Large tower blocks. They have a commanding public presence, but sometimes don’t look too appealing.  And yet, when the money available for their upkeep is limited, it may seem problematic to prioritise aesthetic improvements. (Plenty of people have suggested that London’s ill-fated Grenfell Tower had been renovated primarily with the gaze of its more wealthy neighbours in mind.)

Well, I had a free day in Gdańsk, so I visited the Zaspa housing estate, on the city’s outskirts.  By all accounts, this was a fairly grim-looking place in the old days. But the blocks were all renovated in the early 2000s: this involved installing thermal insulation and painting the buildings in pastel colours. I think the outcome still looks a little austere, but it’s much better than grey concrete.

lBut what to do with those big blank walls at the end of buildings? Large murals have slowly covered these – signed and dated by their artists, rather than as graffiti. In fact, I went there because a leaflet in my hotel included Zaspa’s murals in a list of ‘The Best of Gdańsk’ – alongside the usual medieval buildings, churches and museums.  I didn’t have a guide, so I may have missed the most interesting examples, but these photos should give you a sense of the place:


Perhaps these murals cost the local housing authorities nothing at all (I don’t know – perhaps artists would be happy to pay for their own materials if their work can be displayed on huge canvasses like this). In any case, I’m struggling to think of who loses out from this initiative.  And it was interesting to compare Zaspa with other blocks of flats not too far away, whose ends face the main road, and instead display large advertisements for new property and holidays. A rather different way of adding interest to a wall, with a rather different affective outcome.




Gdańsk, 23 August 2017


I’ve been in Taipei, visiting Crison Chien, a colleague on our ‘smart-eco cities’ project.  I was tickled by a brief conversation we had while we were walking around Ximending.

Crison pointed out the building below, when it appeared from afar: “That’s the Presidential Office”

Back of Presidential Office Building, Taipei

The back of the Presidential Office Building, Taipei

“Ah, it looks very European”

“Yes,” replied Crison, “because it was built by the Japanese”


“They built it as part of their modernisation programme”

I meant to go back and have a look at the building as a whole – you can apparently visit the inside. I didn’t have time in the end – but the main (baroque) façade looks like this:

Taipei Taiwan Presidential Office Building

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas (via Wikipedia)

Anyway, plenty has been written about the way that different types of idea (in the form of policies, ‘best practices’, and other practical know-how) are ‘transferred’ between countries and across continents in the contemporary world.  These transfers often take place very fast – but the interesting question is whether, or to what extent, an idea from one place can straightforwardly be implemented in another quite different context.  In the case of the built environment, for example, we might observe that cityscapes around the world are becoming increasingly homogenised. Alternatively, however, we might dismiss that conclusion as rather superficial: actually, any idea (including those related to architecture and engineering) necessarily undergoes a process of ‘translation’ before it takes shape on the ground.

So, I don’t have anything revelatory to bring to your attention here. But it’s always interesting to see examples of how these transfers happened differently (and more slowly) in previous eras, when the new was today’s old, and globalisation was shaped by imperial rather than market dynamics.

Taipei, 3 August 2017

Journal of resilience

A new publication to announce.  But first, some background…

A while ago, I started noticing that the word ‘design’ and the concept of ‘design thinking’ seemed to be everywhere. I wondered if it was just me – but I was particularly struck that I so often seemed to hear the word ‘design’ used in contexts where I expect to hear about ‘plans’ and ‘planning’. I slowly got the sense that we seem collectively unwilling to assert our ability to shape the future – but, at the same time, I wasn’t sure quite why we are so keen to be ‘designing’ things instead. Why now? I realised in any case that I didn’t really understand what ‘design’ meant.

Problematically, there seemed to be no widely accepted overall theory of design to turn to. Or, rather, there were lots of individual perspectives on the subject, often related to particular areas of design practice. And most of these seemed to claim that theorising design as a whole is not possible.

Following on from that, I and some colleagues organised an exploratory conference on the topic of ‘Design after Planning’ last year  It went rather well overall (and you can watch some of the videos here), but it threw up more questions than it answered.  So, I started slowly reading up on design theory, and have now pulled together some of my thoughts in the introduction of a ‘forum’ on Resilience and Design, published today in the journal Resilience.

The introduction is followed by four short essays, by Clive Barnett, Tania Katzschner, Nate Tkacz, and Filip De Boeck, each touching on design-related issues in different ways. The abstract and table of contents are shown below.

The forum as a whole is rather like a collection of papers in a conference panel: loosely connected rather than prepared in close collaboration.  But we hope this approach will be generative of new thinking and connections, rather than seem incoherent. An experiment, at least.

If you’d like to read the publication, but can’t access it, please get in touch so that I can send you a copy.  50 free eprints (first come, first served) are also available from this link:


Cowley, R., Barnett, C., Katzschner, T., Tkacz, N. & De Boeck, F. (2017). Forum: Resilience & Design.  Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses. Advance online version, DOI: 10.1080/21693293.2017.1348506



This forum aims to encourage theorists of resilience to engage more closely with different aspects of design theory and practice. The introduction outlines a series of largely unacknowledged parallels between resilience and design, relating to the valorisation of processes over states, the loss of faith in ‘planning’, the ambivalent status of boundaries and interfaces, and open-ended political possibilities. Four short reflections then follow on various design-related topics: the significance of the ‘wicked problem’ in contemporary urban planning and design, and the urbanisation of responsibility; design’s potential to repoliticise and engender new forms of responsibility; the significance of the digital interface; and the condition of everyday life in the ‘unplanned’ post-colonial city. Readers are invited to build on or refute the explicit and implicit links made between resilience and design in the various forum contributions.




Resilience and design: an introduction

Robert Cowley (Department of Geography, King’s College London)


Planning as design in the Wicked City

Clive Barnett (Department of Geography, University of Exeter)


Design, responsibility and ‘Staying with the Trouble’: rethinking urban conservation in Cape Town

Tania Katzschner (School of Architecture, Planning & Geomatics, University of Cape Town)


In a world of data signals, resilience is subsumed into a design paradigm

Nathaniel Tkacz (Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick)


‘The Hole of the World’: designing possibility through topography in Congo’s urban settings

Filip de Boeck (Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa, KU Leuven)


London, 14 July 2017

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:


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.


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

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