I went for a wander around Hammarby Sjöstad, an ongoing residential redevelopment of an old industrial area near Stockholm’s city centre, and widely billed as an exemplar of environmentally friendly urban design. It’s perfectly reasonable to critique the ‘eco’ claims of places like this, either because we think more radical environmental change is needed, or simply as a sort of journalistic or academic game. But, from just walking round as a tourist, I can report that:

(a) the buildings are clearly very high-spec, and interestingly varied;

(b) the communal areas and public spaces are very inviting, and – on a nice summer’s day at least –  full of people;

(c) the people that live here, or were visiting it, are clearly not living on the breadline.

Hammarby Sjöstad 1Hammarby Sjöstad 2Hammarby Sjöstad 3

If we wanted to be critical, then, it might be worth mobilising the charge of ‘eco-gentrification’ (while noting that Hammarby Sjöstad is just south of the island of Södermalm – the most obviously and famously gentrified part of Stockholm).

But I was also therefore curious to see what a less well-heeled part of Stockholm might look like. So I travelled to Husby, at the other end of the city, where riots broke out in 2013. Husby is the sort of multi-ethnic place which the media seems to liken gleefully to the problématiques Parisian bainlieues.

What did I find there? Well, it’s certainly not as pristine as other parts of the city.  But I didn’t get any sense that Husby had been left to rot: it has the appearance of being looked after well, there are plenty of local services, and in places it’s straightforwardly pleasant. On the surface, at least, a far cry from the worst parts of cities in the UK:

Husby 1Husby 2Husby 3Husby 4


Stockholm, 22 June 2017

Robot Futures Vision and Touch in Robotics

If you’re in London in early July, I think you should go to the Robot Futures: Vision and Touch in Robotics event just next to the Science Museum, organised by Luci Eldridge and Nina Trivedi.

The blurb:

This symposium brings together engineers, scientists, cultural theorists and artists who work in the field of robotics to explore notions of embodiment, telepresence and virtual and augmented realities.

Humans are embodied in robotic explorers; endowing them with ‘eyes’ and ‘hands’ robots are able to relate perceptions and experiences of places and objects physically unavailable to us. Although such robots might not ‘look’ human, it is the desire to see stereoscopically, and to feel through all the senses that endow robots with anthropomorphic qualities; we see and feel through the robot. In this way robots enable a more embodied experience, which is nonetheless mediated. It is in the development of virtual reality technologies that is increasingly enabling us to see and feel as the robot in order to get us closer to a more immersive experience.


I’m interested in it if only because of all the ongoing current debates about robots and automation generally (and we’ll get to see a demonstration of Robot De Niro). I learnt two interesting things about robots in Singapore last summer, during a talk by (I think) Colin Garvey.  First, he observed that fears about artificial intelligence becoming autonomous and robots taking over (the so-called ‘singularity’) are cyclical.  Something similar happened in the late 1960s and late 1980s – so perhaps this fear somehow gives expression to a wider sense of social and political unease or uncertainty.  And, second, that in the Japanese Shinto tradition, objects are respected in themselves – and that in Japan there is relatively little fear of robots.

But I’m also going because Ian Bogost’s (2012) book Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to be a Thing is echoing round in my mind.  Although ‘object-oriented ontology’ (OOO) describes a serious philosophical project to rethink ‘things’ and materials for what they are, rather than how we relate to them, I like Bogost’s take on this mainly because it’s good fun. And once you get a broad handle on what he and other ‘speculative realists’ are arguing, you start noticing that objects have moved centre-stage across all sorts of fields of thinking- and in popular culture too.  It’s one of those ‘of course, why didn’t I notice that before?’ moments.

So what’s it like to be a non-human entity/thing/object/unit?  How does a radio relate to the piece of toast that somebody places on top of it?  From the perspective of smoke, what does smoke have to say about being bubbled through water?  How should we conceptualise an electron’s day-to-day business if we take human understanding out of the equation?  Bogost quotes Latour’s (1993 :194) well-known quip: “if you are mixed up with trees, how do you know they are not using you to achieve their dark designs?”  He acknowledges that any attempt on our behalf to answer such questions can only ever be anthropomorphic – and yet we might at times be able to come at least to a sort of metaphorical understanding.  So, we might be able to talk, for example, about “what it’s like to be Foveon digital sensor, even if this isn’t what it is to be one” (Bogost, 2012: 72).

And what’s it like to be a robot?  What’s going on when we are allowed to see and feel through a robot, which is itself made – to some extent – in our image?  Some nice questions in there to think about.

Programme and tickets for Saturday 8 July are here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/robot-futures-vision-and-touch-in-robotics-tickets-34914740930/amp


London, 3 June 2017



Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Latour, B. (1993). The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

The tragic hero

For something I was writing recently, I thought it would be interesting to draw on a bank of verbal data to which I had access.  I had some broad overall intentions, but I didn’t quite know what would emerge from the data.  After putting all the text into a database, I explored and interrogated it first from one angle, and then from another, and then from another; the dependent and independent variables alike were up for grabs; the purpose of the exercise, and its overall framing, morphed as I went along. Eventually, the lengthy process – much lengthier than I had planned it to be – ended when I got the data to tell what I thought was an interesting story.

There’s nothing particularly strange about all this: I felt as if I was acting out a chapter from a standard Science & Technology Studies textbook (even if I make no claims that my methods met the natural scientific ideal). But what interests me in this sort of situation is precisely the way that the messy data can only be presented to the world at the point that they can be made to tell a story. What results is ‘fraudulent’ (Medawar, 1963) in the sense that the facts which it makes real are underpinned, and the choices to make them real are constrained, primarily by the requirements of story-telling.

It’s fascinating to think of any academic article as a short story, and about how this is more and less obviously the case – though still the case – across different disciplines.  A particular discursive universe is set up, with its own finite set of actors and causal relations; various plot devices (such as research questions) are deployed; and so on. But perhaps the plot always has pretty much the same structure. At a panel discussion last year on ‘The Allure of Happy Endings’ (at the LSE Space for Thought Utopias literary festival), Jonathan Gibbs made the interesting suggestion that non-fiction always has an implicitly happy ending. And I see academic ‘stories’ in particular as always tending towards comedy rather than tragedy: at the beginning, a particular problem with (one version of) the world is outlined; by the end, that problem is in some way resolved, but the world has been changed.

So I’m left wondering what it might mean to write an academic paper with an ‘unhappy ending’.  Would that only mean that the paper had been badly written?  Perhaps it could tell the unfortunate tale of some of the other unpolished findings, proto-facts, and half-glimpsed perspectives, which had been suppressed and expunged because they were at odds with the world narrated – because they did not serve the story. I’m not sure: the fact of their inscription might mean that the tale was no longer a tragic one.  But, at least, it might be more honest one.

London, 29 April 2017



Medawar, P. (1963). Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud? The Listener, 70: 377–78.

Downtown Parcel Coded

Our new article, published today in Urban Research & Practice, and available on open access….

The smart city and its publics: insights from across six UK cities


In response to policy-makers’ increasing claims to prioritise ‘people’ in smart city development, we explore the publicness of emerging practices across six UK cities: Bristol, Glasgow, London, Manchester, Milton Keynes, and Peterborough. Local smart city programmes are analysed as techno-public assemblages invoking variegated modalities of publicness. Our findings challenge the dystopian speculative critiques of the smart city, while nevertheless indicating the dominance of ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘service user’ modes of the public. We highlight the risk of bifurcation within smart city assemblages, such that the ‘civic’ and ‘political’ roles of the public become siloed into less obdurate strands of programmatic activity.

Cowley, R., Joss, S., & Dayot, Y. (2017). The smart city and its publics: insights from across six UK cities. Urban Research & Practice. https://doi.org/10.1080/17535069.2017.1293150


I’ve been reading about how translators deal with poetry, with specific reference to ancient Chinese poems (since I’m in Wuhan this week).

If, say, you recreate the famous Yellow Crane Tower poem by Cui Hao (704 – c. 754) literally in English, you get something very impressionistic.  A series of ideas.  You have to fill in the gaps to link these ideas together and make your own sense of it.

Past person already gone yellow crane away
Here only remain yellow crane tower
Yellow crane once gone not return
White cloud 1000 years sky leisuredly
Clear river clear Hanyang tree
Fragrant grass parrot islet
Day dusk homeland pass what place be
Mist water river on become person sorrow.1

It’s making me think that all language use basically involves placing loose representative concepts, which are more like fields of conceptual probability, in proximity to one another.  We use syntax to link and order these concepts – but syntax is really a sort of rhetoric, which only gives the appearance of linearity and logic.  In fact, what we are doing is papering over the gaps, and directing our audience away from interferences, between these conceptual fields.

Anyway, it’s a nice poem, so here is a composite version of various translations that are floating around:

A man of old left a long time ago on the yellow crane;
All that remains here is Yellow Crane Tower.

The yellow crane left, never to return;
White clouds drift slowly for a thousand years.

The trees in Hanyang are all reflected in the clear river;
The fragrant grasses grow luxuriantly on Parrot Island.

In this dusk, I don’t know where my homeland lies;
The river’s mist-covered waters bring me sorrow.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, it’s build build build…  Wuhan has over 10 million residents, and is tipped for plenty of investment and development in the next decade.


Optics Valley Square, Wuhan

Wuhan, 26 February 2017




Amsterdam Schiphol airport doesn’t currently have its taxi facilities under control.  The fare into town is around €50, so it makes sense for most people to take public transport anyway.  But if, for whatever reason, you need to take a taxi, you have to enter a den of lions.

Apparently, the problem is that the taxi rank is located in ‘public space’ outside the airport (Jan Dellaert Square). The courts have ruled that it is perfectly legal for non-official taxis to ply their trade there.  Three or four taxi companies have licenses to operate from the airport: the others have to hassle people to attract custom.  And the non-official taxis apparently include some entirely unlicensed cars.  There are plenty of stories around of people being ripped off.

The authorities have at least managed to ban hustlers from inside the airport, and have set up an ‘official taxi stand’ outside, with lots of signs, regular (muffled) announcements about not taking an unofficial taxi, and has quite a few stewards outside with special yellow jackets on, directing people to the official stand. However, the unlicensed drivers also now wear the same jackets – there is nothing to stop them doing so. And, even in the official zone, people wearing fake official jackets continue to hassle you.  I decided I would take the bus instead.

Anyway, I thought all this was a good example of how conceptualising public space in overly normative ways may lead to practical problems.  A rather blanket ideal appears to have been legally enshrined, and used to determine what is permitted in this space.  But as a normative concept or ideal, public space – rather like the ideal of free speech – seems to fall apart at the seams when it is applied to reality. For me, public space makes rather more sense as an analytical category – or, more precisely, as a way of thinking about how spaces are differently public, and how this publicness is variously produced in different places and at different times.


Amsterdam, 22 January 2017


I’ve co-authored a short paper on the idea of ‘urban experimentation’ with Federico Caprotti, which has been accepted for publication in Urban Geography.

Some writers have observed and commented on a trend for policy-making and practices in the urban setting to be infused with a rhetoric of experimentation. Our article suggests some ways in which the critical dimensions of such commentary might be usefully broadened out.

It’s available here – or get in touch with me if you want a copy.

Caprotti, F. & Cowley R. (2016). Interrogating Urban Experiments. Urban Geography. Advance online version, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2016.1265870.


The notion of the ‘urban experiment’ has become increasingly prevalent and popular as a guiding concept and trope used by both scholars and policymakers, as well as by corporate actors with a stake in the future of the city. In this paper, we critically engage with this emerging focus on ‘urban experiments’, and with its articulation through the associated concepts of ‘living labs’, ‘future labs’, ‘urban labs’ and the like. A critical engagement with the notion of urban experimentation is now not only useful, but a necessity: we introduce seven specific areas that need critical attention when considering urban experiments: these are focused on normativity, crisis discourses, the definition of ‘experimental subjects’, boundaries and boundedness, historical precedents, ‘dark’ experiments, and non-human experimental agency


London, 3 December 2016

Athens rooftops

Looking northwest over Athens from Lykavittos hill

One striking feature of Athens, for me at least, is the way that rooftop space is massively underused.  This is not only the case for Athens: the same is true of London, or endless other cities.  But Athens presents a case of a very densely populated city where, unlike London, most roofs are flat.  Although space down below may be at a premium, a whole extra city’s worth is available up above.  All that’s there, in most cases, is a washing line or two, and a few TV aerials.  I look out at all this, imagining naively what it would be like if every roof was used as a communal space, draped with greenery.

There are all sorts of reasons why this space is left empty, including the question of how it might be regulated. Blocks of flats are usually maintained collectively by their multiple owners or residents; each household has to contribute a certain amount of money each month towards things like cleaning the entrance hall and stairs, use and repair of the lift, general upkeep, etc. Since these arrangements are inevitably informal, and rely on a degree of goodwill, they need to be kept as simple as possible – especially at a time when money is short.

Dreaming of rooftop gardens or the like is one thing, then, but who would look after them? And who wants the headache of having to intervene when one family (perhaps the one living on the top floor) starts to colonise the space in subtle ways?  It’s rather like the ‘hot-desking’ system in open-plan offices, which goes wrong when people start marking particular desks as their own with personal items. This problem can be partly resolved through a rule that all desks have to be cleared at the end of each working day – but that produces a rather sterile working environment (and, even then, people may effectively claim a particular desk as their own simply by sitting there each day). The best way to avoid conflict is simply to leave the roof as a not particularly welcoming space, where nobody is allowed to leave personal belongings.

Athens rooftops 2

But never mind dreams of communal gardens in the sky. What about solar panels, at least?  Of course, they raise a whole new set of practical and administrative problems. And yet, Athens is graced with abundant sunshine for much of the year.

The sun, the sun. Since we’re on the topic of the sun, let me share a thought from William Cronon’s (1992) well-known history of Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis (my holiday reading at the moment).  He reminds us that, while we may want to understand economic growth through labour theories of value, the real basis of capital lies not in production but in consumption – of natural resources: “In any ecosystem, only the sun produces” (150). Thus, “The abundance that fueled Chicago’s hinterland economy … consisted largely of stored sunshine: this was the wealth of nature, and no human labor could create the value it contained. Although people might use it, redefine it, and even build a city from it, they did not produce it” (149-150).

In a place where the sun bestows its value so freely, what other uses might be made of all these empty roofs? Well, if you’re rich, you can always install a swimming pool.

Kolonaki swimming pools

Rooftop swimming pools, Kolonaki

Athens, 15 August 2016



Cronon, W. (1992). Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.


HDB flats in Punggol, Singapore

Singapore seems like an interesting place to study the various ways in which people manage to negotiate differences, and rub along together in everyday life. It promotes itself as a harmonious multicultural society.  Here, as published by the national Department of Statistics, are some demographic data from 2015 (rounded to the nearest per cent). Quite a mix:

Total population: 

  • 5,535m (of whom just under 30% are foreigners working, studying or living in Singapore without permanent residency status)
  • NB: the figures below relate to citizens and permanent residents only


  • Chinese 74%
  • Malay 13%
  • Indian 9%
  • Other 3%

Language most often spoken at home:

  • English 32%
  • Mandarin 36%
  • Chinese Dialects 14%
  • Malay 12%
  • Tamil 3%
  • Others 2%


  • Buddhism: 43%
  • Taoism / Chinese traditional beliefs: 9%
  • Islam: 15%
  • Christianity: 15%
  • Hinduism: 4%
  • Other religions: 1%
  • No religion: 15%

Over 80% of the population live in flats built by the Housing & Development Board (HDB), the national public housing authority. New flats are sold at subsidised prices, with priority given to first-time buyers, but can be sold later on the open market. HDB has been steadily building flats since 1960. (By the way, can we do that too please?)

What particularly interests me is that the government sets ethnic quotas on who can buy these flats, specifically to avoid any groups being concentrated in particular places (as was once the case in Singapore).  These quotas are the same across the whole island, updated monthly, and are set at both block and neighbourhood level.  There are also complex rules about who you can sell your flat to.  The basic principle is that, once a block or neighbourhood has reached the maximum proportion of a particular ethnic group, no sale is allowed which will increase that proportion (Wong, 2013).  Of course, people will self-segregate in all sorts of ways, as they do everywhere, and this will no doubt help reproduce social inequalities of different kinds.  And yet, to some extent, the occurrence of everyday encounters with different cultural groups, in semi-public and public spaces, is thus effectively mandated by the state.

How, then, do Singaporeans go about negotiating these differences, so as to coexist peacefully in these spaces? Junjia Ye (2016) explains that the principle of Gui ju holds the answer. In part, this describes a generally accepted set of behavioural norms – and the state has led publicity campaigns to prescribe “proper codes of conduct in Singapore’s public spaces” (p.92).

She also describes Gui Ju as allowing for social relations to be characterised by ‘civility’.  Civility, as understood in the West, describes the enactment of ‘tolerance’: rather than reflecting an easy-going attitude towards a given other, tolerance indicates the repression of dislike or disapproval (Hancock & Matthews, 2001; Bannister and Kearns, 2013). If we like or approve of a person, there is no need to ‘tolerate’ them.  And yet there are occasions when the limits of our tolerance – which need not be thought of as singular or fixed – are overstepped, and we react with anger.  Similarly, Ye suggests that the social codes of Gui ju may often be transgressed by unsocialised migrant workers (who, as mentioned earlier, make up almost a third of the population).  Fortunately, Gui ju also includes ways of dealing in a civil manner with these transgressions: in the politest way possible, the transgressors are informed that their behaviour is problematic.

At this stage, I have several thoughts and questions:

  • I am wary of reading Asian public behaviour as ‘civil’. At first sight, Singaporeans, Koreans and the Japanese for example appear to behave – to my western eyes – in a remarkably civil way.  And yet civility, as an English language concept, is very closely tied up with the ideal of the autonomous liberal subject, as Frank Furedi (2012) points out.  Something like Gui ju no doubt has entirely different roots – which are probably related to the more collectivist orientation of Confucianism (although I’m out of my depth at this stage)
  • In her article, Ye points out that Gui ju simultaneously allows for differences to be overcome, but also itself creates a “dominant ordering of space” which reinforces a “divide between migrants and locals by disciplining how people ought to behave” (p.97). Civility, similarly, has an ambiguous status: it may bridge differences but its limits also construct an inside and an outside. Civility may be a less homogeneous and more flexible principle than Gui ju, but I’m not sure whether we should think of either as ‘meta-codes’ for behaviour, or as straightforward normative delimiters of what behaviours are deemed acceptable
  • Reports of a rise in xenophobic attacks in the UK, following the Brexit referendum, indicate that the experience has – perhaps temporarily – marked a breakdown of civility, in the sense that the attackers have not felt obliged to suppress their dislike of the ‘other’. It is interesting that this has been theorised as being enabled by the signals given by the politicians (ie state actors) campaigning for the UK to leave Europe.  These recent events, like Singapore’s housing quotas and public education campaigns, would suggest that the state does have an important role to play in allowing different types of people to live together peacefully. Trite though that conclusion might sound, and however we may want to problematise the ‘peace’ which results, or the motivations behind its enforcement or facilitation, I can’t see that there’s much wrong in reminding ourselves of it.


9 July 2016, Singapore



Bannister, J. and Kearns, A. (2013). The Function and Foundations of Urban Tolerance: Encountering and Engaging with Difference in the City. Urban Studies. 50(13): 2700-2717.

Furedi, F. (2012). On Tolerance. Policy. 28(2): 30-37.

Hancock, L. and Matthews, R. (2001). Crime, community, safety and toleration. In: Matthews, R. and Pitts, J. (eds). Crime, Disorder and Community Safety. London: Routledge, 99-119

Wong, M. (2013). Estimating Ethnic Preferences Using Ethnic Housing Quotas in Singapore. The Review of Economic Studies, 80(3): 1178–1214.

Ye, J. (2016). Spatialising the politics of coexistence: gui ju (规矩) in Singapore. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 41(1): 91–103.


Men playing cards on Sunday morning in People’s Park, Shanghai

A work trip to China has got me thinking about what it would be like to live in a society where I never had the chance to vote. Or, rather, how a society might best be arranged if – for whatever reason – voting wasn’t on the menu. After all, from a global-historical perspective, decision-making through public votes is not the norm.

To think about this more imaginatively, I think the challenge might be to ignore what political theorists have to say on the matter.  In the same way, it might be a mistake to turn to a doctor in a discussion about the big questions around health and medicine; or to a teacher if you wanted to know about the significance of education.


Pudong, Shanghai

Shanghai, 17 May 2016

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