Category Archives: Writing

Smart cities: Policy without polity

Another publication is getting close to popping out of the pipeline!

23rd November 2021 sees the formal release of the Routledge Handbook of Social Futures, in which yours truly has a chapter entitled “Smart cities: Policy without polity”. Regular readers here will likely be able to guess—and guess correctly!—that this piece does not at all celebrate the “smart city” concept, nor even attempt to (re)define it; rather, to cite my own introductory paragraph:

“I am not interested in defining the ‘smart city’ so much as in investigating its persistent resistance to definition and exploring alternatives to its problematic framing of technologically mediated urban futurity.”

My opening move is to claim that the “smart city” is a generic narrative form in the technological-utopian tradition. After that… well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, now would I?

In case the prospect of me railing against one of my love-to-hate suitcase words is not enticement enough, you should know that there’s twenty-nine chapters of social-futures fun in this volume, featuring such friends, acquaintances, colleagues and inspirations as Andrew Curry, Ann Light, Nicola Spurling, Genevieve Liveley, AbdouMaliq Simone, Lisa Garforth and Nick Dunn, among many others; the whole thing has been edited with admirable wisdom and patience under pandemic circumstances by Carlos López Galviz and Emily Spiers, whose work at the Lancaster Institute for Social Futures is a leading light in the field, if you ask me.

Now, as the title of this post makes clear, this is a Routledge title—and those acquainted even only in passing with academic publishing will know this implies that acquiring a copy will leave a serious dent in your bank account. As such, it’s probably the sort of thing that you’d be best to encourage your institutional library to acquire, assuming you are fortunate enough to have access to such a thing (and that it has the budget to do so); whoever might decide to buy it, the blow may be slightly softened by using the discount code FLY21 (as found on the flyer acting as an illustrative image for this post), which will result in a 20% reduction in the price.

Those for whom neither of these options are viable, but who would nonetheless like to see a copy of my chapter, should feel free to drop me a line; we’ll see what other options for dissemination are available.

het från pressen

Taking what feels like a well-earned and much-needed day off today, after yesterday’s launch of the above narrative prototype / experimental futures vehicle (via the second medium of a slightly kludgy pseudo-Brechtean performance of an online talk-show from 2041). If anyone had been wondering why things have been quiet here lately, getting this thing finished to deadline is one of the larger reasons!

Will likely write about it at greater length in the weeks ahead; for now, I’ll settle for a simple statement of the necessity – and joy – of having a great team to work with on the realisation of somewhat crazy ideas. Few things worth doing can be done well alone.

the most animal of all human abilities

It is perfectly possible, then, that far from being an exclusively human attribute, the narrative faculty is the most animal of human abilities, a product of one of the traits that humans indisputably share with animals and many other beings—attachments to place. Perhaps, then, storytelling, far from setting humans apart from animals, is actually the most important residue of our formerly wild selves. This would explain why stories, above all, are quintessentially the domain of human imaginative life in which nonhumans had voices, and where nonhuman agency was fully recognized and even celebrated. To make this leap may be difficult in other, more prosaic domains of thought, but it was by no means a stretch in the world of storytelling, where anything is possible.

The shrinking of the possibilities of this domain, and the consequent erasure of nonhuman voices from “serious” literature, has played no small part in creating that blindness to other beings that is so marked a feature of official modernity. It follows, then, that if those nonhuman voices are to be restored to their proper place, then it must be, in the first instance, through the medium of stories.

the reader can always handle the full complexity of the idea

Sara Hendren, ladies and gentlemen:

The opposite of jargon is not “plain language.” It is sparkling lucidity. Too many academics translate from theory to the everyday by employing a kind of verbal shrug — they say, Don’t be afraid of this fancy term here. It just means… [insert mealy-mouthed generalities]. The shrug is an attempt at intellectual democratization, I’m sure, but there’s no “just” about it. A thinker must actually go much more deeply toward the theoretical, turn its ideas like a jewel in her palm, slowly, with great understanding, to then lay out its provocations for the non-specialist reader. The reader can always handle the full complexity of the idea, no matter how abstract. Academics flatter themselves that they can speak “plainly,” but plainness is not the project.

I’m not going to claim I (yet) live up to the lucidity that Hendren is advocating, here, but I definitely recognise not only that “verbal shrugging” / “plain speaking”, but the incredible tacit pressure to conform with it.

(This is not a phenomenon unique to the academy, to be clear: the TEDification of complex topics is more widespread than that, and it most likely invaded academia from outside, along with all the other neoliberal guff.)

The challenge is compounded by the necessity of slowness to lucidity, as Hendren recommends. I’m currently working on a chapter for an edited volume in which I’ll (finally) get to formally publish some of my infrastructural theory, and even a generous wordcount (8000 words!) disappears quickly when you’re trying to talk at the theoretical level. But, as I have been advised by others: no one will fund you to be a theorist until you’ve already demonstrated that you are one (and even then it’s an uphill fight)… and so your early efforts are perforce a matter of hustling any opportunity to publish you can find, and making the best use of it you can.

On which note, I should probably get on with the work…

Experts in their own tomorrows: Placemaking for participatory climate futures

I get published, y’know? Here’s one that didn’t get a mention when it first dropped, because… well, because January, to be honest.

Sadly I can’t just send you to read the thing directly, either—because the thing in question is a chapter in the new Routledge Handbook of Placemaking (edited by Cara Courage, with Tom Borrup, Maria Rosario Jackson, Kylie Legge, Anita Mckeown, Louise Platt, and Jason Schupbach) and Routledge Handbooks do not (to my knowledge) ever go open access. And I’m sure Routledge will take it on the chin if I use my academic freedom of expression to point out that their Handbooks are not cheap, either… though they do make up very nice promotional flyers, like this one below, and if you click through on this link (or the one above, or on the image of the flyer) and use the code SMA02 at checkout, you can get it at 20% off the list price.

It’s one chonky volume! Here’s the official marketing blurb:

This Handbook is the first to explore the field of placemaking in terms of the recent research, teaching and learning, and practice agenda for the next few years. Offering valuable theoretical and practical insights from the leading scholars and practitioners in the field, it provides cutting edge interdisciplinary research on the placemaking sector.

Placemaking has seen a paradigmatic shift in urban design, planning and policy to engage the community voice, This Handbook examines the development of placemaking, its emerging theories, and its future directions.

So perhaps your institution or organisation would be interested in making the investment? My guess is that, if you’re at all familiar with the term “placemaking” already, you might actually find this wide-ranging, critical and timely collection of essays to be of considerable utility and interest!* Perhaps you’re an academic in a discipline adjacent to planning, urbanism, or the more social/human ends of geography or sociology? Perhaps you work in local government, or in the consulting sector, around issues of redevelopment, social inclusion or neighbourhood identity? Or perhaps you’re involved in social practice arts, whether as a practitioner or a commissioner or a funder?

If you are any of those things, then the question of what placemaking is and has been, but also the question of what placemaking might yet be, is potentially relevant to you. Put it this way: I’m a scholar of climate futures and theorist of sociotechnical change, and what I learned about (and from) placemaking theory and practice truly revolutionised the way I think about my work—and indeed influenced the design of my current project.

(Admittedly the placemaking aspects of my current project are completely on hold due to prevailing pandemic suppression measures, but the point remains: if you’ve ever wondered what a collision between critical ethnography, action research, design futures interventions and contemporary arts practice might look like, then placemaking—and this book about it—can provide some answers.)

My chapter is titled “Experts in their own tomorrows: Placemaking for participatory climate futures”; given that abstracts don’t end up in this sort of handbook, I guess I can just share the one I wrote with you here, can’t I?

This chapter is concerned with the potential of placemaking for catalysing community adaptation to a climate-changed future, and with how researchers might support placemaking practitioners in that work.

The first section discusses the unfolding climate crisis as an urgent mandate for the reconfiguration of sociotechnical practices, and describes one way in which we might conceptualise and model those everyday activities in terms of their tangible and intangible elements.

The second section argues that placemaking might be seen as a methodology for extending that model into futurity, thus allowing for the extrapolative exploration of reconfigurations. This positions placemaking as a living laboratory for the participatory production of new practices, as well as for the reconstitution of the places in which those practices are situated.

The final section asks what might be offered to placemaking by researchers concerned with the sociotechnical transformations mandated by the climate crisis, whether in terms of theory or practice. What knowledges might we provide to make the consequences of a changing climate situated and legible for communities and placemaking practitioners? How might we better analyse and describe the relationships between the abstract of complex infrastructural systems and the concrete of local ways of life? And what arguments might we make to encourage placemaking, and integrate it into the greater project of adapting to the anthropocene?

But there’s much more than just my five-dollar-words malarkey in there; click on through for a look at the TOC and the structure. Seven sections! Forty-five chapters! The biggest names in social practice arts and scholarship! It’s a landmark publication, and I’m privileged and humbled to have been a part of it.

If you really can’t afford a copy—and hell knows I would sympathise with that—but you nonetheless think you’d like to read my chapter, and have a good professional and/or academic reason for doing so, well, drop me a line. Maybe we can work something out! But otherwise, please hassle your institutional or organisational library to order a copy; it ain’t cheap, but if you know the field, I dare say you’ll get the money’s worth. Plus it’s probably tax-deductible!

[ * — See, I could have been a copywriter. Maybe if I hadn’t gotten mixed up in this academic stuff? But I think copywriting is probably better off for my absence, on balance. As to whether the academy is better off for my presence, well, that hypothesis is still undergoing experimental evaluation… watch this space, wot? ]