Smart Urbanism and Infrastructural Reconfiguration within Nairobi’s Informal Settlements

  • Joseph Chambers

Student thesis: Phd


The purpose of the thesis is to develop an understanding of how and with what effects smart technologies are being deployed in informal urban settlements. Despite ongoing integration of advanced Information Communication Technologies (ICT) within the fabric of cities, often under the banner of smart urbanism, research around this has predominantly focussed on wealthy urban areas in the Global North or, from a purely technical perspective. Although overlooked within smart urbanism research, informal urban settlements are increasingly embedded with digital technologies and data platforms to solve multiple infrastructural issues. There is however, a growing push to develop a critical and global understanding of smart urbanism, one in which the realities of this technology-led process are examined at multiple levels and across urban environments. This thesis builds on these critical efforts and examines the impact and consequences of smart urbanism for informal urban settlement communities and their infrastructures. Nairobi, Kenya is chosen as the site of examination given its leading role within Global South ICT networks and its many examples of smart technologies and data platforms integrated within the city’s informal urban settlements and their infrastructures. The thesis draws from urban political ecology and in particular, a situated approach to understand infrastructures as conduits of diffuse forms of power within informal settlements. In addition, the thesis is the first to employ the analytical framing of infrastructures as heterogeneous configurations to examine smart urbanism, allowing the study to move beyond traditional formal/informal binaries and instead, accommodate its variety of human and technical components. The thesis develops this analytical approach further by demonstrating how smart technologies within informal settlements, and the data they generate, comprise of geographically spread configurations. A qualitative research approach was used for the study to best explore the social facets of smart urbanism within Nairobi’s informal settlements. Interviews, focus groups, observations and ethnographic methods were used to collect data, these selected due to their ability to unpick the realities of how smart technologies and data platforms reconfigured urban infrastructures. The thesis finds that not only is smart urbanism evident within Nairobi’s informal settlements, but it has spurred a reconfiguration of both the physical materiality and associated structures of power related to the infrastructures of these areas. Smart technologies, here represented by the Internet of Things, altered numerous social-material flows within informal settlements, notably, elements of trust inherent within infrastructural configurations. The findings also show that data platforms both navigate and impact the infrastructural fluidity and fixities of these areas. The arguments of the thesis provide important contributions to global discussions on smart urbanism, suggesting that if harnessed by citizens and developed within the situated realities of informal urban settlements, the integration of ICT within the urban fabric of these areas can provide new opportunities for infrastructural justice. This thesis provides a new approach to develop this holistic understanding and in doing so, contributes to debates on developing citizen focussed smart cities as well as the role of ICT within notions of urban informality.
Date of Award31 Dec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJames Evans (Supervisor) & Stefan Bouzarovski (Supervisor)


  • African urbanism
  • Urban political ecology
  • Internet of Things
  • Informality
  • Infrastructure
  • Smart Cities

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