The Struggles of Smart Energy Places

I published an article in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, together with my former colleague Anna Wallsten:

The Struggles of Smart Energy Places: Regulatory Lock-In and the Swedish Electricity Market

The article is open access.


Visions of smart energy systems are increasingly influencing energy systems around the world. Many visions entail ideas of more efficient versions of existing large-scale energy systems, where smart grids serve to balance energy consumption and demand over large areas. At the other end of the spectrum are visions of smart energy places that represent a challenge to dominant, large-scale energy systems, based on smart microgrids that facilitate the self-sufficiency of local, decentralized energy systems. Whereas smart energy places do not necessarily aim to create completely isolated microgrids, they generally aim to strengthen the connection between energy consumption and production within delimited spaces. The aim of this article is to better understand how visions of smart energy places are translated into sociomaterial configurations. Smart Grid Gotland and Climate-Smart Hyllie were two Swedish initiatives where notions of place were central to the attempts to reconfigure the local energy system. Several solutions proposed within these smart energy places struggled because of regulatory lock-in to the existing spatial arrangements of the electricity market. There was a mismatch between the larger spatial scales institutionalized in the Swedish electricity market and the smaller scales introduced in these smart energy places. The conflicting spatial arrangements between electricity market and these initiatives suggest that demonstrations of smart energy places require some degree of protection from market regulations. Without this protection, visions of smart energy places might instead result in incremental changes to existing large-scale energy systems.

“From sustainable to smart”: New article in Geoforum

Another of the articles from my thesis is now published in Geoforum.

From sustainable to smart: Re-branding or re-assembling urban energy infrastructure?

The article is sadly locked behind Elsevier’s paywall because the article is not open access. However, I am happy to share the pre-print version:



Visions of sustainable cities have increasingly been substituted by the ambition to become a ‘smart city’ in recent years. Ongoing scholarly discussions often focus on how sustainability and ‘smartness’ relate to each other conceptually, to which extent smart city technologies contribute to making cities more sustainable, and calls to prioritise social issues over technology. The questions of how this ‘shift to smart’ has unfolded, and how it has reshaped strategies and interventions to make cities and their energy infrastructures more sustainable, have however been much less investigated. The aim of this article is to zoom in on the dynamics of such a shift from sustainable to smart. The cities of Malmö and Graz have strong profiles as sustainable cities and have both begun to use smart city branding. We build our analysis on argumentative discourse theory and the concept of socio-material assemblages. Along with a discursive shift from sustainable cities to smart cities, we also observe changes in institutions and socio-material practices. We identify appropriation and colonisation as two dynamics that characterise the relations between assemblages of sustainable and smart cities. We conclude that even when smart city discourses are appropriated by actors in existing sustainable city assemblages, the discursive shift might eventually allow smart city assemblages to colonise existing institutions and socio-material practices. But the shift does not take place through explicit controversy between two discourse coalitions, and it therefore remains important to further investigate the conditions that allow for a change in dynamics from appropriation to colonisation.

Please cite the article as: Parks, D., & Rohracher, H. (2019). From sustainable to smart: Re-branding or re-assembling urban energy infrastructure? Geoforum, 100, 51–59.

PhD Thesis

I published and defended my PhD thesis in June 2018: The Sustainable City Becomes Climate-Smart: How Smart City Ideas Reshape Urban Environmental Governance

It is also available through Google Books.


The idea of smart cities has become enormously popular during the past decade. Environmental governance is one issue in which smart city ideas seem to hold potential. However, there is an incredible variety in what it means for a city to be ‘smart’. For some, it involves the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to solve problems; for others, it has more to do with economic growth and city branding. Many social science researchers have criticised the idea of smart cities. They worry that it might allow multinational corporations to take control of municipal governance and lead to an undue focus on technological solutions to societal issues. However, only a few previous studies have examined the influence on urban environmental governance in practice. This thesis investigates the influence of smart city ideas on urban environmental governance through a study of Hyllie, a climate-smart city district in Malmö, Sweden. It applies a theoretical perspective based on science and technology studies and the concept of assemblage. It combines participant-observation of inter-organisational meetings, interviews with professionals and document analysis. This thesis contributes a more comprehensive picture of which actors influence the direction of the climate-smart city—beyond the usual suspects of municipal governments and multinational companies. Still, it shows how ICT-based smart city solutions have taken precedence in urban environmental governance at the expense of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

First article: Energy efficiency left behind?

My first article was published in European Planning Studies: Energy efficiency left behind? Policy assemblages in Sweden’s most climate-smart city.

The article is open-access.


Smart city experiments have the potential to reshape urban climate change governance. Smart city initiatives have been supported by international technology companies and the European Union for many years and continue to be promoted by national and municipal governments. In relation to sustainability and climate change, such initiatives promise more efficient use of resources through the use of information and communications technology in energy infrastructure. Experiments with smart city technologies such as urban smart grids have shown the potential to restructure relationships between energy utilities, energy users and other actors by reconfiguring the dynamics of energy supply and demand. But do urban experiments lead to institutional change? The aim of the article is to provide a better understanding of how smart city experiments reshape the urban governance of building energy use. Hyllie, a new city district in Malmö, Sweden, was home to two smart city experiments that contributed to the institutionalization of urban smart grid technology. However, the analysis of Hyllie’s policy assemblages shows that this institutional change could redefine sustainability at the expense of energy efficiency.