Archives for category: Urban futures

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

Abstract

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. https://doi.org/10.1080/17535069.2017.1293150

interrogating-urban-experiments

I’ve co-authored a short paper on the idea of ‘urban experimentation’ with Federico Caprotti, which has been accepted for publication in Urban Geography.

Some writers have observed and commented on a trend for policy-making and practices in the urban setting to be infused with a rhetoric of experimentation. Our article suggests some ways in which the critical dimensions of such commentary might be usefully broadened out.

It’s available here – or get in touch with me if you want a copy.

Caprotti, F. & Cowley R. (2016). Interrogating Urban Experiments. Urban Geography. Advance online version, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2016.1265870.

Abstract

The notion of the ‘urban experiment’ has become increasingly prevalent and popular as a guiding concept and trope used by both scholars and policymakers, as well as by corporate actors with a stake in the future of the city. In this paper, we critically engage with this emerging focus on ‘urban experiments’, and with its articulation through the associated concepts of ‘living labs’, ‘future labs’, ‘urban labs’ and the like. A critical engagement with the notion of urban experimentation is now not only useful, but a necessity: we introduce seven specific areas that need critical attention when considering urban experiments: these are focused on normativity, crisis discourses, the definition of ‘experimental subjects’, boundaries and boundedness, historical precedents, ‘dark’ experiments, and non-human experimental agency

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London, 3 December 2016

2000 Ton City

“2,000 Ton City, composed of cells each containing an individual whose brain impulses are continuously transmitted to an analyser which compares, selects and interprets the desires of each individual, programming the life of the entire city moment by moment. Each inhabitant lives eternally, but if he formulates thoughts of rebellion against this perfect life twice consecutively, the ceiling descends to crush him with its 2,000 ton force.”

 

City of the Splendid Houses

“City of the Splendid Houses, in which each citizen’s goal is the possession of the most beautiful house, to which end they spend all their leisure hours and spare wage coupons in decoration and embellishment.”

 

I came across these two images/text in Robert Sheckley’s (1978) Impossible Cities of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Futuropolis. Both visions were created by Italian conceptual architecture firm Superstudio.  I’ve been pulling together my paper for the Society of the History of Technology’s annual meeting in Singapore (22-26 June 2016), in the panel on ‘Technology for City, City for Technology’.

 

 

London, 30 April 2016

defetishing the city

You’d be welcome to come along to a workshop which I’ve organised, during the afternoon on 28 April 2016. It’s the final workshop in a series on ‘Living in the Anthropocene: Rethinking the Nature/Culture Divide’ which began in June last year.  To see details of the previous events, see here.

Defetishising the City

Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster
32-38 Wells Street, London, W1T 3UW (5 minutes walk from Oxford Circus tube station)
3:30-6:00 pm, Thursday 28 April 2016

The discursive rise of the anthropocene has been accompanied by the normalisation of the idea of the ‘urban age’. The city has come to constitute a powerful imaginary, simultaneously the locus of all manner of contemporary crises – ecological and otherwise – and the focus for our hopes of their resolution. While earlier visions of urban sustainability disrupted the nature/culture divide, the goal remained one of ‘balance’, to be achieved through intentional agency.  Such aspirations are increasingly augmented, or framed, by notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘smartness’, in which human agency becomes at best reactive, or even dissolves within a process of recursive co-adaptation.

But where does this leave our ability to ‘plan’ our (urban) future? And is this imagined ‘city’ in fact a multiple construct? Might its rhetorical singularity across different discourses be holding us back from reimagining the future in more productive ways?

With:

Clive Barnett (University of Exeter)
Federico Caprotti (King’s College London)
Simon Joss (University of Westminster)

This event is free and open to all, but registration is essential. Click here to register for a free ticket.

London, 13 March 2016

Design after planning

Might it be possible to go beyond the limitations of liberal-modernist policy-making and urban planning if we start thinking of governance at different scales as a process of design?

If you find this sort of question interesting, you may want to consider submitting an abstract for a one-day interdisciplinary conference we’re holding at the University of Westminster on Friday 5 February, 2016.

We have three confirmed keynote speakers – Filip De Boeck (KU Leuven), Nathaniel Tkacz (University of Warwick) and Erik Swyngedouw (University of Manchester), and plan to have three panels on:

  • disaster and risk design
  • designing with emergent urban systems
  • resilience versus sustainability

To find out more, or to sign up for updates, please visit the event website.

We have not yet released tickets for the event, but there will be no charge for attending (or registration fee for speakers).

London, 5 November 2015

UPDATE 5 APRIL 2016:  videos from this event are now online: https://designafterplanning.wordpress.com/videos/

 

Tomorrow's City Today

If you’re interested in urban sustainability, I’d like to invite you to a conference I’m co-organising.  We have a superb line-up of international speakers (academics, policy-makers and practitioners) as well a report launch to tempt you along.

Date: Friday 12 June 2015

Time: 10:00 am – 4:30 pm

Venue: Fyvie Hall, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London W1B 2HW

Although sustainability principles are now firmly entrenched in urban policy making around the world, no clear agreement has ever emerged about what precisely the idea means or how it might be put into practice – and we seem to be further than ever away from the goal of building a sustainable future. Some critics argue that its lack of agreed definition leaves it open to abuse and encourages a ‘business as usual’ approach. So might some form of ‘standardisation’ lead to greater accountability and more substantive progress in future?

In fact, the evidence suggests that a process of standardisation may currently be taking place. Recent years seeing a global proliferation of different types of eco-city ‘frameworks’, which serve to define urban sustainability in particular ways. Many of these, crucially, aim to be replicable – and are implemented – in different locations internationally.

But, looking forwards, how might a process of standardisation work? How should these urban sustainability standards be defined and audited (and by who)? What critical questions need to be asked? And should we welcome this trend as a basis for future policy and practice development? Some would argue that any form of standardisation serves to stifle innovation in what should ideally be an open-ended process of real-world experimentation and ongoing critical reflection.

The report, which will be launched in the morning, draws on three years of cross-comparative research conducted by our Leverhulme Trust-funded international research network.

The provisional programme is shown below.  You can download a full version here, and book tickets on Eventbrite here (there’s no charge for attendance).

FINAL PROGRAMME:

Tomorrow's City Today FINAL PROGRAMME (19 May 2015)

3 March 2015, London

Kin la poubelle

Increasingly, we live in a world where nothing makes any sense. Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell us stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality.  But those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.

(Opening words from Adam Curtis’ (2015) film, Bitter Lake)

Over the last decade, attempts have been made to counter urban theory’s traditional focus on large cities of the global north. Understanding ‘cityness’, it is argued, should entail a broadening of the frame of reference far beyond such untypical ‘global cities’ as London, Paris, Tokyo, New York, and so on. The city of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a focus for some of this ‘decentring’ activity; it is “often invoked, used, and abused, as a trope to represent the quintessential postcolonial city” (De Boeck, 2012). And earlier this week I heard Filip De Boeck give a superb talk at UCL about life in Kinshasa, as part of the Power and Space in the City series of workshops.

He began by commenting that Kinshasa contains almost no buildings of architectural interest, and effectively no infrastructure. Or, at least, for most people, no functioning infrastructure. Those services which are provided are unreliable; in fact, it is not meaningful to talk about ‘disruptions’ to services, both in the sense that disruption is the norm, and because for many people it is precisely in disruptions that opportunities arise. Institutional attempts to ‘plan’ the city only play a minor shaping role in the urban space which results. Far more significant is an ongoing “random” occupation of space, characterised by uncertainty, improvisation and constant renegotiation; De Boeck (2011:271) suggests that it is precisely the

organic approach to the production of the city and its spaces that enables Kinois to survive at all…And many activities in the city become possible not because there is a well-developed infrastructure available to sustain them but, rather, because that infrastructure is not there, or only exists through its paucity.

Potholes in the road, for example, are welcomed since they can be filled in on behalf of motorists, in return for a tip.  (The potholes are then deliberately recreated every evening.)  In another example we were shown, there was no particular incentive for a group of stall-holders to fix a leak in an adjacent sewage pipe; this creates a permanent muddy patch forcing pedestrians to divert from the road and walk past their stalls, and thus become potential customers.

In Kinshasa, it is impossible to plan ahead. Residents often comment that “nothing has any meaning”; they can only make it up as they go along. They can only proceed by being open to possibilities, by being skilful “at being flexible, at opening up to this ‘unexpected’, that often reveals itself outside the known pathways that constitute urban life as most in the Global North know it” (ibid:272). There is no reward for imagining this way of life as linear: it constantly reveals itself as iterative, emergent, unpredictable. Causality only becomes clear retrospectively. Everything is pragmatic.

Now, any story of a city can only ever be a partial one. But I was wondering whether (my reconstructed version of) this particular story allows us to conceive of the people of Kinshasa as oppressed. In a different story, we might paint the Kinois as victims of global structural forces, or we might see the neglect of the state, or the arbitrariness of its workings, as itself oppressive. But that’s not what I’m getting at. Rather, that if Kinshasa in this reading constitutes a parable for the way we increasingly seem to interpret the world more generally – as something which can no longer be rationally understood or intentionally planned, and probably never could be – then the question of oppression becomes meaningless. In this way of thinking, everything just is (or, rather, becomes). There is no structure which can be complied with or transgressed; no basis on which justice, normativity, or ethics can be grounded. It is tempting therefore to ask if we even should be telling stories of this type. Rather problematically, however, this question itself is rendered senseless by the story.

And yet I seem to have set up a rather unfair binary choice here: between an illusion of modernity on the one hand, and a truth of ungovernable flux on the other; between the oppression of the concentration camp and the freedom of the slum. I’d like to think these are not the only choices we can make.

20 February 2015, London

References

Curtis, A. (Director) (2015).  Bitter Lake.  BBC Productions.

De Boeck, F. (2012). Infrastructure: Commentary from Filip De Boeck. Cultural Anthropology. Online Curated Collections. Available from: http://culanth.org/curated_collections/11-infrastructure/discussions/7-infrastructure-commentary-from-filip-de-boeck (accessed 20 February 2015).

De Boeck, F. (2011). Inhabiting Ocular Ground: Kinshasa’s Future in the Light of Congo’s Spectral Urban Politics. Cultural Anthropology, 26(2):263.

Notes

Photograph by Joseph Winter, and stolen from the BBC website: “The city council has just three dustbin lorries for a population of 8m – but lots of wheelbarrows. Council official Basil Lungwana says they are trying hard. He says the biggest challenge is to change people’s habits.”

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.

African slum

To round off the year before I go on holiday, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learnt about African cities from Africa’s Urban Revolution1 – a new edited volume that’s been doing the rounds.

To get things rolling, here’s an overview of how urban Africa has become (I didn’t realise the extent of this). It’s now the world’s most rapidly urbanising continent, with more city dwellers than Europe, Australasia, North America or South America – only Asia has more. 40% of Africans now live in urban areas, according to the UN definition, and the urban population is expected to double in the next two decades or so. Part of this growth will come from migration from the countryside, but most will be due to the natural growth of existing towns and cities. Most urban residents, it goes without saying, continue to live in slums.

Infrastructure and planned housing to accommodate this growth is only rarely being provided. But the reasons for this only partly relate to a lack of institutional and financial capacity at local level. More profoundly, there appears to be a denial among national policy makers that an ‘urban revolution’ is actually taking place.  Edgar Pieterse describes this as a “prevailing government attitude that urbanisation is something bad or undesirable that needs to be prevented and, failing that, reversed through effective rural development policies, leading to a refusal to provide for the ‘illegal’ urban dwellers”.  He goes on to explain that

“many national governments…hold a deep disdain for urban life and the ‘modern corruption’ and defilement of pure African identities found there, which are seen as essentially a product of the exploitative colonial experience. From this perspective, African urbanism is a material expression of Western dominance and vice, and therefore something that is only grudgingly acknowledged and engaged with”.

The (often rather neoliberal) arguments we hear about the inevitably beneficial potential of urban life may therefore meet with a rather unreceptive audience in Africa.  Such arguments are problematised by another set of arguments in the book (nicely summarised, along with some of their implications, on the Global Urbanist blog). These relate to the general understanding that urbanisation and economic growth go hand-in-hand. Urbanisation is seen as necessarily driven by economic growth – and rapid growth by industrialisation in particular. But this relationship doesn’t appear to hold true for Africa, which in many cases has experienced ‘urbanisation without growth’. Equally, the evidence is far from clear that African urbanisation has always led to economic growth. The fact of urbanisation, in short, doesn’t in itself give us hope for Africa’s future.

All this only feeds my growing suspicion that we have become dangerously entranced by the increasingly dominant discourse that cities are the key to global sustainability. What I argue in my own research – in a nutshell – is that the idea of the ‘city’ itself is poorly conceptualised in much related policy making around the world.

But now you’ve got me started. So I’ll stop there, with wishes for a happy August.

 

31 July 2014, London

 

Notes

1 Parnell, S. & Pieterse, E. eds. (2014). Africa’s Urban Revolution. London: Zed Books.

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