Archives for category: public


Have you ever been in another town with a few hours to kill and some work to do? Had a couple of hours spare between appointments? Been working at home but fancied a change of scene? Where would you go? Perhaps you’d end up in a café full of distractions, perched on a stool with your laptop, wasting money on a drink you didn’t want, until your battery ran out. But what about the local library? I bet you wouldn’t even consider it.

When I think of a public library, various negative things come to mind: a gloomy atmosphere; a musty smell; hardly any tables where you can spread out your papers; a building in a state of disrepair; grumpy-looking pensioners… It’s not a place where I would actively want to spend time. But imagine if, instead, you quite liked going to the library for a few hours. Not because you are a bookworm with plenty of spare time or a poorly heated house, but because it was a place where people like you regularly went; where everybody could come to work in peace if they wanted; where you’d be happy to spend the day.

To describe what such a place might be like, I would like to introduce you to the splendid Sejong City branch of the Korean National Library, which opened last year. It’s free to join, open till 9pm most evenings, and the staff are friendly and welcoming. It’s full of bright natural light, with plentiful desk space. Wifi is available throughout, along with dozens of PCs (no charge for use), and cheap printing facilities.

inside Sejong library

Bright and spacious

For those spending a bit of time here, it offers a decent coffee shop at ground level, a small convenience shop, and two restaurants on the top floor. At one of these, good everyday Korean food is available (as much as you like) for a fixed price of around £3. At the other, which has a panoramic view over the lake, there is a more international menu and table service, with most meals costing between £6 and £10.

view from Sejong National Library

View from restaurant tables

A few more features. The basement contains a large children’s space, including a small cinema room, which leads out to a play area. Its two banks of solar panels produce more electricity than the library consumes. It has seminar rooms which anybody can reserve and use for free. And, while I barely care about the books here, it does have shelf space for 6 million of them (though these aren’t all in place yet).

This is a public space in a rather twentieth-century sense. It is paid for by public money, open to all, owned by the state, and – relatedly – highly regulated (necessarily, since it is, after all, a library). It seems to me like public money very well spent; a clear example of people achieving more for all by pooling their resources.

It did cost £58 million to build, so it would seem unrealistic to suggest that we should have something like this on every corner. And I should make it clear that I am not promoting South Korea as a perfect example of public service provision generally; for a start, there is no free healthcare here. But every country, of course, has choices about how it spends public money. I can’t help thinking, for example, about the £25 billion (plus £2 billion per year in maintenance) which the UK government is considering spending on a replacement Trident nuclear missile system. For the same money, we could have 431 superb community spaces like the one where I’m sitting this morning, in our name, and used and enjoyed by us all.


15 June 2014, Sejong City


Biennale Spazzio Pubblico 2015 Carta dello Spazio Pubblico

A colleague from Italy recently sent me a ‘Charter of Public Space’.1 This has been prepared as a contribution to the third Conference of the United Nations on Human Settlements, which will be held in 2016.  Relatedly, I noticed that in 2011 UN-Habitat adopted a resolution on ‘sustainable urban development through access to quality urban public spaces’.  I can’t help but like these aspirations. The idea of having a commonly, globally agreed set of principles to guide policies and practices around public space, along with official acknowledgement of its importance, is very attractive. At the same time, however, I’m not sure that its conceptual foundation is a solid one.

The case for identifying public space as a collective good to which urban citizens have something approaching a human right seems clear enough at first glance.  Its justification typically relies on the contention that our previously ‘public’ spaces are being increasingly ‘privatised’. This, in turn, is understood as being detrimental to various things that it is difficult to dislike: social equity, social cohesion, quality of life, the quality of the democratic process, and so on.  The privatisation of the city is, in short, seemingly at odds with the so-called ‘right to the city’.

But things are not so simple.  What precisely is this ‘publicness’ which is being undermined?  The ‘public’ is a slippery pit of a concept, filled with wriggling, overlapping tendencies; its contents and shape change depending on the perspective from which it is viewed.  In the absence of a firm definition, the central claim, that the ‘public’ is being usurped by the ‘private’ – begins to look rather tautological; each term has no meaning beyond that of its opposition to the other.  If, alternatively, our use of the adjective ‘public’ relies on a particular criterion – for example, that of legal ownership – then it becomes unclear why we need to use the word ‘public’ at all.2

One of the reasons for the confusion is that the term is archaeologically layered. Its current everyday uses retain vestiges of its various meanings since antiquity (Habermas, 1989); they hang around in language as fossilised referents to social structures quite unlike those of today. In its newer theorisations, it reflects at least a postmodern sensibility, and possibly even the actual slow dissolution of liberal statehood: we now talk about multiple, fragmented publics, pragmatic emergent publics, and ‘assemblages’ of publicness where the boundaries between the human and the non-human are blurred.

Alongside its temporal variety, though, I also want to know more about how well the word ‘public’ travels across space.  How do its various meanings map onto cognate words in non-European languages? Which of its conceptualisations remain analytically or normatively useful in societies far removed from the heartlands of liberal democracy? These questions have obvious significance for an attempt to introduce a global charter of public space.  It would seem problematic if, as Hogan et al. (2012) suggest, talk of the privatisation of urban space sometimes presumes a publicness which didn’t previously exist.

Next month, anyway, I’ll be in Korea – and this is one of things I’ll be thinking about while I’m there. If any Korean speakers are reading this, I would value any thoughts you have.

22 May 2014, London


1 Thank you to Vittorio Pagliaro, of the Second University of Naples, for sending me the Charter of Public Space.  I imagine this is available from the website of the Biennale di Spazio Publico (, but this was undergoing maintenance at the time of writing.  If anybody wants a pdf in English, just let me know.

2 Indicatively of the lack of agreement over the concept, it has been argued that ownership is at best a peripheral dimension of publicness (Parkinson, 2012).


Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hogan, T., Bunnell, T., Pow, C.-P., Permanasari, E. & Morshidi, S. (2012). Asian urbanisms and the privatization of cities. Cities, 29:59–63.

Parkinson, J. (2012). Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

UN-Habitat (2011). Draft resolution on sustainable urban development through access to quality urban public spaces. HSP/GC/23/CRP.4/Rev.1. Available from: (accessed 21 May 2015)

Final poster




John Law (Professor of Sociology, Open University): Congregating Publics: GDP and its Others


Regan Koch (Department of Geography, University College, London): Justifications of public and private: Notes from the not-quite-public spaces of underground restaurants

Manuela Kölke (independent researcher): Ontological registers as the medium of convergence between political theory and spatial disciplines

Antonia Layard (University of Bristol Law School): The Legal Production of Public Space (or not)

Nikolai Roskamm (Institut für Stadt- und Regionalplanung, TU Berlin, Germany): The in-between of public space: Sitting on the fence with Hannah Arendt


Clive Barnett (Professor of Geography and Social Theory, University of Exeter): Theorising Emergent Publics


Nick Mahony and Hilde C. Stephansen (Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, The Open University): What’s at stake in Participation Now? Exploring emergent configurations of ‘the public’ in contemporary public participation

Helen Pallett (Science, Society & Sustainability group, University of East Anglia): Producing the publics of UK science policy: public dialogue as a technology for representing, knowing and constructing publics

Yvonne Rydin and Lucy Natarajan (Bartlett School of Planning, University College, London): Materialising public participation: community consultation within spatial planning for North Northamptonshire, England

Peer Schouten (School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden): The infrastructural construction of publics: the Janus face of representation by international actors in Congo


Sarah Whatmore (Professor of Environment and Public Policy, University of Oxford): Experimental Publics: Science, Democracy and the Redistribution of Expertise



Andrew Barry (Professor of Human Geography, University College, London): Material Politics and the Reinvention of the Public


Andreas Birkbak (Department of Learning and Philosophy, Aalborg University, Denmark): Facebook pages as ’demo versions’ of issue publics

Gwendolyn Blue (Department of Geography, University of Calgary, Canada): Animal publics: Political subjectivity after the human subject

Ferenc Hammer (Institute for Art Theory and Media Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary): The Hungarian Roundabout and Further Settings for the Authoritarian Subject: Technologies of Self-Governance in Everyday Practices

Jonathan Metzger (Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden): Moose re:public – traversing the human/non-human divide in the politics of  transport infrastructure development


Lindsay Bremner (Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, University of Westminster): The Political Life of Rising Acid Mine Water

Blanca Callén (Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, Lancaster University): The making of obsolescence: how things become public in the age of precariousness

Michael Guggenheim, Joe Deville, Zuzana Hrdlickova (Department of Sociology Goldsmiths, University of London): The Megaphone and the Map: Assembling and Representing the Public in Disaster Exercises

Owain Jones (Environmental Humanities, Bath Spa University): Is My Flesh Not Public? Thinking of bodies and ‘the public’ through water


Jon Coaffee (Professor in Urban Geography, University of Warwick): Citizenship and Democracy in the City 2.0: Balancing the Quest for Resilience and the Public Interest in Urban Development

new perspectives on the problem of the public event

Here’s some preliminary information about an event which I’m co-convening next year:

Call for Papers: New Perspectives on the Problem of the Public, on 15-16 May 2014

The Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster is hosting a two-day conference, ‘New Perspectives on the Problem of the Public’, 309 Regent Street, 15-16 May 2014.

This inter-disciplinary conference brings together researchers from communications and media, built environment, education, geography and political theory to discuss the implications of the rise of new strands of pragmatist, complexity and new materialist approaches to democracy and the public sphere. We will examine how non-traditional conceptualisations of the ‘public’ might be relevant to various fields of practice and policy making. What roles remain for institutions of governance in a complex, fluid, more pluralist world, less amenable to modernist conceptions of power? What are the implications if representation is increasingly understood as a barrier to the emergence of the public, rather than as a means of accessing it?  Does it make sense to think about ‘public goods’ such as health and education if the public can no longer be taken for granted? Could understandings of the public in political theory and policy making be enriched and problematised by their conceptualisations in other academic fields?

Guest speakers:

Clive Barnett (Professor of Geography and Social Theory, University of Exeter) – ‘Emergent Publics’

Andrew Barry (Professor of Human Geography, University College, London) – ‘Material Politics and the Reinvention of the Public’

Jon Coaffee (Professor in Urban Geography, University of Warwick) – ‘Citizenship and Democracy in the City 2.0: Balancing the Quest for Resilience and the Public Interest in Urban Development’

John Law (Professor of Sociology, Open University) – title to be confirmed

Sarah Whatmore (Professor of Environment and Public Policy, University of Oxford) – ‘Experimental Publics: Science, Democracy and the Redistribution of Expertise’

We invite papers and panel proposals on the following topics (we are keen to include a wide variety of academic fields):

* new representations of the public
* the public and the role of teaching/knowledge
* materials and policy-making
* space and the production of the public
* crisis, responsivity and resilience

We have some funding to support travel and subsistence for paper presenters. The deadline for abstracts (250 words) is Friday 21 February 2014. Please send abstracts to Michele Ledda ( Robert Cowley ( and David Chandler (


You can book a place here, and click here for the university webpage for this event.


Today, I’ll be discussing tolerance, civility, and publicness. Let me begin, though, by telling a story.

One day, in 2012, a new pub opened near my house. It was soon a great success, both commercially and in terms of its local reputation (and I rather liked it the three times I went). However, following a dispute with the property owner, it was unexpectedly boarded up a couple of months ago. Soon afterwards, all its interior fittings were removed, and the Bohemia, it seemed, was no more – and most of the people I spoke to about it seemed a little shocked. Far more shocked, in fact, than I would have expected; pubs and restaurants do come and go, after all, and this one had no historical pedigree. Anyway, in protest, a group of local activists broke into and ‘occupied’ the premises. A programme of events in the pub has since been implemented, including ‘project organising meetings’ and various musical and leisure activities. ‘All’ are apparently welcome. The occupation has attracted a degree of media attention, and documentary makers have apparently been following its progress.

Now, not everybody endorses this sort of thing. The announcement on the blackboard outside the building therefore presents a justification for the occupation. Since pubs, it asserts, are “community hubs”, it would seem to be ‘wrong’ that a majority of them are owned by corporate entities (rather, presumably, than by individual pub landlords). There is a fairly straightforward sense, then, in which the occupiers position their action as a challenge to a particular (dominant) definition of this space; they are seeking to privilege its social dimensions over a legalistic conceptualisation which appears to serve the interests of capital.

It may be self-evident that ‘occupying’ relates directly to questions of space. Still, I was intrigued, if unsurprised, to see that the list of behavioural ‘rules’ posted in the window has a strong spatial framing: in the title of the document (‘Safer Spaces Policy’); in the use of the word ‘place’ in the fourth rule (to position this as a space of ‘the people’); and the final regulation which threatens expulsion from the space:

bohemia safer space rules

But the poster also interests me because a norm of ‘civility’ is clearly constructed here. I recently read a definition of civility as something which allows us to “negotiate encounters with difference”; it can be thought of “as ‘the codes’ of conduct that allow peaceful co-existence in space” (Bannister and Kearns, 2013:2706). Civility, Bannister and Kearns argue, is the way that ‘tolerance’ is realised. But tolerance is a surprisingly odd idea when you start looking into it. In common speech, the meaning of ‘tolerant’ is close to that of ‘easy going’ – it suggests a sort of passive open-mindedness or relaxed acceptance of difference, a ‘flat’ sense of diversity characterised by an absence of power relations. Indeed, an examination of the new noticeboard outside the pub might tempt us to interpret the occupied Bohemia as somehow a ‘space of tolerance’ in this sense, characterised by untypical inclusivity: it has attracted a series of advertisements for various non-mainstream activities (eg ‘Shamanic Drumming’, ‘Hatha Yoga’, and a social group for ‘older LGBT people’) and causes (eg anti-fracking, permaculture, and protest against the expansion of Heathrow Airport).


However, more rigorously defined, tolerance describes a rather less ‘easy going’ state of mind than might at first be apparent; it relates to the “deliberate choice not to interfere with conduct or beliefs with which one disapproves” (Hancock & Matthews, 2001:99). In other words, it describes an act of suppression. And if there is no disapproval, then no act of toleration can take place. Thus, while it has been argued that “to tolerate someone else is an act of power” (Waltzer, 1997:52), the tolerance underlying the enactment of civility in fact indicates an unwilling acceptance of “relative powerlessness” (Bannister and Kearns, 2013:2708).

The ‘limits’ to our tolerance, furthermore, are not fixed; they may change over time – and appear to be very context-dependent. The moments when these limits are exceeded are marked by the retraction of civility, leading to different types of social disharmony. The act of occupying the Bohemia (breaking into the premises) itself marks a breakdown of civility; an intervention occurring when the limits of tolerance had been overstepped. But what, then, are we to make of the way this incivility sits alongside the civility promoted by the rules displayed outside? For me, this is not so much a contradiction which undermines the logic of the occupation as a creatively ambivalent tension.  I would like to suggest that this ambivalence seems closely related to the question of the ‘publicness’ of this ‘public house’.

To make the suggestion, though, I should first point out that others have directly associated the demarcation of the public and private ‘spheres’ of life with the concept of tolerance (and, therefore, civility). Frank Furedi (2012), for example, values tolerance as “one of the most precious contributions of the Enlightenment movement to modern life” (30); it “affirms the freedom of conscience and individual autonomy” (31), and stands in contrast to pre-liberal societies, where “the toleration of different religions, opinions and beliefs” is/was “interpreted as a form of moral cowardice if not a symptom of heresy” (30). For him, the common and growing elision of tolerance with the rather different values of “acceptance, empathy and respect” (32) constitutes a threat to the health of both the public sphere and the sanctity of private life – both of which are important for the successful functioning of modern liberal democracy. If, then, there is some kind of link between tolerance/civility and the qualities of our ‘public’ and ‘private’ lives, and if the ‘civility’ of the occupation here is ambivalent, I have been wondering how we might interpret the publicness of the space of the Bohemia.

First of all, this space cannot be described as ‘public’ if it is evaluated using criteria of legal ownership or access; the very act of squatting highlights its non-publicness in this respect.  Might its publicness instead be displayed in the diversity or inclusivity of its membership – as flagged up by the emphasis on ‘community’? I think that’s problematic too. Community is generally understood to be a relational and exclusive construct – as illustrated by the existence of the ‘rules’ above, whose authority rests only upon consensual agreement by an in-group, and which determine the grounds on which people do not qualify for entry into this ‘community hub’. Community has been described as more of an extended type of intimacy, related to homogeneous in-groups of neighbours, friends and other associates. The rhetoric of ‘community’ has been criticised as fundamentally anti-urban, more closely associated with suburban gated communities than imagined ‘real’ urban public space, in that it “promises to provide the pleasures of sociability without the discomforts of the unfamiliar” (Kohn, 2004:193). All this is not to say that there is anything fundamentally right or wrong with the valorisation of community; rather, that there is no necessary alignment between the idea of ‘community’ and that of the ‘public’.

Perhaps, then, we could turn to Furedi’s argument for inspiration? But I’m not sure about that either; his polemic, in its defence of liberal modernity, might be interpreted as primarily oriented not so much towards the strengthening of some form of public life as to the defence of privacy against the encroachments of institutional power. Elsewhere, at least, Furedi’s concern with protecting the private is more clearly apparent (see here, for example, where he expresses concern that the value of privacy is being slowly usurped by that of ‘transparency’). In any case, what really matters for me is that, by consciously locating the public:private binary within the modern, western liberal tradition, he highlights its contingency. Furthermore, his concern over the erosion of privacy points to the shifting nature of this divide over time. Boundaries between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ are not, then, inevitable, and appear to be negotiable rather than fixed – whatever normative interpretation we place on the outcomes of such negotiation in any particular context.

Instead, I am thinking about the possibility that ‘publicness’ does not refer to a ‘sphere’ of life at all, so much as to the negotiation itself: perhaps it is better understood as a mode of constructive semi-transgression, which is marked specifically by the blurring of boundaries rather than demarcated by them. In this I’m inspired in part by Noortje Marres’ recent book (2012), which explores the idea of the public as a problematic form of entanglement with materiality. Perhaps publicness is most usefully thought of as a form of engagement which emerges unpredictably when friction occurs, and is essentially experimental, exploring the possibility of the redefinition of norms of different kinds, without necessarily having a particular coherently expressed goal in mind. Thus, it would not describe a ‘sphere’ (idealised as a state of liberty), nor a process defined by an end-state of liberation, so much as an open-ended expression of frustration with various phenomena, when these are revealed as in some way constraining individual freedom.

My notion of ‘publicness’ then, does not lie in an orientation towards, or achievement of, a sphere of discursive autonomy, marked by a suspension of hierarchies; nor does it describe an anarchic space where entirely ‘unscripted’ behaviour occurs and unlimited differences somehow coexist, peacefully or otherwise. Rather, I see publicness as describing a peculiar quality of open-ended negotiation, borne out of, and itself serving to highlight, the contingency of particular structurally determined limits, including those which ‘spatialise’ society in different ways. This publicness, then, grates against tolerance; rather than floating on the calm waters of civility, it emerges in the form of disruptive intervention.

Finally, while the question of whether the occupation of the Bohemia is somehow ultimately ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is not relevant to my argument, I’m still interested to think about whether and how its success as a public intervention might be judged. My thinking here rescues the old idea of publicness necessarily being in some way ‘visible’. When a transgressive activity veers too far beyond the limits of state or societal tolerance, that state or society may use force to regain the appearance of civility; in other words, the activity will be rendered invisible (even if the sense of frustration leading to it may remain). Conversely, an act which entirely conforms to the norms of accepted behaviour, and does not therefore display publicness in my disruptive sense, is also invisible in its normality or ‘normalisedness’ (even though, of course, any individual agency might be seen as subversive to the structures within which it is enacted). So, a rough formulation might go something like this:

The most successfully, or definitively, public acts are those which take the form of a gentle, even playful, testing and blurring of boundaries which would otherwise go unquestioned, and are also widely seen to do so.

Anyway, just saying.  I’m still working on it.

10 October 2013, London


Bannister, J. and Kearns, A. (2013). The Function and Foundations of Urban Tolerance: Encountering and Engaging with Difference in the City. Urban Studies. 50(13):2700-2717.

Furedi, F. (2012). On Tolerance. Policy. 28(2):30-37.

Hancock, L. and Matthews, R. (2001). Crime, community, safety and toleration. In: Matthews, R. and Pitts, J. (eds). Crime, Disorder and Community Safety. London: Routledge, 99-119

Kohn, M. (2004). Brave New Neighbourhoods: The Privatization of Public Space. New York: Routledge.

Marres, N. (2012). Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Waltzer, M. (1997). On Toleration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


‘Smart City’ event by Close and Remote earlier this year

How would you fancy living in a city built by Google or IBM?

I was interested to read a short piece by Paul Doherty (2013) prophesising a change in the construction industry in the near future. He suggests that we will increasingly see large ICT companies acquiring a construction arm – comparing this to a ‘land-grab’ which is waiting to happen. This chimes with a trend identified in our own research (Joss, Cowley and Tomozeiu, 2013): that of the growing involvement of international IT firms in the development of the ‘eco-city’.

How do we feel about this? If we are to shift to less resource hungry and environmentally harmful modes of (urban) living, then we need to make best use of technology. If part of the challenge is to integrate the different complex systems within cities, then computing networks are rather good at collating information to allow us to do so efficiently. And if we are to take part in the new knowledge economy, our IT systems need to be as good as they can be.  To survive, we need to be smart, and our cities need to be smart. So far, so good.

What specifically, then, do plans for ‘Smart Cities’ envision? The first one I ever came across was that of ‘PlanIT Valley’ in Portugal. This has been designed by private developer Living PlanIT as a 4,000 acre high-tech district, based on the concept of a replicable ‘urban operating system’:

PlanIT Valley will enable the enhanced monitoring of the vital signs of urban life, the condition and performance of vehicles and infrastructure. As a result, managers will be able to optimize normal daily operations of the city and provide greater certainty in reacting to extraordinary events through real-time modeling and simulation. With a view to incorporating new developments, urban management control systems will be updated with the latest information and technology as these emerge. (Living PlanIT, undated)

In its narrow focus on infrastructural technology, this is a fairly extreme example of the genre.  But what interests me is that: (a) it is being promoted as a vision of a city rather than simply of a computing system which will contribute to the city’s life; and (b) it boasts “the legislated endorsement of Municipality of Paredes in northern Portugal and the national government” (ibid). In other words, it has official policy status; it is more than a purely speculative commercial venture.

Just to be fair, here is another – apparently more holistic – conception of the Smart City, published by IBM, which looks beyond the physical infrastructural dimensions of urban life:

IBM smart city

It’s easy to find other variations on the theme.  But I am suspicious of conceptual and practical projects of this type. My suspicions, I should declare, do not primarily relate to issues of personal privacy, nor to the commercial ambitions of the key actors involve. Nor are they rooted in technophobia. It’s difficult in any case to talk of cities, or social progress, without referring to technology – the relationship between technology and society has been endlessly discussed (see, for example, Smith and Marx, 1994); technology, “after all, is about the relationship between human aspiration and the natural environment” (Chant, 1999: 42); and the city itself is the greatest technological artefact of them all.

To begin outlining the grounds for my suspicions, I would like to describe an interesting spectacle, from at a recent event on the Smart City phenomenon, organised by Close and Remote in Deptford (South East London).  (The photograph at the top of this post was taken there – you can even see the back of my head.) Instead of a solid wall behind the four speakers, there was a floor-to-ceiling window. This allowed us to observe the random goings-on of the real life of the city behind the speakers’ presentations and representations. Deptford isn’t a wealthy part of town. Crazed individuals stopped to stare through the glass; teenagers shuffled by, pushing each other and joking; a woman with a pram dropped litter; a dishevelled elderly resident of the council flats across the road came out onto his balcony to stare vacantly at the sky for 15 minutes. The discussion was characterised overall by intelligent critique of the Smart City – but the scene still struck me as nicely allegorical, in that the idea of a Smart City is only a metaphor for the city itself.  Like all successful metaphors, it is a beguiling one; we are blinded by its apparent explanatory force; we forget that it is only partial in its description. In this case, we were literally able to see through it. And speaker Christian Nold caught this idea well in his characterisation of the Smart City as an essentially ‘ephemeral’ phenomenon.

This ephemerality has at least two dimensions.  First, as Nold suggested, the possibility that existing cities might be retrofitted to be ‘smart’ in anything other than a superficial way appears to be a tall order. Nold pointed to the sheer physicality of existing infrastructure – even looking at, say, London Underground alone. He took issue with the idea of the Smart City as a “thing of the future… a thing which is always deferred – the literature always talks about it as something that’s almost there, almost there…you just need to push a little bit further”. He suggested that this attitude hampers us from adopting a critical perspective on it as something which is “here right now”.

Second, it is ephemeral in the thinness of its engagement with the social and political dimensions of the city. In one way, this doesn’t matter; the remit of IT (or Engineering) companies is to provide hardware. Equally, it would be absurd to argue that their representatives are naïve technological determinists, ignorant of the need for this technology to be acceptable to the public, or unaware that it might be shaped by societal forces. If evidence were needed for this awareness, I’d say this recent talk by at the Urban Design Group is fairly typical; the speaker (Paul Reynolds, from design & engineering consultancy Atkins) made it clear that his talk was framed by an understanding of technology as subservient to society: “This is quite a fundamental thing…Although we talk about the city as an object, the buildings that make it up, and more and more about the data that underpins it, actually we do need to remember at the end of the day that it’s about the people. The way they interact with their city and their environment may be changing, but they’re still the most fundamental aspect”.

The commercial actors promoting the Smart City are clearly not, then, irresponsible megalomaniacs. What matters to me, though, and to repeat my earlier point, is that such plans are often presented as visions of the city as a whole (rather than as ephemeral layers thereof) – and that this discourse is being adopted by policy makers.  To quote Christian Nold again: “the people who are actually doing the state governance around the Internet of Things and Smart Cities … are taking their ideas from Cisco”. This is worrying if, in IBM’s diagram above, democratic governance extends only as far as ‘administration’, ‘planning’ and ‘management’.  And who are the ‘managers’ in PlanIT’s vision? Do they mysteriously exist prior to the city, hovering above it, disembedded from the social?  It feels like a return to post-WWII comprehensive or systems planning – the results of which were mixed at best.

Some of the basic unanswered questions about governance in this context were recently raised by Evgeny Morozov:

I have a lot of respect for these people as engineers but they are being asked to take on tasks that go far beyond engineering. Tasks that have to do with human and social engineering rather than technical engineering. Those are the kind of tasks I would prefer were taken on by human beings who are more well rounded, who know about philosophy and ethics, and know something about things other than efficiency, because it will not end well.

We did not elect them to help us solve our problems. Once Google is selected to run the infrastructure on which we are changing the world, Google will be there for ever. Democratic accountability will not be prevalent. You cannot file a public information request about Google. We are abandoning all the checks and balances we have built to keep our public officials in check for these cleaner, neater, more efficient technological solutions. Imperfection might be the price for democracy (Tucker, 2013).

Morozov, of course, has been accused of provocative exaggeration and technophobia; in practice, it seems likely that any future Googlopolis would be developed within existing legislative and democratic frameworks rather than in spite of them. But what of the ‘imperfection’ that Morozov valorises here? Might there be a value in seeing the irrationality of the city in a more positive light?

There are two ways to understand the tensions, conflicts and inequalities of city life – and these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. From one perspective, they constitute barriers to be overcome in a quest to move towards a utopian ideal of social flatness; from the other, they are themselves generative of democracy. The first approach – which seems to be dominant in mainstream plans for urban sustainability – is aligned with a ‘top-down’ managerial ethos. These plans may not quite display a simplistic assumption of a “static, ready-made public to be discovered and represented” (Mohr et al., 2013), but plurality is still reduced to a conceptualisation of different ‘stakeholder groups’; consensus is assumed to be achievable through formal processes of public consultation and negotiation. Such deliberative processes are typically to be accompanied by processes of ‘education’ to ensure that the unenlightened and excluded also get the message. PlanIT doesn’t even get this far: the public here is barely visible, replaced by a series of functional abstractions, and syntactically passive. People are envisioned as ‘humans’, extensions of the proposed technology, merely contributing to the aggregative ‘daily operations of the city’. When PlanIT refers to a city’s ability to react to possible ‘extraordinary events’, it is unclear whether these extend to unpredicted social actions.

The second approach to the contestations of urban life, however, tends towards a more dynamic notion of ‘emergent’ publics. I was recently alerted to how this idea was already present in the work of John Dewey (1989) back in 1927.  And Dewey argued that it is precisely in times of innovation and technological change that ‘publics’ are most likely to arise. He refers to Emerson’s idea that we “lie…in the lap of an immense intelligence” (219), but one which institutions of representative democracy appear poorly able to tap into. The ontological and normative conception of the state as ‘out there’, somehow representing the collective will of the public, as expressed through rational, deliberative discussion, seems increasingly outdated (Chandler, forthcoming 2014).

What is my position on Googlopolis then? I’m not against the idea of ‘plans’ or institutional direction, but I want to understand how we can plan for the sustainable city as fundamentally a space of unpredictable, dynamic public life.  Technological solutions and experimentation are inescapably part of the mix – but a truly smart, sustainable city only seems possible if its starting point is a desire to embrace the complexity of unfolding turmoil, rather than an idealisation of the city of the future as merely an efficient ‘system of systems’.

23 June, 2013, London


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Joss, S., Cowley, R. & Tomozeiu, D. (2013). Towards the ‘ubiquitous eco-city’: an analysis of the internationalisation of eco-city policy and practice. Urban Research and Practice. 6(1):54-74.

Living PlanIT (2013). PlanIT Valley – the living laboratory and benchmark for future urban communities. Available from: [accessed 17 June 2013].

Mohr, A., Rahman, S. & Gibbs, B. (2013).  Which publics? When? Exploring the Policy Potential of Involving Different Publics in Dialogue Around Science and Technology. Didcot: Sciencewise. Available from: [accessed 21 June 2013].

Morozov, E. (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist. London: Allen Lane.

Smith, M. & Marx, L. (eds.) (1994). Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Boston: MIT Press.

Tucker, I. (2013). ‘Evgeny Morozov: ‘We are abandoning all the checks and balances’’. The Guardian. 9 March 2013. Available from: [accessed 9 March 2013].

I’ve always been intrigued by the way that municipal infrastructure is particularly likely to attract bits of graffiti. Casual acts of rebellion, spatial appropriations – but targeted at space which we are led to believe belongs to all of us. The more ‘public’ the space, the more graffiti it attracts.

For me, though, the public dimensions of the city which define it as a city are to be found more in the graffiti than in the grid.



People have made a special effort to lean over the hedge, to adorn the electricity meter with scribbles and stickers.



Don’t tell me how to move!



Barely visible scrawl on the street corner: the grid under attack.



When the streets are closed to traffic for the day, the young children join in too.

9 June 2013, flying over the Arctic Circle.

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