Call for Papers: RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, Cardiff University, 28-31 August 2018

Elusive landscapes of ‘design’ in the city 

Session convenors: Gabriele Schliwa (University of Manchester) and Robert Cowley (King’s College London)

Although design was historically associated with the form of industrial and commercial products (and with the professional field of ‘urban design’), processes of ‘design thinking’ and the conceptual language of design have become commonplace in many spheres of practice and governance. In line with Richard Buchanan’s early understanding of design thinking as a ‘new liberal art of technological culture’ (Buchanan 1992), varied design processes are now advocated and applied across fields as diverse as public service delivery, democratic institutional decision-making, corporate management, international disaster relief, and even military operations research.  This long-term trend has significant implications for urban space, not only in relation to governance approaches and new types of citizen engagement, but also in, for example, the development of infrastructural innovations, experimental and grassroots initiatives, the implementation of sustainability agendas, and the spread of digital/’smart’ urbanism.

This panel aims to critically and constructively engage with emerging modes of governing and reshaping urban space and social relations through the lens of design.

The scattered and elusive landscapes of design in the city we seek to explore include:

  • Design processes that follow ‘the concept of co-‘ (Bason 2014) such as co-design, co-creation, co-production or collaboration and are often concerned with ‘citizen engagement around urban issues’ (Balestrini et al 2017)
  • Design concepts previously used in the digital design sector and/or in the context of business innovation (e.g. service design, experience design, interaction design, interface design, human-centred design)
  • Ways of thinking including design thinking and resilience thinking (Cowley 2017) or creative thinking
  • Shifting identities, often from private towards public subjectivities, e.g. consumer to citizen, user to participant or claims about ‘citizen-centric’ goals (Cardullo and Kitchin 2017)
  • Workshops, events or projects  such as e.g. innovation labs, living laboratories (Evans and Karvonen 2014), civic hackathons or jams in support of smart or sustainable city agendas
  • Cybernetic urbanism and aspects of environmental control (Gabrys 2014, Halpern 2015, Krivý 2016, Luque-Ayala and Marvin 2017)

Considering this variety of logics and activities, we would like to invite position papers or short provocations based on related empirical work, personal experience or theoretical considerations. These will be followed by a wider discussion. Contributions could address (but are not limited to) the following themes:

  • Rationalities – What does design as a mode of governing promise and what does it deliver in practice?
  • Contexts – In which contexts is ‘design’ as a mode of governing being mobilised today?
  • Levels of facilitation – Who is hosting, facilitating and participating in ’design thinking’ or ’designerly’ initiatives?
  • Governing spaces – What are its spatial dimensions and spaces of inclusion and exclusion?
  • Power – What are the mechanisms of empowerment and disempowerment?
  • Historical perspectives – What are the origins of ‘governing through design’ approaches and current drivers behind this trend?
  • What theorisations and conceptualisations do we need to better understand the power relations and implications of design or designing in cities?
  • How can we maintain a critical, reflective, and constructive practice when designing with people becomes part, or even the focus of our academic work (particularly under funding schemes aimed at impact and innovation)?
  • What are its opportunities, limitations or dangers when attempting to steer society into more desirable directions?

Please submit your proposed title and abstract (200 words) to and by Friday 9th February 2018.



Let’s assume that successful governing usually involves a bit of a ‘pact with the devil’ – in the sense that the money enabling honourable public investments often seems to come from rather disreputable sources.

One way for governments to deal with this problem is to turn a blind eye to what happens outside their own jurisdiction. This approach is common in a world of global supply chains. As Anna Tsing (2015) points out, the Japanese were the original masters of the contemporary approach: departing from Fordist attempts to standardise all stages of a production process, they made themselves accountable for what happened only after goods entered their own formal accounting processes. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, all sorts of illegal logging went on in Indonesia to supply the Japanese timber market, yet “no Japanese cut down Indonesian trees” (113) and the internal Japanese timber market was highly regulated and standardised.

Perhaps this just points to the ever-present interplay between informal and formal economic activity. It’s not just the case that variegated informality ‘precedes’ formalisation, but also that it is shaped and called forth by the formal economy. We are more than ever aware of the dark secrets of global supply chains: we criticise our governments, and the corporations which they encourage, if they don’t take responsibility for what happens beyond the formal reach of the state.  But I’m interested in another model for dealing with the devil, which, it seems to me, can actually make governing institutions look rather admirable in the public eye.  I’m thinking of this model as having two key characteristics:

  1. the dubious source of public money is singular and well defined: it may be morally dubious, but only one type of sin has been committed. The sin is contained.
  2. the place where the sinful money is produced is at a certain spatial remove from the seat of government, and from the places where the money is spent for the general good. It is acknowledged and visible, and may be a source of pride, yet it is only lightly regulated – not too many questions are asked. The spatial separation disentangles it from the good work of the governors.

Norway comes to mind with regard to the first characteristic above. It is no secret that the country’s wealth is based on oil extraction, and yet we seem only to admire the government for spending the money wisely rather than succumbing to the ‘resource curse’. Thus, the singular sin is easily cancelled out in our minds by the ‘good governance’ that it enables.

The second characteristic is nicely exemplified by the relationship between the UK Parliament and the City of London/Canary Wharf in the 1990s. Encouraging the City to make as much money as possible was not obviously aligned with traditional Labour Party principles, and yet this provided a large tax income to spend virtuously on public services. The sins were not hidden away, and yet they were committed ‘over there’, down the river. Westminster appeared all the more honourable because of this spatialised binary distinction.

I was thinking about this during a day trip to Macau. Walking around the historic centre of the city – a UNESCO world heritage site, overlooked by the ruins of St Paul’s church – you might admire the conservation work that has taken place.  It is rather overrun with tourists, and yet it would be ungenerous not to see it as rather well looked after. In itself, clearly a ‘well governed’ spot.


Macau’s historic colonial centre 


St. Paul’s Church

But, of course, Macau’s income comes almost entirely from its gambling industry (which is something like five times that of Las Vegas).  Its most iconic casinos are concentrated on the Cotai strip, on land largely reclaimed from the sea, and reached by crossing a bridge. (The front of the Venetian casino complex – including a huge hotel and shopping centre, complete with canals, gondolas and a somehow European-looking sky painted on its ceiling – is shown below.)


Macau symbolised my model (of a concentrated sin, committed visibly yet at a certain spatial remove), but there is of course more to the city than its heritage and casino zones. Most of the urban fabric is rather more prosaic, with dense unattractive buildings. It sounds almost trite to observe that the historic centre is just as artificial as the casino landscape on which it depends. Rather pleasingly, little remains of St. Paul’s church other than its façade.


St. Paul’s in context


The ‘real’ Macau (?), just outside the historic centre

It’s easy, furthermore, to find critical commentaries online about Macau’s history of poor planning decisions and ongoing social problems. Plenty of people are questioning, for example, the wisdom of its large new hydrofoil port, just as a huge road bridge is being built to connect the peninsula with Hong Kong. And yet I like the way that Macau indicates the way that defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ governance depends fundamentally on the construction of spatial or institutional boundaries between the two. By extension, perceptions of good governance depend on the visibility of bad governance. Bringing bad governance closer to home, and making its workings clearly graspable, while also limiting the appearance of contamination, seems like a more profitable strategy than hoping that bad governance will remain out of sight.

Macau, 6 December 2017



Tsing, A. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press


Retrofitting Cities for Tomorrow's World

The newly published book Retrofitting Cities for Tomorrow’s World includes a chapter by Simon Joss and me, exploring the role of national policies in shaping local urban sustainability. We compare the aims, processes, and outcomes of four national initiatives launched since the millennium (India’s Ecocity programme, France’s EcoQuartiers and Japan’s Eco-Model City schemes, and the UK’s Future Cities Demonstrator competition).

Why look at these?  Well, one of our points is that the role of national policies is often underdiscussed in studies of local urban sustainability initiatives. Of course, there are exceptions – but these tend to focus on large-scale, top-down ‘exemplar’ projects which are explicitly driven by central government – for example, Federico Cugurullo’s (2016) analysis of Masdar City in the UAE, or Catherine Chang’s (2013; 2017) work on Chinese eco-cities.  Elsewhere, though, more celebratory accounts of local initiatives may draw too unquestioningly on contemporary discourses around the ability of cities and city regions to take charge of various progressive agendas.  And even scathing commentaries may unwittingly reproduce this discursive framing, by setting up unrealistic expectations of local actors.

I think that keeping the national picture in mind may provide some useful critical perspective. National policies and frameworks do remain rather important – not just as blocks to innovation but also as enabling factors in what emerges at local level. Dismissing this part of the analytical jigsaw may mean that we’re not vindicating the ‘rise of the city’ in the face of the ‘dysfunctional nation’ (Barber, 2014), so much as failing to hold national policy-makers to account.


Joss, S. & Cowley, R. (2017). National policies for local urban sustainability: a new governance approach? In Eames, M., Dixon, T., Hunt, M., and Lannon, S. (eds.) Retrofitting Cities for Tomorrow’s World. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp.227-246.  ISBN: 978-1119007210.



Barber, B.B. (2014). If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Chang, I.-C.C. (2017). Failure matters: Reassembling eco-urbanism in a globalizing China. Environment and Planning A, 49(8): 1719–1742.

Chang, I.-C.C. & Sheppard, E. (2013). China’s Eco-Cities as Variegated Urban Sustainability: Dongtan Eco-City and Chongming Eco-Island. Journal of Urban Technology, 20(1): 57–75.

Cugurullo, F. (2016). Urban eco-modernisation and the policy context of new eco-city projects: Where Masdar City fails and why. Urban Studies, 53(11): 2417–2433.


London, 26 November 2017

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.

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