Archives for the month of: January, 2018

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


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