Urban laboratories: a useful concept for social sciences?

simcity_3000_by_jordan90-d4x922xThe concept of urban laboratory is being increasingly used in policy-making and social research to understand processes of creation of knowledge in cities. The idea of city as a laboratory means that there is some kind of experimentation with city life in order to understand and to intervene in the reality. In these ‘laboratories’ there is analysis of how inhabitants use the city and interact amongst themselves and new solutions are tested in order to improve city life.

These days I have had the opportunity to discuss on the subject of urban laboratories with Bas van Heur and Gabriele Pasqui in a workshop organized by Marianna d’Ovidio (Università Milano-Bicocca) in the framework of the Expo 2015 in Milan. The departing point of the session was a symposium in IJURR on urban laboratories (vol. 38 num. 2) coordinated by Bas van Heur and Andrew Karvonen published last year.

In the symposium, we can find different examples of the use of the concept urban laboratory, not only from policy-makers, who label some initiatives as urban laboratories, but also from researchers themselves, who consider certain cases as urban laboratories of experimentation of new solutions. The special issue asks for the relevance of the concept for urban studies, analysing the main elements of a laboratory and to what extent we can consider the city as such. A key question in considering the city as a laboratory is the difference between a controlled environment and the unpredictability and complexity of the city, and the role of the experiments in the city in its transformation if the variables are not covered. Nevertheless, the use of the concept of laboratory, brings us the idea of certain people and instruments being used on a standardized way, the idea of measuring and the idea of controlled inducement of changes. Karvonen and van Heur’s approach to the issue finishes with the idea of three achievements of urban laboratories: situatedness, change-orientation and contingency.

After van Heur’s presentation, the discussion of these ideas brought the author and the two discussants (Gabriele Pasqui and me) to the fields of agency and context in this production of knowledge. Agency refers to the idea of who is the one who experiments and what are the objectives of this experimentation. For instance in Barcelona the idea of urban laboratory is focused to the experimentation of private companies to develop their products for smart cities: indicators for car parks, smart lighting and a large etc. This is completely different from an approach based on collective experimentation or involvement of citizens in new solutions. The second issue refers to context: if urban laboratories are bringing conclusions based on experiments that can be extrapolated to the ‘urban context’ in general, what role are local specificities playing? what about the specific social configurations of a locality affecting, let’s say the use of car, how pedestrians use the street or the different ways of using the public space? Besides some questions were raised on the transformative potential of urban laboratories and its progressive values which are not inherent to the issue. If urban laboratories are conceptualised as patterns for knowledge creation, we must ask ourselves on what is the purpose of this creation, what are the interest behind it and who is going to benefit from the results.

We can find examples of urban laboratories in lots of different cities. In Barcelona the former 22@ district has been transformed into a urban laboratory, whereas many universities have created interdisciplinar centres to experiment with the city, for instance in the University College of London. You can surf the website for more examples. You can also follow Bas van Heur through twitter @basvanheur.

Reference article:

Karvonen, A, van Heur, B (2014) Urban Laboratories: Experiments in Reworking Cities International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38(2): 379-392

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