technology.”

Research results in detail and further information

Wenn 'smartness' gerade nicht 'digitale Technologisierung' bedeutet: Kommunikative Praktiken des Baustellenmarketings smarter Städte in Frankreich und Österreich zwischen De-Semantisierung und Re-Semiotisierung. Matrisciano-Mayerhofer, S., 2023, Werbung und PR im digitalen Zeitalter: Grenzen, Übergänge und neue Formate. 1st ed. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, (Europäische Kulturen in der Wirtschaftskommunikation, vol. 34).
Read the paper

About the researcher

Sara Matrisciano-Mayerhofer is an assistant professor at WU’s Institute for Romance Languages. She carries out research in sociolinguistics, migration linguistics, and discourse analysis, investigates companies’ internal communications, and examines marketing strategies from a linguistic perspective. She has published articles in prestigious academic journals, including Quaderni di semantica and Lingua e Stile. She is currently leading the SmartSpeaking City project, funded by the WU Anniversary Fund of the City of Vienna.


Raffael Fritz
Research Communication
Tel: + 43-1-31336-5478
Email: raffael.fritz@wu.ac.at

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