Octavia

I presented a paper last week as part of a panel on ‘Urban Uncertainty’ at the Royal Geographical Society / IBG International Conference 2014. Jonathan Silver (Durham/LSE) framed the session by referring to Octavia, Italo Calvino’s imagined ‘spider web’ city. The ‘foundation’ of Octavia is a net, suspended in the air, from which everything hangs downwards. The residents live in full awareness of both the fragility of their city and the depth of the void below. Paradoxically, however:

Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long. (Calvino, 1997: 75)

There would seem to be a well-developed contemporary sensibility of uncertainty – both about the future and in our everyday lives. This doesn’t mean that we have all become Octavians (yet); we shy away from its implications. But since, as Jonathan put it, we no longer live in an age of ‘grand plans’, what are we to do with all this uncertainty? What might it mean to ‘govern’ in the face of it?

One approach is to counter uncertainty with the promise of certainty. Linda Sandberg (Umeå University) talked about current attempts to move Kiruna, Sweden’s most northerly city, following mining-related land subsidence. This represents a ‘fresh start’ approach to uncertainty – an abandonment of the present and the past. And yet the process itself has created all sorts of problems and questions of its own. Stuart Hodkinson (Leeds) took us through some of his research into housing schemes under the UK’s ‘Private Finance Initiative’ (PFI), promoted first in the early 1990s. Elaborate PFI agreements, involving both the public sector and extended chains of private subcontractors, were first envisaged as a way of eliminating all the usual financial and political uncertainties associated with large infrastructural projects. In practice, they may have served to demonstrate the futility of attempting to “fix the future in the present”; actual implementation has given rise to all sorts of new uncertainties (often with citizens paying the cost). 

What of the alternative, then – that of somehow embracing uncertainty? My paper looked briefly at the EcoDistricts initiative in Portland, Oregon. This initiative, aimed at encouraging neighbourhood-level sustainability, sought to enable local people themselves to come up with answers and ideas, and to choose their own ways of governing their implementation. In this sense, it attempted to draw on the self-organising creativity of the world outside the imposed certainty of formal institutional plan-making. The results were mixed, however; it may even have reinforced existing power relations in the city – perhaps inevitably since the initiative was institutionalised. Idalina Baptista (Oxford) observed that the ‘modern infrastructural ideal’ seems to have failed us – and most strikingly in cities in the global south. She described the case of Maputo, where new prepayment schemes for electricity might be interpreted as a pragmatic acceptance of uncertainty. This acceptance, however, marks an abandonment of the old ideal of directed ‘development’; in doing so, it may have sidelined the aspiration of reducing inequality. More problematically, this approach seems to have engendered new unpredicted uncertainties of its own as different systems, materials, and social actors have been reconfigured in new ways.

We seem confused by the tension between our sense of ethical responsibility towards the future and a growing sense of the world’s uncertainty; we’re only beginning to experiment with new ways of managing this tension from within existing institutions. Perhaps, as Jonathan Silver put it, the point is that uncertainty cannot be eradicated – instead it always ends up being displaced or reproduced.  And while I think academics and others should be tracing the unevenness of uncertainty, and reflecting on the processes through which it is transformed and translated, I’m wondering if such endeavours can only ever further entrench our confusion, rather than yield new sources of hope.

I’m looking forward to reading the new article on ‘Uncertainty and Urban Life’ by Jonathan (co-authored with his colleagues from LSE Cities who convened the panel – Austin Zeiderman, Sobia Ahmad Kaker and Astrid Wood), due to be published in Public Culture in Spring 2015.

31 August 2014, London.

Notes

The picture is by Maor Lavi, stolen from here.  I couldn’t find the images that Jonathan Silver used in his paper.

For more info on LSE Cities’ Urban Uncertainty research project, see here.

References

Calvino, I. (1997) [1972]. Invisible Cities. London: Vintage Classics.

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