When I was starting my PhD, back in 2011, a friend asked “So where are these eco-cities then?” I was a bit stumped. What was it that I was actually studying? Something that didn’t really exist? Would I just be doing a kind of journalistic work, delivering easy critiques of inflated rhetorical claims? Anyway, I soon realised that the more interesting questions lay elsewhere. But I’ve remained keen to find out more about urban developments using this sort of terminology to describe themselves.

Relatedly, I noticed some of the newer local train maps in Kuala Lumpur include a station named ‘Eco City’ or ‘KL Eco City’, sometimes followed by ‘(Coming Soon)’. So, of course, I went to investigate.

It turns out this is a new high-rise development, accommodating a new shopping centre, offices, and residential towers. It’s being delivered by a public-private sector partnership between Kuala Lumpur City Hall and KP Setia (a large Malaysian company, and one of the main backers of the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station in London).

The shopping centre has been open for just under a year, and is still filling up its retail units. But when the connector bridges are open, it will be the third in a row of three shopping centres, making it possible to walk all the way from MidValley to Abdullah Hukum train stations without stepping into the non-air conditioned world outside.

There didn’t seem to be anything evidently ‘eco’ about it at first glance.  The official website casually refers to the new residential blocks as ‘sustainable’ – but that’s about it.  After a little more internet searching, a few more credentials emerged. A press release-style article in the national Star newspaper describes its underlying philosophy of “Live Learn Work Play in an urban setting”, and its aim “to be the country’s first integrated Green development targeting both the Malaysian Green Building Index (GBI) and US-based Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications.” It is certainly well connected to public transport – but also to the multi-laned road/motorway system running all around it. Unsurprisingly, its promoters don’t dwell on the fact that the Haji Abdullah Hukum kampung (‘village’) was flattened to make space for it.

Kampung Haji Abdullah Hukum in 2007 (Photo credit: Two hundred percent, CC BY-SA 3.0)

So how should we think about this ‘eco-city’ development? KL Eco-City may not presage a new transformative era of urban sustainability (if anything, it catalyses the structural forces that continue to lead us in the opposite direction). But I think it’s easy to overlook the immense difficulties of getting anything built in the real world – particularly a huge complex such as this. An optimist might argue that it could have been worse: at least they are applying for green building accreditation and investing in public transport.

What interests me, though, is what it says about the trajectory of the ‘eco-city’ concept (and at this stage I would humbly refer you to my recent book chapter on the topic, which is full of further references). The big picture is that an originally radical idea has gradually been compromised as it has entered mainstream thinking and practice around urban development. What you’re left with is little more than the eco-city as real-estate marketing strategy (increasingly only associated with large developments in East Asia): a way of using green credentials to facilitate planning permissions, help shape an urban ‘brand’, add to public acceptability and market value. But what’s fascinating about the KL example is that it barely even tries to promote its green credentials as evidence of its eco-city status.  The eco-city as an almost entirely ‘empty’ label.

And yet this linear story, of a hopeful idea being gradually absorbed into ‘business as usual’, isn’t the only one we can tell. I’d see the eco-city as having always been defined by a multiplicity of heterogeneous practices. Rather than searching for the eco-city as a fully formed urban place, and evaluating what we find against utopian criteria, we can see it as one of many loose labels which come and go, but at least facilitate different types of experimentation and innovation. Some of this innovation may be very modest in its aims; much of what emerges may barely differ from what would happen anyway. It’s not just the case that the hopeful, grass-roots vision of the eco-city has been usurped by the corporate megaproject, but rather than all sorts of varied eco-urban goals and activities continue to co-exist, whether or not they use the eco-city label, or even use the spatial framing of the ‘city’.

In this particular case, it seems a real shame that the KL Eco-City project has (so far) made no obvious attempt to take advantage of one key asset. I think the Klang River, which runs directly beside it, could easily be turned into a more pedestrian- and wildlife-friendly environment – even given the risk (I imagine) of regular flooding. Still, it seems that a group of local residents (the ‘Friends of Sungai Mid Valley’) regularly cleans up the area.

Perhaps we might argue that this clearing-up activity shouldn’t be left to volunteers. But perhaps this group has sprung into action precisely because the river environment has been further degraded by the KL Eco-City development; perhaps both these activities draw on a growing, broader sensibility that cities can be more environmentally friendly. Clearly, the power relationship between the Friends of Sungai Mid Valley and the combined forces of an international property developer and KL City Hall isn’t a symmetrical one. But I think it’s more generative to start by thinking of all this as dynamically interconnected, rather than only in oppositional ‘good guy/bad guy’ terms.

Section of the Klang River, running beside KL Eco City

Kuala Lumpur, 1 August 2019


In all sorts of places in the centre of Moscow, I feel that I’m looking at streetscapes which I can only describe as ‘dreamy’.

On the one hand, this is probably just to do with the more monumental parts of the city causing flashbacks to half-remembered Stalinist propaganda films which I’ve seen over the years.

On the other, though, I think it’s because there has been such a mind-boggling amount of renovation work going on here recently. I find myself walking along streets full of perfectly restored buildings, painted in beautiful pastel colours, freshly laid tarmac, brand new pavements. It’s hard to capture this in pictures, but here are a few that might give a rough idea.

It might also be something to do with the Italian influence on the older architecture, which brings this sort of utopian image to mind:

Strangely enough, the dreamy feeling reminds me most of my reaction to Poundbury, the new extension to the town of Dorchester in the UK (you can easily read about that elsewhere), which I visited for the first time earlier this summer. Here are a few Poundbury shots:

In most other respects, though, I can report that Moscow and Poundbury tend towards dissimilarity.

Moscow, 13 July 2019

As part of the ongoing and remarkably extensive programme of beautifying central Moscow, an amphitheatre-style seating area (‘Яма’ – ‘the pit’) has been created around a section of the ancient city walls on Khokhlovskaya Ploshchad. It has become a very popular place for young people to socialise and drink alcohol.

This is interesting because drinking alcohol in public has been strictly forbidden in Moscow for the last few years. But it’s tolerated at Яма – a public space set aside for deviant behaviour.

I’d say this sort of liminal space or zone is quite common in cities: it’s probably easier to maintain public order by providing a specific spatial outlet for a given transgression, rather than prevent it happening anywhere. But what I found surprising here is that there is simultaneously a very heavy visible police presence in and around the ‘pit’. Yesterday evening, for example, there was one pair of policemen standing in the middle, another pair walking around the edge, six tough-looking guys in combat outfits, and two large police vans.

One conclusion, drawn also from my wider walks around Moscow, is that there is no shortage of police here: I’m sure the Metropolitan Police in London would be very happy to have so much manpower at their disposal. But also it struck me that what you could call ‘securitised-transgressive’ public space is an interesting ‘type’ that I’ve not read about before. (Perhaps the nearest thing I can think of back home is a music festival with lots of regulations and security checks.)

And I think this space has become so well-known in Moscow (and widely discussed) is precisely because it is full of contradictions and tensions. It always seems to me that the ‘publicness’ of space doesn’t relate to some notion of ‘freedom’, but rather describes, and is constituted by, ambiguities, processes of juxtaposition, and shifting contestations. The most ‘public’ of spaces, in other words, are ones which you’d expect not to work well at all.

Moscow, 13 July 2019

A quick post to announce two new publications.

First, a chapter on ‘Eco-Cities’ in the Handbook of Urban Geography published by Edward Elgar, edited by Tim Schwamen and the late Ronald van Kempen. This outlines the various ways that this term is used, the history of the practices associated with it, and an overview of critical perspectives on it. I haven’t got hold of a copy of the whole handbook yet, but it looks like a fine compendium. Detailed contents can be seen on the publisher’s website.

Second, a short position piece on the question of whether we should colonise Mars. I think about this question through the lens of ‘Martian Rights’, including the rights of Mars itself. This forms part of a collection of themed articles entitled ‘To Mars, the Milky Way and Beyond: Science, Theology and Ethics Look at Space Exploration’, in the journal Theology and Science. You can find it here.

Full references and the abstract for the Mars article are shown below. If you want to read either, but can’t access them, get in touch and I can send you a pdf of the relevant ‘accepted manuscript’ (ie almost final version).

Cowley, R. (2019). Eco-Cities. In Schwanen, T. & van Kempen, R. (eds.) Handbook of Urban Geography. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp.725-750. ISBN: 978-1785364594

Cowley, R. (2019). Yes, We Earthlings Should Colonize Mars if ‘Martian Rights’ Can Be Upheld. Theology and Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1080/14746700.2019.1632521


I argue that programmes of Mars colonization might usefully be guided by a consideration of “Martian Rights”. I outline four categories of possible rights which would need to be guaranteed, depending on the precise nature of the colonization: those directly transferable from existing human rights, new rights, rights in need of modification, and the rights of Mars itself. Debates over Martian Rights should not be deferred until the technological challenges of supporting human life on Mars have been resolved. Rather, they have the potential to usefully inform the development of relevant space technologies.

London, 5 July 2019


“It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the face that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves”

Robert Ezra Park (1950), p.249.

On the first day of my visit to Trondheim, I was keen to seek out its ‘bike lift’. This has been keenly promoted, and reported on, as a shining example of innovative urban infrastructure.  It seems significant that its narrative setting is a Scandinavian city: praise for the bike lift resonates easily with a widespread discursive idealisation of Scandinavian cities as beacons of liveability, social equity, good design, functionality, and so on.  It seems common for people to make sense of our own countries’ failings by constructing Scandinavia as a non-dysfunctional/utopian ‘other’.

How does this bike lift work? Well, a metal groove runs up a steep hill in the centre of the town (see picture above). You sit on your bike with your right foot on a sort of shark’s fin that moves upwards, pushing you and your bicycle to the top.  I believe that using it takes some practice. Like the vast majority of people trying it, I failed.

What interested me was the way that so many people were not only dutifully paying homage to this iconic innovation, but also seemed to express a sort of gleeful pleasure (mixed in with embarrassment) when they discovered that its reality didn’t match up to the hype.  In this sense, visiting the bike lift seemed to illustrate something much broader about our experiences when we visit places.  Unless we are able somehow to arrive in a place with no knowledge or visual images of it at all, our instinct is first to seek out those phenomena (in the city, perhaps a cathedral, a famous square, a tower, an atmosphere, a way of dressing, a type of food…) which play a dominant role in some kind of external image of that place.  This is not to say that a coherent, singular image of a place will be specifiable – we should expect the image, rather, to be multiple, contradictory, fragmented, contested.  Still, the visitor is positioned as a sort of deferential pilgrim.  We eagerly comply with this role, but simultaneously delight in finding ways in which our expectations go unmet (for better or worse). “It’s nothing like the way it looks in the film!”, we furtively joke to our companions. “There are a lot of fast food restaurants for a city renowned for its haute cuisine!”, we proudly note. “Nobody talks about all the ugly sprawl outside the historic centre!” we smirk, while attempting to keep that sprawl outside the frame of our own photos.

I was thinking about this because I was reading Erving Goffman’s well-known book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, first published in 1959 (the quotation from Park above is taken from it).  Goffman explores our complex performances when we deal with each other, through the use of words, rituals, clothes, and material settings. We often adjust our own performances in deference to the way that others present themselves, in the spirit of social harmony and cooperation.  At the same time, we are secretly keen to see through other people’s masks; we are delighted when any verbal or non-verbal clues seem to give us insights into some other ‘real’ person hidden behind the persona.

It turns out that Goffman’s model (to which I haven’t done justice here) has already been used to think about contemporary ‘city branding’ (see eg Zavattaro 2013). But I was interested in the Park quotation specifically.  If person comes from ‘persona’, might there be some kind of equivalent idea – something around duplicity, masks, etc – lurking somewhere in the etymological history of ‘place’? I’m always suspicious when definitions of concepts rest on etymological evidence. But it’s fun at least, and sometimes revealing.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid to say that my dictionary searches didn’t uncovered anything startling. I already knew that place comes via Latin from πλατεία (οδός) – ‘broad (road)’ – and so in Modern Greek ‘πλατεία’ means ‘square’, and we have ‘piazza’ in Italian, ‘plaza’ in Spanish, ‘plaats’ in Dutch, etc.  ‘Place’ also has a particular historical meaning as a ‘battlefield’. That’s all not much help, but it does at least underline the relational nature of place: a location defined in terms of convergences from elsewhere. The common thread across the different contemporary uses of the verb ‘to place’, meanwhile, is to relate an entity to a setting.

Perhaps a little more interestingly, all this relationality is interwoven with a strong sense of normative ordering: place variously refers to “position or standing in an order or scale or estimation or merit”; “rank”; “a proper or appropriate position”; the correct seat at a dining table; “a position occupied by habit, allotment, or right”, etc. But this doesn’t really add up to the type of juicy etymological finding that I was looking for.

Still, I think Goffman’s framework does seem to have a useful application to the way we relate to places as visitors. And, more broadly, to the way images of places are co-created by insiders and outsiders. It reminds us that even a relatively stable ‘place image’ belies, on the one hand, all the ongoing work being done by insiders ‘behind the scenes’ to craft this image, and, on the other, the continual enthusiasm on the part of outsiders to see through it.

Trondheim, 20 June 2019


Goffman, E. (1990) [1959]. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin.

Park, E. R. (1950). Race and Culture. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Zavattaro, S. M. (2013) Expanding Goffman’s Theater Metaphor to an Identity-Based View of Place Branding. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 35:4, 510-528.

There’s no explicit connection between these three new publications bearing my name (except for the fact that they bear my name), but you can make one if you like.

The first is a Manifesto for Governing Life on Mars. This is the preliminary fruit of a six-month project funded by the Dubai Future Foundation, which ended with a workshop in December 2018. I and a couple of colleagues plan to follow up with a couple of academic publications.

Why think about this topic? Well, space exploration (and Mars settlement specifically) is in the news a lot at the moment, and large amounts of resources are being allocated towards it. The aim of this research was to draw attention to draw attention to some of the problematic political and social dimensions of settling Mars. Most current public discussion about settling Mars either proceeds in a highly technical way, or is entirely speculative/science-fictional. One initial aim here was to try to learn instead from experiments in setting up alternative communities on Earth.

The second is an article which I co-authored with Federico Caprotti (University of Exeter), and was recently published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. We were thinking about the difficulty of understanding the way that ‘big ideas’ in urban policy-making – and the ‘smart city’ in particular – land on the ground. If you start from the perspective of the vision, from on high, only part of what actually happens on the ground is visible.  But if you start on the ground, it’s difficult to see what ties it all together.  In this paper, we suggest that the idea of a ‘cultural economy’ of smart urbanism helpfully accounts for both the shaping effects of policy discourse and its varied concrete manifestations in real urban space.

Caprotti, F. and Cowley, R. (2019). Varieties of smart urbanism in the UK: discursive logics, the state, and local urban context. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12284


The third is a short chapter in a new book, Digital Objects, Digital Subjects, published by the University of Westminster Press.  It responds to a chapter in which Paul Rekret critiques the supposed ‘innocence’ of posthuman thinking. I propose that posthumanism (as a broad body of thinking) has a rather uneven appeal, and that it doesn’t exclude the possibility of other forms of thinking about ‘hybridity’ to emerge in future.

Cowley, R. (2019). Posthumanism as a Spectrum. In
Chandler, D. & Fuchs, C. (eds) Digital Objects, Digital Subjects: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Capitalism, Labour and Politics in the Age of Big Data. London: University of Westminster Press. ISBN: 978-1-912656-20-2.

digital objects digital subjects

London, 30 January 2019


I’ve been looking after a dog for the last few weeks.  Walking around with him has made me aware of a whole layer of street activity that I had never thought about much in the past. As I write, there are all sorts of people taking looping, semi-random, leisurely walks around every local area, with a dog at the end of a rope.

Dog-human relations may seem a mundane and trivial topic, but it interests me that the family dog has an ambiguous status. While dog ownership epitomises domesticity, walking one is a very public act.  Rather than clearly indicating ‘rurality’ or ‘urbanity’, the dog blurs categories by “resid[ing] in an intermediate position between nature and culture” (Hirschman, 1994: 623).  Although dogs are barely visible in urban plans and designs, they are a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape; and in wealthier countries at least, dog-walking is a significant component in the activity that takes place in everyday urban public space.

Like when you first have a small child, dog-walking makes you realise that there are whole circuits of social interaction going on to which previously you had no access. Beyond the well-known way that dogs function as a ‘social catalyst’ (McNicholas & Collis, 2000), I’ve noticed that it rewrites – or makes visible – the unspoken rules of normal interaction in public space.  All sorts of people initiate conversations with you, including types of people would never do so normally: women my age or younger; small children and teenagers.

Of course, such conversations are almost exclusively about the dog. While dog-mediated conversations can, over time, lead to deeper human friendships (Wood et al, 2015), it would feel intrusive if a stranger began asking me personal questions during preliminary dog-induced pleasantries.  Even when, one time, some schoolboys started laughing because the dog (a Pomeranian) seemed an unusual breed for a man to be walking, I noticed they were looking and pointing at the dog.  To laugh directly at me would have been much more of a significant insult.

Still, it’s interesting that it should seem humorous or odd that a particular category of person should be walking a particular breed of dog.  The fact that dogs are somehow culturally coded is suggested if only by the fact that different dog breeds go in and out of fashion over time (Herzog, 2006). It is unsurprising to read that the cultural significance of owning a dog at all can shift quite rapidly among certain social groups (Caglar, 1997); that certain types of dog may work as conscious projections of social distinction, advertising wealth and social status (Hirschman, 1994); and that – in the UK – dog breeds, and particular behaviours and vocabularies associated with dog ownership, are revealing of their owners’ social class (Yuen-Lee, 2018; Hanson, 2018; Mirror.co.uk, 2009). And gender plays a part too: one study found that “Owners use gender norms to (1) select what they consider to be suitable dogs, (2) describe their dogs’ behaviors and personalities, and (3) use their dogs as props to display their own gender identities” (Ramirez, 2006: 373). Public dog walking, then, seems to be a complex system of symbolic communication (Holman et al, 1981) through which social status and self-identity may be variously asserted or reconfigured.

I’ve also noticed that walking the dog puts me in a different relationship with my physical surroundings. Repeated slow walks whose only destination is their starting point, waiting for the dog to sniff things and pee on them, means you end up looking much more carefully at what’s around you.  All sorts of micro-observations about people’s front gardens, walls that need painting, tiny architectural details at street-level, irritating amounts of litter.  The types of things you miss on a normal day when you’re rushing to work.  It’s a mode of engaging with the local area which you usually don’t have.

Finally, I’m puzzled by how the dog seems very aware of changes in the nature of space. He’s unwilling to pass over a threshold into somebody’s front garden.  I can’t imagine a cat would draw that distinction.  How does the dog recognise the category of ‘pavement’?

Anyway, that’s all you need to know about dogs.  I’m going to miss him far too much when his real owner returns from abroad in a couple of weeks’ time.


London, 30 October 2018.



Caglar, A. S. (1997). ‘Go Go Dog!’ and German Turks’ Demand for Pet Dogs. Journal of Material Culture, 2(1): 77-94.

Hanson, W. (2018).  Is your DOG making you look common? Etiquette expert William Hanson explains how everything from your pooch’s breed to its collar can be VERY revealing of your background. Mailonline, 23 February. Available at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-5426385/William-Hanson-reveals-DOG-says-class.html

Herzog, H. (2006). Forty-Two Thousand and One Dalmatians: Fads, Social Contagion, and Dog Breed Popularity. Society & Animals, 14(4): 383-397.

Hirschman, E. (1994). Consumers and Their Animal Companions. Journal of Consumer Research, 20(4): 616-632.

Holman, R.H. (1981). Product Use as Communication: A Fresh Appraisal of a Venerable Topic. In Enis, B. M. & Roering, K. J. (eds) Review of Marketing 1981. Decatur, GA: Marketing Classics Press, pp.106-119.

Mirror.co.uk (2009). The breed of dog you choose shows which class you are, researchers claim. 30 May. Available at: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/the-breed-of-dog-you-choose-shows-396904

McNicholas, J. & Collis, G. M. (2000). Dogs as catalysts for social interactions: Robustness of the effect. British Journal of Psychology, 91: 61-70.

Ramirez, M. (2006). “My Dog’s Just Like Me”: Dog Ownership as a Gender Display. Symbolic Interaction, 29(3): 373-391.

Yuen-Lee, J. (2018). Dog Breeds Can Reveal Your Social Class. Get Leashed Magazine, 3 June. Available at: https://getleashedmag.com/2018/03/06/dog-breeds-can-reveal-your-social-class/

Inside Smart Cities cover

Lots of research has been conducted into the way that ‘big ideas’ in policy-making seem to travel around the world increasingly rapidly, but also undergo processes of ‘translation’ as they are implemented in different places.  (Perhaps the fullest treatment of this phenomenon is provided in Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore’s 2015 book on ‘Fast Policy’.) It’s possible to interpret the ‘smart city’ concept through this lens – and I’m interested in the ways that it has come to land in China specifically.

I visited the city of Wuhan last year. Wuhan is one of China’s rising economic stars (and also one of the case studies in our smart eco-cities research project), but not yet part of the premier ‘Tier I’ league. My original hope was to set up some research looking into its longstanding and ongoing ‘twinning’ arrangement with the city of Manchester.  In the end, that particular line of enquiry didn’t go too far, but my visit did form the basis of a co-authored chapter in a book published by Routledge today.

The book as a whole explores the varied ways that ‘smart city’ technology is being implemented in real-world urban space around the world.  Our chapter on Wuhan explores the need to understand this process as part of a broader digitisation of everyday life – it suggests that analyses focused on policy-making or entrepreneurial governance arrangements are missing the big picture. Sticking with the ‘official’ version of the smart city, though, we try to identify what might be distinctive about the Chinese approach to all this, using the example of Wuhan as a relatively ‘ordinary’ city in the Chinese context (commentators usually tend to focus on more wealthy showcase cities on the East coast).

You can download a pdf of the ‘accepted manuscript’ here. (Accepted manuscript = the version before production, copy-editing and proof reading.)

Final Published Version:

Cowley, R., Caprotti, F., Ferretti, M. and Zhong, C. (2018). Ordinary Chinese Smart Cities: The Case of Wuhan.  In Karvonen, A., Cugurullo, F. and Caprotti, F. (eds) Inside Smart Cities: Place, Politics and Urban Innovation. London: Routledge, pp.45-64. ISBN: 978-0815348689.


Commentaries on future-oriented Chinese urban development tend to focus on showcase projects underway in wealthy coastal cities. This chapter instead sheds light on the way that the smart has been integrated into more ‘ordinary’ Chinese urban life, using the case of Wuhan, a ‘Tier II’ city in Central China. It explores the conditions of the emergence of Wuhan’s smart city activities from three perspectives. First, it outlines a series of ‘vertical’ enabling factors, whereby an international body of discourse and practice has been ‘translated’ into national Chinese urban policies. Second, it considers the simultaneous significance of ‘horizontal’ links between Wuhan’s local government, city governments abroad, local private enterprises, and foreign firms. Third, it relates Wuhan’s smart credentials to a broader process of digitalisation of everyday life in the city. It concludes by reflecting on the distinctive characteristics of Chinese smart urbanism, as exemplified by Wuhan, and finally draws out some implications for future research into smart cities elsewhere. Specifically, it proposes that the smart city is most usefully approached as a shifting and locally inflected concept which not only channels multiple policy agendas, but also reflects broader changes to urban space and governance in particular contexts.

London, 12 September 2018


If you’re in Cardiff next week for the RGS conference, you’d be strongly advised to come along to our double panel on ‘elusive landscapes of design in the city’. I’m coorganising this with Gabriele Schliwa (University of Manchester). We both have a research interest in questioning the rise of ‘design thinking’ in contemporary approaches to solving societal problems and urban governance.

The session is split into two parts: the first is on ‘co-designing the city’; the second on ‘designing urban citizenship’.

The full line-up of speakers is as follows:

Co-designing cities 

Friday 31 August 2018, 14:40 – 16:20 (Glamorgan Building – Committee Room 2)

Chair: Robert Cowley

Lindsay Bremner (University of Westminster, UK) – Bad Planning and the 2015 Chennai Floods

Christian Nold (University College London, UK) – Ontological Design for Intervening in Everyday Realities

Darren Umney (The Open University, UK) – Producing and reproducing the city – a Milton Keynes leporello

Clemens Driessen (Wageningen University, The Netherlands) – Co-designing zoopolis: design-thinking with urban animals

Terry van Dijk (University of Groningen, The Netherlands) – Leadership and expertise in an age of ‘co-‘ and ‘self-‘

Designing urban citizenship 

Friday 31 August 2018, 16:50 – 18:30 (Glamorgan Building – Committee Room 2)

Chair: Gabriele Schliwa

Claudia Mareis (FHNW Academy of Art and Design Basel, Switzerland) – Unbounded Design: From wicked-problem-solving to uncertainty management

Caroline Dionne (Parsons School of Design, New York, USA) – Claiming Citizenship through Narrative Productions: Perou’s Design for the Calais “Jungle”

Guy Julier (Aalto University, Finland) – The Codification of Design from Cities to Citizenship

Jocelyn Bailey (University of Brighton, UK) – Prediction, prevention and resilience: design methods and local government tactics after 7 years of austerity

Anke Gruendel (The New School for Social Research, New York, USA) – The Political in Design: The Double Limitation of Participation and Expertise

Discussant: Erik Swyngedouw (University of Manchester, UK)


*      *      *

Fuller details, including abstracts, are available on the RGS website here (panel 1) and here (panel 2).

A new publication in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, which I wrote with Federico Caprotti – now available on open access.  You can read it/download the pdf here.

I think of the paper as having two main roots. First, an earlier comment piece by Federico and me, which laid out a series of underexplored aspects of ‘urban experiments’ (the tendency for contemporary projects in cities to be conceptualised and promoted as ‘test beds’, ‘living labs’ etc etc).  Second, an interest which I’ve had since my PhD in the tensions between the long-term goals of sustainable development, and the short-termism of new forms of dispersed governance.

In the new article, ‘smart city’ ideas and practices are positioned as exemplifying the tendency towards experimental urban governance. However, if we accept Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s (2011) well-known thesis, experiments are rarely innocent: here, we argue that the smart city poses a disruptive challenge to the idea that we can ‘plan’ the future.

The article draws on some of the (UK) findings from our ‘smart eco-cities‘ research project, and is part of a rolling special issue of Environment and Planning D, edited by Ayona Datta and Nancy Odendaal.


Cowley, R. and Caprotti, F. (2018). Smart City as Anti-Planning in the UK. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0263775818787506.


Critical commentaries have often treated the smart city as a potentially problematic ‘top down’ tendency within policy-making and urban planning, which appears to serve the interests of already powerful corporate and political actors. This article, however, positions the smart city as significant in its implicit rejection of the strong normativity of traditional technologies of planning, in favour of an ontology of efficiency and emergence. It explores a series of prominent UK smart city initiatives (in Bristol, Manchester and Milton Keynes) as bundles of experimental local practices, drawing on the literature pointing to a growing valorisation of the ‘experimental’ over strong policy commitments in urban governance. It departs from this literature, however, by reading contemporary ‘smart experiments’ through Shapin and Schafer’s work on the emergence of 17th-century science, to advance a transhistorical understanding of experimentation as oriented towards societal reordering. From this perspective, the UK smart city merits attention primarily as an indicator of a wider set of shifts in approaches to governance. Its pragmatic orientation sits uneasily alongside ambitions to ‘standardise’ smart and sustainable urban development; and raises questions about the conscious overlap between the stated practical ambitions of smart city initiatives and pre-existing environmental and social policies.


London, 20 July 2018



Shapin, S. and Schaffer, S. (2011). Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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