Mars landscape

I’m just getting the paperwork signed off on a new research project: Lessons from the Eco-City: A Manifesto for Governing Life on Mars. It’s being funded by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Settlement Challenge (set up by the Dubai Future Foundation), and will run until the end of the year.

The governance of future colonies on other planets is a topic which has long fascinated science fiction writers and film-makers.  But I intend instead to begin by drawing lessons from innovative governance experiments on earth. The work will involve an extended piece of desk research, followed by a workshop in December, leading to the publication of a preliminary ‘manifesto’ summarising key principles for the practical governance of space settlements.

More details to come once the project gets off the ground.

London, 12 June 2018


Image: NASA Mars Space Exploration Gallery



I’ve been in Switzerland for a couple of days – at a symposium organised by the Collegium Helveticum ‘Laboratorium für Transdisziplina­rität’ at ETH Zurich.  I rather liked a short discussion after a presentation by Juval Portugali, who was talking about cities through the lens of complexity and self-organisation theories.  It went something like this:

Audience member:  If we conceptualise cities in the ways you have outlined, does it mean we can still talk sensibly about planning for the future?

Juval: in fact, it highlights the fact that cities are hives of endless ongoing planning.  All of us make plans all the time.  Studies show that we are almost never in the ‘here and now’ – our minds are either reflecting on the past or speculating about the future.  To plan is to be human.


I like the way this sets up an interesting hall of mirrors.  By extension, from the perspective of the complexity theorist, all attempts at governing might potentially be seen as emergent phenomena like any others.  We can possibly trace the process of the emergence of plans, policies and institutions, but we can never fully predict them, or what their effects will be.  And formal ‘planning’ itself is just a tiny part of the way that a city’s inhabitants attempt to shape the future to their own end – in fact the very notion of ‘urban planning’ would appear as little more than a relatively recent, parochial idea.  However, for the planner (professional or everyday), complexity can only ever be a problem – something that necessarily has to be ignored – and might be seen as essentially a rather unhelpful ‘story’ through which some feel the need to explain the world at the moment.

Zurich, 4 May 2018

Palgrave Communications

I had a short piece published yesterday in the ‘Politics of an Urban Age’ collection in Palgrave Communications.  It’s a commentary on certain tendencies within urban governance, which point away from strong ambitions to solve ‘big’ social and environmental challenges.  You can read it here on open access.

In fact, it’s part of a trio of comment papers – the other two by Federico Caprotti (on bringing human needs back to the centre of planning), and Simon Joss (on the need to reinvigorate public institutions and public debate).  All three can be found together on the collection webpage.

Future Cities: Renarrating Human Agency


The media coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the city of Houston in August 2017 reveals an ‘Anthropocenic’ sensibility, which tends to deny our ability to solve pressing environmental and social problems through strong and direct human action. This sensibility is reflected at city level in new forms of governance, exemplified here with reference to resilience, smart urbanism, and design-thinking. These have in common a cautious, inductive logic of change; their limited imaginations of space and time imply a dispersed sense of human agency. But if these new rationalities are unlikely to yield convincing solutions to problems such as Hurricane Harvey, perhaps there is a need to rethink the dominant framing of the Anthropocene, which underpins them.

Cowley, R. (2018). Future Cities: Renarrating Human AgencyPalgrave Communications, 4, article 41. DOI: 10.1057/s41599-018-0103-y

Tolerating corruption

‘Corruption’ is notoriously difficult to define, and approaches to its definition differ significantly from one field of enquiry to another. Law-makers, economists, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and others all differ both in their reasons for thinking about it, and in the frameworks through which they analyse it.

After reading Bo Rothstein and Aiysha Varraich’s (2017) book Making Sense of Corruption, I now realise that my own vague thinking about corruption is most obviously aligned with an anthropological approach. I’ve always rather suspected that the whole concept/accusation of corruption is based on Western liberal assumptions, and wondered if it might be more productively understood by thinking in more context-specific ways. Instead of developing corruption indices which end up producing data showing that non-Western countries are ‘more corrupt’ than Western ones, perhaps instead we should begin by interpreting things like paternalism, bribery, private influence over regulation, etc, as variously embedded in, or departing from, existing local systems of reciprocity.  (I rambled on in a previous post about this.) However, this relativistic approach to corruption is challenged by a couple of interesting arguments in Rothstein & Varraich’s book:

(1) anthropologists (who have tended to take a relativistic position) may often deliberately avoid making strong normative claims about the deleterious effects of related practices because they are constrained by their own codes of research ethics. They take care to make sure that the subjects of their research should not be endangered by published findings and conclusions.

(2) levels of public concern over particular ‘corrupt’ practices are pretty similar around the world.  This is the case even where people have little practical choice but to behave in corrupt ways.  In other words, it’s too simple to see corruption as essentially a Western liberal preoccupation.

But I’m even more interested in their observation that people around the world are generally tolerant of corrupt practices, so long as the outcomes of these are seen to be beneficial to societies or individual citizens.  When political scientists study corruption – and not many have done so until recently – they tend to focus on questions around the workings of democratic institutions, and the qualities of democratic rights (ie what is known as ‘input legitimacy’). Most normal people, conversely, do care about corruption, but only really to the extent that it seems to impinge on their own, or their society’s, well-being (‘output legitimacy’).  We are happy enough, for example, to have use of a new railway station or bridge, even though the process through which it was implemented contradicted every ideal of ‘good governance’ in the book.  Nobody asks too many questions about input legitimacy when GDP is rapidly rising, and schools and hospitals are being built.  The Mayor might be a bit dodgy, but we like him because he gets the job done.

The tendency for output legitimacy to trump input legitimacy reflects one explanation that Kroeber (2016) gives for why the Chinese government remained firmly in charge in the 1990s, even though other ‘communist’ governments had fallen one after another. Gorbachev’s starting point was to improve the transparency of Russia’s governing institutions – but this only weakened his hand when the economy continued to collapse. China, on the other hand, focused on economic outcomes rather than democratic reform.

Recognising this also paves the way for a more generous and nuanced understanding of situations where corruption appears to be present at all levels of society. The implication should not be that corruption meets with normative approval within that society, but rather that the corruption of abstract democratic ideals is tolerated when the system nevertheless produces what is seen on balance to be a degree of societal advancement.

London, 1 April 2018.


Rothstein, B. & Varraich, A. (2017). Making Sense of Corruption. Cambridge: CUP.

Kroeber, A.R. (2016). Understanding China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: OUP.


Call for Papers: RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, Cardiff University, 28-31 August 2018

Elusive landscapes of ‘design’ in the city 

Session convenors: Gabriele Schliwa (University of Manchester) and Robert Cowley (King’s College London)

Although design was historically associated with the form of industrial and commercial products (and with the professional field of ‘urban design’), processes of ‘design thinking’ and the conceptual language of design have become commonplace in many spheres of practice and governance. In line with Richard Buchanan’s early understanding of design thinking as a ‘new liberal art of technological culture’ (Buchanan 1992), varied design processes are now advocated and applied across fields as diverse as public service delivery, democratic institutional decision-making, corporate management, international disaster relief, and even military operations research.  This long-term trend has significant implications for urban space, not only in relation to governance approaches and new types of citizen engagement, but also in, for example, the development of infrastructural innovations, experimental and grassroots initiatives, the implementation of sustainability agendas, and the spread of digital/’smart’ urbanism.

This panel aims to critically and constructively engage with emerging modes of governing and reshaping urban space and social relations through the lens of design.

The scattered and elusive landscapes of design in the city we seek to explore include:

  • Design processes that follow ‘the concept of co-‘ (Bason 2014) such as co-design, co-creation, co-production or collaboration and are often concerned with ‘citizen engagement around urban issues’ (Balestrini et al 2017)
  • Design concepts previously used in the digital design sector and/or in the context of business innovation (e.g. service design, experience design, interaction design, interface design, human-centred design)
  • Ways of thinking including design thinking and resilience thinking (Cowley 2017) or creative thinking
  • Shifting identities, often from private towards public subjectivities, e.g. consumer to citizen, user to participant or claims about ‘citizen-centric’ goals (Cardullo and Kitchin 2017)
  • Workshops, events or projects  such as e.g. innovation labs, living laboratories (Evans and Karvonen 2014), civic hackathons or jams in support of smart or sustainable city agendas
  • Cybernetic urbanism and aspects of environmental control (Gabrys 2014, Halpern 2015, Krivý 2016, Luque-Ayala and Marvin 2017)

Considering this variety of logics and activities, we would like to invite position papers or short provocations based on related empirical work, personal experience or theoretical considerations. These will be followed by a wider discussion. Contributions could address (but are not limited to) the following themes:

  • Rationalities – What does design as a mode of governing promise and what does it deliver in practice?
  • Contexts – In which contexts is ‘design’ as a mode of governing being mobilised today?
  • Levels of facilitation – Who is hosting, facilitating and participating in ’design thinking’ or ’designerly’ initiatives?
  • Governing spaces – What are its spatial dimensions and spaces of inclusion and exclusion?
  • Power – What are the mechanisms of empowerment and disempowerment?
  • Historical perspectives – What are the origins of ‘governing through design’ approaches and current drivers behind this trend?
  • What theorisations and conceptualisations do we need to better understand the power relations and implications of design or designing in cities?
  • How can we maintain a critical, reflective, and constructive practice when designing with people becomes part, or even the focus of our academic work (particularly under funding schemes aimed at impact and innovation)?
  • What are its opportunities, limitations or dangers when attempting to steer society into more desirable directions?

Please submit your proposed title and abstract (200 words) to and by Friday 9th February 2018.


Let’s assume that successful governing usually involves a bit of a ‘pact with the devil’ – in the sense that the money enabling honourable public investments often seems to come from rather disreputable sources.

One way for governments to deal with this problem is to turn a blind eye to what happens outside their own jurisdiction. This approach is common in a world of global supply chains. As Anna Tsing (2015) points out, the Japanese were the original masters of the contemporary approach: departing from Fordist attempts to standardise all stages of a production process, they made themselves accountable for what happened only after goods entered their own formal accounting processes. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, all sorts of illegal logging went on in Indonesia to supply the Japanese timber market, yet “no Japanese cut down Indonesian trees” (113) and the internal Japanese timber market was highly regulated and standardised.

Perhaps this just points to the ever-present interplay between informal and formal economic activity. It’s not just the case that variegated informality ‘precedes’ formalisation, but also that it is shaped and called forth by the formal economy. We are more than ever aware of the dark secrets of global supply chains: we criticise our governments, and the corporations which they encourage, if they don’t take responsibility for what happens beyond the formal reach of the state.  But I’m interested in another model for dealing with the devil, which, it seems to me, can actually make governing institutions look rather admirable in the public eye.  I’m thinking of this model as having two key characteristics:

  1. the dubious source of public money is singular and well defined: it may be morally dubious, but only one type of sin has been committed. The sin is contained.
  2. the place where the sinful money is produced is at a certain spatial remove from the seat of government, and from the places where the money is spent for the general good. It is acknowledged and visible, and may be a source of pride, yet it is only lightly regulated – not too many questions are asked. The spatial separation disentangles it from the good work of the governors.

Norway comes to mind with regard to the first characteristic above. It is no secret that the country’s wealth is based on oil extraction, and yet we seem only to admire the government for spending the money wisely rather than succumbing to the ‘resource curse’. Thus, the singular sin is easily cancelled out in our minds by the ‘good governance’ that it enables.

The second characteristic is nicely exemplified by the relationship between the UK Parliament and the City of London/Canary Wharf in the 1990s. Encouraging the City to make as much money as possible was not obviously aligned with traditional Labour Party principles, and yet this provided a large tax income to spend virtuously on public services. The sins were not hidden away, and yet they were committed ‘over there’, down the river. Westminster appeared all the more honourable because of this spatialised binary distinction.

I was thinking about this during a day trip to Macau. Walking around the historic centre of the city – a UNESCO world heritage site, overlooked by the ruins of St Paul’s church – you might admire the conservation work that has taken place.  It is rather overrun with tourists, and yet it would be ungenerous not to see it as rather well looked after. In itself, clearly a ‘well governed’ spot.


Macau’s historic colonial centre 


St. Paul’s Church

But, of course, Macau’s income comes almost entirely from its gambling industry (which is something like five times that of Las Vegas).  Its most iconic casinos are concentrated on the Cotai strip, on land largely reclaimed from the sea, and reached by crossing a bridge. (The front of the Venetian casino complex – including a huge hotel and shopping centre, complete with canals, gondolas and a somehow European-looking sky painted on its ceiling – is shown below.)


Macau symbolised my model (of a concentrated sin, committed visibly yet at a certain spatial remove), but there is of course more to the city than its heritage and casino zones. Most of the urban fabric is rather more prosaic, with dense unattractive buildings. It sounds almost trite to observe that the historic centre is just as artificial as the casino landscape on which it depends. Rather pleasingly, little remains of St. Paul’s church other than its façade.


St. Paul’s in context


The ‘real’ Macau (?), just outside the historic centre

It’s easy, furthermore, to find critical commentaries online about Macau’s history of poor planning decisions and ongoing social problems. Plenty of people are questioning, for example, the wisdom of its large new hydrofoil port, just as a huge road bridge is being built to connect the peninsula with Hong Kong. And yet I like the way that Macau indicates the way that defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ governance depends fundamentally on the construction of spatial or institutional boundaries between the two. By extension, perceptions of good governance depend on the visibility of bad governance. Bringing bad governance closer to home, and making its workings clearly graspable, while also limiting the appearance of contamination, seems like a more profitable strategy than hoping that bad governance will remain out of sight.

Macau, 6 December 2017



Tsing, A. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press


Retrofitting Cities for Tomorrow's World

The newly published book Retrofitting Cities for Tomorrow’s World includes a chapter by Simon Joss and me, exploring the role of national policies in shaping local urban sustainability. We compare the aims, processes, and outcomes of four national initiatives launched since the millennium (India’s Ecocity programme, France’s EcoQuartiers and Japan’s Eco-Model City schemes, and the UK’s Future Cities Demonstrator competition).

Why look at these?  Well, one of our points is that the role of national policies is often underdiscussed in studies of local urban sustainability initiatives. Of course, there are exceptions – but these tend to focus on large-scale, top-down ‘exemplar’ projects which are explicitly driven by central government – for example, Federico Cugurullo’s (2016) analysis of Masdar City in the UAE, or Catherine Chang’s (2013; 2017) work on Chinese eco-cities.  Elsewhere, though, more celebratory accounts of local initiatives may draw too unquestioningly on contemporary discourses around the ability of cities and city regions to take charge of various progressive agendas.  And even scathing commentaries may unwittingly reproduce this discursive framing, by setting up unrealistic expectations of local actors.

I think that keeping the national picture in mind may provide some useful critical perspective. National policies and frameworks do remain rather important – not just as blocks to innovation but also as enabling factors in what emerges at local level. Dismissing this part of the analytical jigsaw may mean that we’re not vindicating the ‘rise of the city’ in the face of the ‘dysfunctional nation’ (Barber, 2014), so much as failing to hold national policy-makers to account.


Joss, S. & Cowley, R. (2017). National policies for local urban sustainability: a new governance approach? In Eames, M., Dixon, T., Hunt, M., and Lannon, S. (eds.) Retrofitting Cities for Tomorrow’s World. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp.227-246.  ISBN: 978-1119007210.



Barber, B.B. (2014). If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Chang, I.-C.C. (2017). Failure matters: Reassembling eco-urbanism in a globalizing China. Environment and Planning A, 49(8): 1719–1742.

Chang, I.-C.C. & Sheppard, E. (2013). China’s Eco-Cities as Variegated Urban Sustainability: Dongtan Eco-City and Chongming Eco-Island. Journal of Urban Technology, 20(1): 57–75.

Cugurullo, F. (2016). Urban eco-modernisation and the policy context of new eco-city projects: Where Masdar City fails and why. Urban Studies, 53(11): 2417–2433.


London, 26 November 2017

Large tower blocks. They have a commanding public presence, but sometimes don’t look too appealing.  And yet, when the money available for their upkeep is limited, it may seem problematic to prioritise aesthetic improvements. (Plenty of people have suggested that London’s ill-fated Grenfell Tower had been renovated primarily with the gaze of its more wealthy neighbours in mind.)

Well, I had a free day in Gdańsk, so I visited the Zaspa housing estate, on the city’s outskirts.  By all accounts, this was a fairly grim-looking place in the old days. But the blocks were all renovated in the early 2000s: this involved installing thermal insulation and painting the buildings in pastel colours. I think the outcome still looks a little austere, but it’s much better than grey concrete.

lBut what to do with those big blank walls at the end of buildings? Large murals have slowly covered these – signed and dated by their artists, rather than as graffiti. In fact, I went there because a leaflet in my hotel included Zaspa’s murals in a list of ‘The Best of Gdańsk’ – alongside the usual medieval buildings, churches and museums.  I didn’t have a guide, so I may have missed the most interesting examples, but these photos should give you a sense of the place:


Perhaps these murals cost the local housing authorities nothing at all (I don’t know – perhaps artists would be happy to pay for their own materials if their work can be displayed on huge canvasses like this). In any case, I’m struggling to think of who loses out from this initiative.  And it was interesting to compare Zaspa with other blocks of flats not too far away, whose ends face the main road, and instead display large advertisements for new property and holidays. A rather different way of adding interest to a wall, with a rather different affective outcome.




Gdańsk, 23 August 2017

I’ve been in Taipei, visiting Crison Chien, a colleague on our ‘smart-eco cities’ project.  I was tickled by a brief conversation we had while we were walking around Ximending.

Crison pointed out the building below, when it appeared from afar: “That’s the Presidential Office”

Back of Presidential Office Building, Taipei

The back of the Presidential Office Building, Taipei

“Ah, it looks very European”

“Yes,” replied Crison, “because it was built by the Japanese”


“They built it as part of their modernisation programme”

I meant to go back and have a look at the building as a whole – you can apparently visit the inside. I didn’t have time in the end – but the main (baroque) façade looks like this:

Taipei Taiwan Presidential Office Building

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas (via Wikipedia)

Anyway, plenty has been written about the way that different types of idea (in the form of policies, ‘best practices’, and other practical know-how) are ‘transferred’ between countries and across continents in the contemporary world.  These transfers often take place very fast – but the interesting question is whether, or to what extent, an idea from one place can straightforwardly be implemented in another quite different context.  In the case of the built environment, for example, we might observe that cityscapes around the world are becoming increasingly homogenised. Alternatively, however, we might dismiss that conclusion as rather superficial: actually, any idea (including those related to architecture and engineering) necessarily undergoes a process of ‘translation’ before it takes shape on the ground.

So, I don’t have anything revelatory to bring to your attention here. But it’s always interesting to see examples of how these transfers happened differently (and more slowly) in previous eras, when the new was today’s old, and globalisation was shaped by imperial rather than market dynamics.

Taipei, 3 August 2017

Journal of resilience

A new publication to announce.  But first, some background…

A while ago, I started noticing that the word ‘design’ and the concept of ‘design thinking’ seemed to be everywhere. I wondered if it was just me – but I was particularly struck that I so often seemed to hear the word ‘design’ used in contexts where I expect to hear about ‘plans’ and ‘planning’. I slowly got the sense that we seem collectively unwilling to assert our ability to shape the future – but, at the same time, I wasn’t sure quite why we are so keen to be ‘designing’ things instead. Why now? I realised in any case that I didn’t really understand what ‘design’ meant.

Problematically, there seemed to be no widely accepted overall theory of design to turn to. Or, rather, there were lots of individual perspectives on the subject, often related to particular areas of design practice. And most of these seemed to claim that theorising design as a whole is not possible.

Following on from that, I and some colleagues organised an exploratory conference on the topic of ‘Design after Planning’ last year  It went rather well overall (and you can watch some of the videos here), but it threw up more questions than it answered.  So, I started slowly reading up on design theory, and have now pulled together some of my thoughts in the introduction of a ‘forum’ on Resilience and Design, published today in the journal Resilience.

The introduction is followed by four short essays, by Clive Barnett, Tania Katzschner, Nate Tkacz, and Filip De Boeck, each touching on design-related issues in different ways. The abstract and table of contents are shown below.

The forum as a whole is rather like a collection of papers in a conference panel: loosely connected rather than prepared in close collaboration.  But we hope this approach will be generative of new thinking and connections, rather than seem incoherent. An experiment, at least.

If you’d like to read the publication, but can’t access it, please get in touch so that I can send you a copy.  50 free eprints (first come, first served) are also available from this link:


Cowley, R., Barnett, C., Katzschner, T., Tkacz, N. & De Boeck, F. (2017). Forum: Resilience & Design.  Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses. Advance online version, DOI: 10.1080/21693293.2017.1348506



This forum aims to encourage theorists of resilience to engage more closely with different aspects of design theory and practice. The introduction outlines a series of largely unacknowledged parallels between resilience and design, relating to the valorisation of processes over states, the loss of faith in ‘planning’, the ambivalent status of boundaries and interfaces, and open-ended political possibilities. Four short reflections then follow on various design-related topics: the significance of the ‘wicked problem’ in contemporary urban planning and design, and the urbanisation of responsibility; design’s potential to repoliticise and engender new forms of responsibility; the significance of the digital interface; and the condition of everyday life in the ‘unplanned’ post-colonial city. Readers are invited to build on or refute the explicit and implicit links made between resilience and design in the various forum contributions.




Resilience and design: an introduction

Robert Cowley (Department of Geography, King’s College London)


Planning as design in the Wicked City

Clive Barnett (Department of Geography, University of Exeter)


Design, responsibility and ‘Staying with the Trouble’: rethinking urban conservation in Cape Town

Tania Katzschner (School of Architecture, Planning & Geomatics, University of Cape Town)


In a world of data signals, resilience is subsumed into a design paradigm

Nathaniel Tkacz (Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick)


‘The Hole of the World’: designing possibility through topography in Congo’s urban settings

Filip de Boeck (Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa, KU Leuven)


London, 14 July 2017

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