Assembling Cities: STS concepts and methodologies in planning studies – conference report

“Joint decision-making in the quarter reduces the risk of planning failure”, Museum für Gestaltung, Zürich 23-1-2015

The field of science and technology studies (STS) is renowned for studying the ways in which science, technology, and society are intertwined, but how can it contribute to the study of urban planning and cities?

From January 20 to January 22 2015, I joined a group of around 50 researchers at the ETH in Zürich to discuss the potential of STS to engage urban planning and ‘the city’ more generally (click here for the program and abstracts). I wanted to reflect on this conference by elaborating on how I think STS can provide an understanding of cities, to what extent and how it can improve their design (e.g. by creating more inclusive urban environments), and whether it should take such a normative stance (e.g. by proposing to design cities differently). Needless to say, this post is based on my own recollections and preoccupations, and is not meant to be an exhaustive account of the Assembling Cities conference.

Assemblage urbanism

An important conceptualization of the city that featured prominently throughout the workshop was the figure the ‘assemblage’ or ‘urban assemblages’ – a concept used in ‘assemblage urbanism’ to analyze cities (e.g. Farías & Bender 2009; Blok 2013). Assemblage urbanism abstains from preconceived and fixed notions of the city, and prefers to understand the latter as “ensembles of heterogeneous actors, giving analytical priority to the active dynamics of arranging or fitting together socio-material elements” (Blok 2014, 8). Thus, assemblage urbanism advances notions of cities that may include both human and non-human elements. Using the notion of urban assemblages, the city is conceived “as a plurality of sites, the connections among which are changing and contingent.” (Ibid. p. 9) What is more, assemblage urbanism “refuses to imagine overarching and all-encompassing power structures – such as ‘global neoliberal capitalism’ – which would over-determine city life and politics.” (Ibid. p. 9-10) Instead, assemblage urbanism delivers exhaustive descriptions of the interests that are at play in a particular urban setting, and to what extent and how these heterogeneous interests are consolidated.

As Maslow’s dictum famously states, if all you have is a hammer, everything appears as a nail. Assemblage urbanism creates a varied repertoire of conceptualizations of the city by tuning into the processes that make the city into what it is and what it may become. As a result, one’s understanding of what the city is – and perhaps also what it could be – becomes amenable to change. In a similar vein, the participants of the Assembling Cities workshop were invited to explore the city of Zürich through a guided tour that involved reading passages from Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’. The copies of these passages that were handed out referred to ‘Zürich’ rather than the names of fictional places used by Calvino. Wandering through the city with these thought-provoking passages in hand, visiting office parks, building sites, and desolate open grounds, is a way to tune into the far from static nature of the city and the role of one’s own perspective on it. When the city is a relational object, as assemblage urbanism states, you can probably not understand it by staying put, physically, conceptually, and methodologically speaking.

Zürich as a canvas
Zürich 23-1-2015

As much as the figure of the assemblage provides a critical imaginary for doing things otherwise, certain meanings of the city can become hegemonic. The work of scholars working in the field loosely defined as ‘gender studies’ shows how binary categories are produced and what the effects of such categories are. Similarly, certain urban assemblages may enact very specific notions of ‘the city’. The city, as a site that can be researched, is produced by such enactments. Thus, assemblage urbanism is not only meant to make ‘the city’ amenable to political change, e.g. by enhanced democratization and participatory forms of governance, but also makes researchers of cities aware of the effects of their own conceptual, methodological, and normative stance: how does one’s own position as a researcher instantiate the city as an object of analysis?

Does STS fall short, normatively speaking?

The plenary talks and parallel sessions of the workshop gave ample opportunity to reflect on the figure of the assemblage and reflect on empirical domains in need of further study, as well as the concepts and methodologies needed to do so. A common tenet in several presentations was the observation that STS falls short in studying the city, conceptually, methodologically, and normatively speaking. STS may perform well in terms of describing networks of power and the socio-political repercussions of these networks, but it is perhaps not so good at boiling these findings down to political-normative interventions or recommendations for urban governance. The gist of these remarks has featured prominently in the accusation of STS being a ‘cryptonormative’ discipline (e.g. Radder 1998, Feenberg 2003).

A first way out of this (supposed) normative inertia can perhaps be found in following assemblage urbanism in describing the city as a heterogeneous, multiple, and distributed object. For example, Anders Blok (University of Copenhagen) described how the development of a climate-resilient city in Surat, India, has large-scale, world-conjuring ambitions. Surat, as a site for climate-resilient city planning and urban adaptation in the face of planetary ecological catastrophe, is said to lead to lessons learned and best practices, which can be transported to other cities at a whim, ignoring their local specificities. In other words, the urban riskscape invoked in the case of Surat leads to knowledge that can be transported to other cities, supposedly furnishing a climate-resilient future. As a result, Surat is argued to become ‘India’s Signapore’. This Intra-Asian referencing shows how technocratic approaches to risk involve seductive proposals for the construction of future cities on a global scale. This ignores the proposals for alternative designs by local civic groups, which stress the dangers of heavy industrialization, ecological destruction, and the loss of natural waterways concomitant with the currently prevailing approach. Assemblage urbanism renders this landscape of conflicting interests and political-normative aspects of urban planning explicit.

Zürich 23-1-2015
Zürich 23-1-2015

In a similar vein, the talk of Ignacio Farías (Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung) made use of the concept of the cosmogram – a flat and geometric figure that depicts a particular cosmology or way of arranging the world. Farías showed how urban governance conjures a particular world through master planning. These plans, described as cosmograms, re-imagine the urban environment in a particular manner and as such are explicit descriptions of what its authors believe world is composed of, rendering their ideas explicit.

The presentations of both Blok and Farías showed how the city is a multiple and relational object in which heterogeneous interests compete, but also showed ways to describe the politics of how the city is assembled through practices of urban planning vis à vis global environmental risks, and how particular ways of planning the city are legitimized. The appeal of technocratic approaches in such cases is that they offer tangible and measurable solutions in the form of technological interventions through flood risk governance and the building of climate-resilient cities. As Blok and Farías showed, master planning may result in particular forms of urban governance that become dominant and exclude alternative pathways in urban planning.

Francisco Klauser (Université de Neuchâtel) showed not only how urban planning is fraught with power, but also proposed ways to introduce the work of Foucault to study urban assemblages. Klauser talked about Smart Cities, which he framed as optimizations of urban life through software, and discussed how technologies related to Smart Cities enact specific urban spaces. For example, the potential attributed to Big Data, such as the monitoring and subsequent optimization of flows of material and people, can establish technocratic forms of governance through code. Actor Network Theory (ANT), and STS more generally, have been praised in terms of their capacity to describe associations between human and non-human elements, and how these associations establish society. The latter is not the explanting but the explanandum (‘society’ should not be taken as an explanatory term that can readily be deployed in sociological analyses, but needs to be explained itself). Klauser argued STS is a suitable instrument for describing Smart Cities as dynamic imbroglios of socio-technical arrangements, but primarily as a mapping instrument for the study of the making and inherent functioning of specific ‘smart’ assemblages. Klauser argued an understanding of how code produces the fabric of our societies and how power and space are intertwined needs to draw inspiration from the work of Foucault and the insights of STS. The apparatus of power at work in (smart) cities can be understood using Foucault’s notion of governmentality, which describes how power is related to that which is governed, how power constitutes norms and has normalizing effects, and how power produces spatial configurations. The ability of STS to map networks of power needs to be augmented by Foucault’s analysis of power, giving our understanding of networks of power more depth. Klauser further remarked that power does not only have a negative dimension, but is in fact productive of the spatial configurations encountered in urban assemblages.

Ola Söderström (Université de Neuchâtel) also took developments in the field of Smart Cities as a starting point, and made a plea for conceptual and methodological pluralism in the field of urban studies. ANT, Söderström argued, is primarily an empirical and pragmatic inquiry into how social actions are performed at a distance by means of standardized knowledge and technical mediations. Echoing some of Blok’s concerns that were mentioned earlier, Söderström referred to the idea of traveling knowledge in the case of Smart Cities. Software used for the improvement of cities, such as the algorithms used in Operations Center in Rio de Janeiro designed by IBM, leads to the development of models implemented throughout the world. This means models developed on the basis of one city may be used in an altogether different context. This is an example of what Latour has called ‘immutable mobiles’: highly transportable things that have stable inherent characteristics, despite traveling easily to other contexts. In this case, the models of Smart Cities that are implemented in a different context from where they originated are the immutable mobiles.

Rio Operations Center 2
The Rio Operations Center

When corporations develop models that no longer have a strong connection to a particular city but are nevertheless used to improve that city, this could lead to what Rob Kitchin has called the corporatization of urban government. The implementation of models in this fashion leads to the intertwining of concrete urban settings and modeled urban settings. Although this is seemingly a case of traveling knowledge that is captured by Latour’s notion of the immutable mobile, the latter is unable to describe convolutions of physical space and virtual models, Söderström argued. Models of cities are not just mobile and mutable. Instead, the functioning of such model cities still depends on additional work in the form of adaptation to the particularities of the context in which software is supposed to function.

Another aspect not thoroughly captured by ANT-based analyses of Smart Cities is the use of computer-generated images as atmospheres of seduction. Söderström argued the enhancement of urban imaginaries through the use of CGI (Computer-generated imagery) technologies create an embodied and affectual relationship with images, often in combination with modernist narratives that enhance their impact. Mere descriptions and mappings of power are ill equipped to deal with emotional content and affects, which need to be made explicit.

CGI Masdar city
CGI of Masdar City, a future smart city located in Abu Dhabi

A final aspect of Smart Cities not covered well in ANT frameworks, Söderström argued, is the use of discursive categories, which are powerful tools for governing cities at a distance. STS lacks a postcolonial sensitivity for what happens when discourses are put to use. Postcolonial studies demand reflective thinking about discursive categories.

In sum, STS emerges as a valuable discipline in terms of its ability to study the relational aspects of cities that figure as objects of analysis in urban studies. However, both Klauser and Söderström call for a move beyond STS by mobilizing other conceptual resources in order to grasp the variegated processes of urban governance, e.g. by including a more detailed understanding of power, as well as discursive, affective, and postcolonial aspects of urban assemblages.

Cosmopolitical arrangements

With the foregoing considerations in mind, the notion of ‘cosmopolitics’ emerged throughout the workshop as an alternative political configuration and intervention that is needed to enhance urban governance. A central motive underlying cosmopolitics is a process of what Isabelle Stengers has referred to as ‘collective experimentation’, which requires that social groups learn to understand their responsibility for and commitment to approaching the world based on what is relevant to each of them (Stengers 2009). In other words, cosmopolitics concerns negotiations between more and less incommensurable worldviews that come into play in various socio-political processes, such as science and (urban) governance. This by no means entails a peaceful process of reaching consensual agreements by exchanging knowledge, but a political landscape replete with power-related struggle. The negotiation between various worldviews should proceed continuously in the form of clashes in order to protect against premature closure of politics and the settling of particular worldviews. Cosmopolitics does not lead to political stalemate in the form of tolerance, but instead delights in persistent recalcitrance.

Zürich 23-1-2015
“Attention, our city is dying”, Zürich 23-1-2015

How can such cosmopolitical arrangements be put into practice? A quick visit to the wonderful Museum für Gestaltung during lunchtime on my final day in Zürich provided an unexpected source of inspiration in the form of an overview of the last century of Swiss design. The exhibition showed how Swiss design has incorporated a variety of sociopolitical topics. From the furniture designs of Le Corbusier, Max Bill, Hans Bellmann, and Willy Guhl to the design of high-density housing and entire suburban areas, all designers of whom work was displayed attempted to design their environment in varying levels of entirety. As much as these designs shaped their environment, the exhibition also detailed how the environment in which designers worked was of great importance. Take for example developments related to the idea of ‘Gute Form’ (good form), which implied that form follows function: furniture needs to be developed with its function and technical requirements in mind in such a manner that its form represents its purpose, whilst remaining attractive. In the 1960s, designers wanted to break from these strict requirements and responded by making dysfunctional designs, creating more attention for political involvement in following decades. Designers became more and more involved with collaborative planning and the questioning of urban planning. Echoing the concerns of Gilbert Simondon, technical artifacts, be they pieces of furniture, buildings, or suburban areas, “are not necessarily a priori or things-in-themselves but instead are emergent technological items enmeshed in a particular type of technological genesis.” (quote from Philosophy of Information and Communication blog)

With the idea that cities can be viewed as socio-technical ensembles and the aforementioned notion of types of ‘technological genesis’ in mind, one cosmopolitical arrangement is perhaps the interfacing of urban planners, architects, and STS scholars alike with society, or the intertwining of science, policy, and technical design. However, this is certainly not the first call for wider-spread, interdisciplinary collaboration as an instrument to enhance governance (Callon et al. 2009). Collaborative design and participatory governance should also be approached with caution, since they will ultimately also involve power relations, as many studies of participatory governance have made clear. Yet even if collaboration and participation do not automatically lead to alternative design, mapping networks of power can hopefully contribute to designing alternative types of technological genesis through re-readings of urban assemblages.


Blok, Anders. 2013. “Urban Green Assemblages: an ANT view on sustainable city building projects.” Science & Technology Studies 26 (1): 5-24.

Callon, Michel, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe. 2009. Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Farías, Ignacio, and Thomas Bender, eds. 2009. Urban Assemblages: How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies. London: Routledge.

Feenberg, Andrew. 2003. “Modernity Theory and Technology Studies: Reflections on Bridging the Gap.” In Modernity and Technology, edited by Thomas Misa, Philip Brey and Andrew Feenberg, 73-104. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Radder, Hans. 1998. “The Politics of STS.” Social Studies of Science 28 (2): 325-331.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2009. “William James: An Ethics of Thought?” Radical Philosophy (157): 9-19.