Men playing cards on Sunday morning in People’s Park, Shanghai

A work trip to China has got me thinking about what it would be like to live in a society where I never had the chance to vote. Or, rather, how a society might best be arranged if – for whatever reason – voting wasn’t on the menu. After all, from a global-historical perspective, decision-making through public votes is not the norm.

To think about this more imaginatively, I think the challenge might be to ignore what political theorists have to say on the matter.  In the same way, it might be a mistake to turn to a doctor in a discussion about the big questions around health and medicine; or to a teacher if you wanted to know about the significance of education.


Pudong, Shanghai

Shanghai, 17 May 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?


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
View of Aswan


I’ve spent most of the last week at a workshop on ‘Rebuilding Communities for Resilient and Sustainable Development’ in Aswan (Egypt).  A marvellous event – many thanks to all involved in organising it.

So then: resilient and sustainable… Does it matter that these two terms seem to have become inseparable? That sustainability even seems to be increasingly playing second fiddle to resilience?

Policy-makers at least seem happy enough to speak of resilience and sustainability in the same breath. One of our first workshop exercises, however, was to think more closely about how they differ and relate to each other. Our group contrasted the two concepts in terms of time (sustainability as linear; resilience as iterative) and space (sustainability as extensive and global; resilience as inward-looking and local). We agreed that their relationship is not so much hierarchical (with one perhaps being a necessary condition for the other), as fundamentally characterised by mutual tension.

This tension is reflected in their different registers of societal organisation: while sustainability has always been oriented towards state-centric solutions, resilience looks more to ‘bottom-up’ agency. Depending on your perspective, then, resilience usefully fills a gap in the discourse of sustainability; or its rise can be read as problematic evidence of the ongoing ‘roll-back’ of the state. In any case, abandoning the ideal of sustainability in favour of resilience seems uncomfortably close to relinquishing the hope that our formal institutions of representative democracy can ever be revived.

While I tend towards hoping that our institutional democratic life can be revived, I also wonder if this type of ‘anti-neoliberal’ perspective is rather parochial. What does it really mean in places where there is no general assumption, or expectation – or illusion – that the state somehow ‘stands above’ the messy informality of everyday life? Where the state is clearly demarcated from the public only in terms of its elitism or authoritarian capacities? If Egypt falls into this category of place, it is certainly not unique; informal processes seem to dominate the conduct of everyday urban life around the world, including – to an extent not always recognised – in western countries. In fact, I would argue that the question of how sustainability policy-making might better encompass informality is a key one.

By ‘encompassing informality’, I don’t mean just improving living conditions for the marginalised or reducing ‘corruption’. Rather, I argue that there is a need for more direct acknowledgement in sustainability planning that real cities are held together by informal relations, and characterised by unpredictable, emergent and often transgressive public behaviour, as much as by compliance with formal regulations and dominant norms.

However, I’m not certain that this need is satisfied by the ways in which informality has been embraced in recent years as a source of inspiration for policy-makers and built environment professionals (ranging from the romanticisation of the self-organising principles of the slum through to the rise of ‘crowdsourcing’ in the west, and the adulation of ‘swarm’ or ‘hive’ intelligence). In practice, such thinking typically seems normatively underpinned by a goal of efficiency which necessarily excludes predetermined definitions of right and wrong. There would seem to be only a fine line between taking inspiration from informality on the one hand, and purposefully slumifying our collective future on the other.


Aswan, 16 December 2015



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/


Palazzo Ducale di Urbino

Palazzo Ducale di Urbino

Walking round the Ducal Palace in Urbino today, I was trying to think about how grandiose buildings more generally make me feel.

This one was built in the fifteenth century. From the outside: massive, silent walls. On the inside: high ceilings; great hall after great hall; floral embellishments; grand decorated fireplaces; latticed windows; unexplained symbols and coats of arms; sweeping staircases; geometric elegance.

The public face of the Duke's Palace

The public face of the Duke’s Palace

Sometimes, the architecture of power positions you as impotent; sometimes, as vulgar. This building does both. And yet, in being positioned in relation to the building, you are co-opted into its power structure. However aware you may be of the misery and bloodshed on which it was built, you can’t help feeling a grudging respect for its magnificence. It becomes hard to imagine that the building merely legitimates power. Surely, you think, it has a certain beauty, a certain significance, in excess of all that. But does it?

There seems to be little in the external public face of Urbino as a whole that hasn’t been determined from on high. The urban fabric is only coherent and normalising. I have had a marvellous four days here in any case, attending the RC-21 conference The Ideal City: Between Myth and Reality. I took part in a panel about public space – you can read about that, and download my paper, here. And, if you’re interested, I can report that, in terms of my paper, Urbino seems to display an exclusively ‘civic’ modality of publicness.

Piazza della Repubblica

Piazza della Repubblica, Urbino

29 August 2015, Urbino

Dialogues of Sustainable Urbanisation cover

A few months ago, I saw a call for contributors to a ‘book of blogs’. The idea was to create a “collection of short blog posts crowdsourced by, and from, our networks of social scientists working on sustainable urbanisation issues”. The editors – Jenna Condie (University of Western Sydney) and Anna Cooper (University of Salford) – were hoping for at least 50 contributions of up to 1,000 words, with no particular restrictions on content within the overall theme. It seemed like a good initiative, and I was curious. So I signed up, dutifully wrote my bit, and the whole thing has just been published.

In the event, more than 120 people from around the world agreed to take part, and the book has ended up containing around 70 short pieces. There is a varied mix of contributions – mostly I think from early-stage researchers, but also from established academics – grouped together into 11 sections: ‘Definitions of Sustainability’, ‘Urban Governance’, ‘Engaged Citizens’, ‘Urban Divides’, ‘Movement and Mobilities’, ‘China’, ‘Making Places’, ‘Environment’, ‘Low Carbon Futures’, ‘Alternative Economies’, ‘Digital Futures’.  The whole process took seven months from the original call up to publication.

Co-editor Jenna Condie reflects on the experience in the final section of the book: “The ‘traditional’ communication platforms of email and the mail lists of international organisations have realised this book into being. Without those networks, the range of posts would have been narrower and the contributions less varied. Whilst mail lists are great for sharing information, they function less well as dialogical spaces. We need more social online spaces to get to know one another given that we are located across the world, living great distances apart with many interests in common. The web presents a wealth of opportunities for networked researchers to create environments for dialogue, discussion, and research. Still, researchers need to want to get involved in those online discussions by putting their identities ‘out there’, and in turn, reap benefits from doing so.”

Will it succeed in its aim of encouraging dialogue? Blogs seem to work well as half-way houses for writing, without the pressure of peer review: they are public enough to make you put effort into what you write, and the process of writing helps you clarify your thoughts.  I admit that I get lots of ideas from other people’s blogs, but I’m concerned that I pilfer these rather than enter into dialogue with their authors. And, of course, there’s no guarantee that anybody will read or take seriously what’s written in a blog; perhaps they are more useful for the writer than anybody else. Anyway, it will be interesting to see what happens with this.

There’s a link to the pdf here, or you can read it as an e-book from a link here.  A print version should be available soon as well.

8 August 2015, Cornwall

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).


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


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.


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.”

Gecekondular in Izmir

Gecekondular in Izmir (photo by Veyis Polat)

I’ve just read an article about the idea of ‘nomotropism’, by two Italian researchers (Chiodelli & Moroni, 2014). I sense that all my readers are clamouring to learn what this alluring term might mean, and how it might be useful to them in their various endeavours. Please allow me, then, to explain.

Let’s imagine, first, that you are at a railway station in a foreign country, and urgently need to travel elsewhere, but have no money for a train ticket. A brief investigation suggests that tickets are checked by inspectors on every journey, and that passengers found not to have a valid ticket are sentenced to death. You therefore decide not to travel by train.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, you find yourself in the same situation. In this universe, however, it appears that the penalty for being caught ticketless is a mere £20 fine. You also learn that inspectors appear on the train only occasionally. You therefore decide to travel without buying a ticket.

In a third universe, finally, there is a version of you quite unaware that tickets need to be purchased for train travel.  You get on the train, in ignorance of the idea that you are breaking any rules. It is only after a ticket inspector approaches you during the journey that your transgression becomes apparent.

So, in scenario one, you are behaving ‘legally’; in scenarios two and three, ‘illegally’. Looked at from the perspective of nomotropism, however, the three scenarios would be categorised slightly differently, as will be explained below.

nomotropism 2

Universe 2 is the interesting one here.  Of course, you are violating an institutional rule; your action is illegal.  And yet, in a strange way, the violation has been caused by the rules. You have considered the implications of these rules, and based your action on this consideration, even though you do not (and cannot) comply with the rules. If the rules were different, as they are in Universe 1, your decision might be different. In both cases, albeit with different outcomes, the rules have had a causal effect on your behaviour (your behaviour is ‘nomotropic’). In Universe 3, the rules are broken, but without you being aware of them (your behaviour is ‘a-nomic’; it is not caused by rules).

The authors of the article borrow the idea of nomotropism from Conte (2011), defining it as action which takes place in the light of rules. This is not necessarily the same as action which conforms to rules. In fact, as the table above suggests, actions which conform to rules are a subset of nomotropic actions. Nomotropism, then, is a broad category of action which is somehow caused by rules, but which may involve those rules being violated.

The authors propose that the idea of the ‘nomotropic violation’ (as per Universe 2) is a useful way of understanding the relations, in poorer cities, between unauthorised low-income settlements and institutional regulations. In fact, it seems like an interesting way of looking at a much wider range of processes in cities more generally, but I’m sticking with their discussion for now.

Here are a couple of their examples of nomotropic housebuilding:

  • in Turkey, the official processes for demolishing illicit buildings are more complicated when buildings are already complete, rather than still being constructed. People therefore aim to complete unauthorised buildings in as short a time as possible. Although, then, building slowly and building quickly both constitute violations of the law, people choose the latter after having considered the set of rules as a whole. Thus, this particular ‘illegal’ outcome is caused by the land-use rules which apply to this type of action.
  • Often, people buy land and the right to occupy it legally, but then construct houses on it which consciously violate building regulations. This is more expensive than simply building on publicly owned land, to which they have no right of tenure. Either course of action would represent a violation of the official code of rules. However, eviction/demolition is much less likely if the builder owns the land. Thus, a particular set of rules leads to one type of violation being more common than another: the rules cause this violation to occur.

One key reason why such nomotropic violations occur is that “urban policies and land-use regulations in the Global South are generally inadequate for dealing with the question of low-income unauthorised settlements” (164), since they are typically “inherited – or imported – from other countries, where the institutional, socio-economic, and even environmental and climatic conditions are quite different” (165). Many urban residents are simply unable to comply with the regulations: building becomes too expensive, or too bureaucratically complex.

Nomotropic violations may be detrimental to the wellbeing of a society as a whole.  In many cases, however, they may be welcome: if official processes are unable to deliver housing (or infrastructure) for all, then informal building – which often ends up being legalised through amnesties or gradual upgrading over time – may constitute an outcome very much in line with broader policy goals of accommodating urban populations. The letter of the law may have been broken, but a wider social order has been upheld.

I think we could add the category of ‘a-nomic compliance’, to describe behaviour which takes place without reference to the law, but is not in conflict with the law, to complete a spectrum of behaviours as follows:


The challenge, then, for poorer cities, would be to extend the legal framework so as not only to reward conscious compliance, but also to encourage nomotropic violations which are nevertheless in line with broader state intentions. This, the authors propose, might involve the following principles (166):

  • that the place of each public rule should be considered within a more general legal system and social environment (so that there is a ‘good fit’ between individual rules and their larger context)
  • that emphasis should be placed on the ‘meta-aim’ of the legal system, which is to favour the “peaceful co-existence of a plurality of individuals with totally different, and continuously changing, preferences and desires”
  • that rules which offer a “general ‘orientation’ for behaviour are more relevant than rules introduced to achieve specific end-states”
  • that rules should be stable over time
  • that rules should tend to be ‘negative’ (ie those which “prohibit individuals from interfering with the protected domain of other individuals”)
  • that ‘positive’ rules (ie mandating particular actions or impose duties) should be kept to a minimum, and thus not impede experimentation and initiative.

In effect, then, they outline a legal framework which aims to facilitate ‘DIY’ action. By making the rule framework ‘open’ but stable, they suggest that it (and the institutions which it represents) will be less vulnerable to disloyalty and disrespect. This solution would respond pragmatically to the observable failure of (modernist) land-use planning systems to meet the needs of poorer cities.

However, at this point, I start to have a few questions.

I accept that such a framework would not amount to the state abnegating its duties, precisely because the state in such cases has proven unable to fulfil those duties. But I am puzzled by the normative status of the state within all this. If we equate traditional representative governmental actors with ineffectiveness, corruption, and all the rest of it, then why should we allow those same actors to retain a steering role in the process? Is there not an asymmetry here – a tension between, on the one hand, the rejection of the effectiveness of traditional government institutions, and, on the other, the assumption that their intentions are fundamentally noble?

Relatedly, I’m not sure how the framework might account for action which deliberately poses a challenge to the established order, in a political sense. Those actions, in other words, defined not in terms of whether and how they react to a regulatory system, but rather by their active questioning of that system. The authors assume that it is a good thing that urban residents should be loyal to, and respect the state. Does this perhaps imply a ‘depoliticised’ view of the city?

And I am equally uncomfortable that the reliance on individual citizens and civil society actors here too readily valorises the power of emergent creativity, or the ‘intelligence of the swarm’ (you can add your own buzzwords). Should we be so quick to assume that this self-organising intelligence is only ever a positive force in society?  We may have taken on board the lesson, from the twentieth century, that the modern state also has a dark side. But perhaps we have forgotten the still older lesson: that the ‘swarm’ sometimes has an even darker one.

20 December 2014, London



Chiodelli, F. & Moroni, S. (2014). The complex nexus between informality and the law: Reconsidering unauthorised settlements in light of the concept of nomotropism. Geoforum. 51: 161-168.

Conte, A.G. (2011). Nomotropismo. Sociologia dil diritto. 27 (1): 1-27.

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