Urban STS: Assembling New Perspectives

Center for Science and Technology Studies (STS Center)

On September 18th and 19th the European University at St. Petersburg hosted a conference titled “Urban STS: Assembling New Perspectives.” The conference was aimed at creating a new platform for social scientists from different countries to discuss the applicability of the STS approach to the studies of urban space. Participants presented on topics such as urban innovation, technology policy, mobility, and the landscape of modern cities. The conference was organized jointly by the EUSP’s Center for Science and Technology Studies, the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS) at the Technische Universität München and the Centre for Research on Architecture, Society and the Built Environment (ETH-CASE) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich.

The first presentation was a report by Michael Crang (Durham University) on time in urban context. Crang underscored the city’s pluralistic nature that results in the coexistence of several types of rhythms, speeds and temporal regimes of urban life in general.

The notion of ‘time’ was also the subject of a study by Olga Sezneva (EUSP) that problematized the temporal unity and span of history in Kaliningrad. By analyzing the practices of “creating” history from objects that were formerly everyday utensils, the speaker creates an original biography of what are now museum/collection objects and study their role in constructing urban historicity.

In contrast to Olga, Alexander Wentland (WZB Berlin Social Science Center) examined the urban environment as not just the result of practices of the past: the city appears as an object for the projection and construction of a model of the future. He considers projects to develop infrastructure for electric automotive transport in terms of their ability to form a vision of the city, that enters  in an ambiguous relationship with the so-called project of the modern, thus creating collective dreamscapes of urban space.

Indrawan Prabaharyaka (Munich Centre for Technology in Society) gave a report that questioned slogans about equal access to drinking water proclaimed within the framework of global environmental policy and their correlation with local policy makers in cities around the globe, especially those in the “third world.” Prabaharyaka described local initiatives by residents of a given region to create temporary infrastructures, which, though vulnerable, are currently the only means available to meet the urban population’s need for drinking water.

Laurie Waller’s (Munich Centre for Technology in Society) report addressed the problem of the mediation of urban space by STS researchers and the influence/interaction of this mediation on the space itself, as well as on urban social groups such as the “public” and the “expert community.” Using the metaphors of curatorship, he analyzed the opportunities for STS in studying the cultural codes of the urban environment. Julio Paulos’ (ETH Wohnforum – ETH CASE) presentation put forth ways of reinterpreting the meanings of “creating” and “planning” urban space in terms of STS that simultaneously problematize the role of the critical-theory language in urban theory and its current relevance.

Isabelle Doucet (University of Manchester) further expounded on the conceptual framework of STS, paying special attention to the ethical practices of architects and designers of urban space.

Andrei Kuznetsov (PAST-Centre Tomsk State University) concluded the first day of the conference with a presentation that, based on the framework of actor-network theory, analyzed a specific system of urban mobility, such as the “marshrutka.” He underlined that the actor-network theory possesses the analytical tools necessary for analyzing the uncertainties that the urban dwellers are faced with every day while being in the processes of their constant resolution.

Four reports were given as part of the “Techno-Policy” session. Andrew Karvonen (University of Manchester) presented on “smart cities”—cities that seek to optimize their infrastructure through partnerships with private companies in the IT sector. Drawing on studies of technological systems in STS, Karvonen examined the process of the appearance of the “smart agenda” and analyzed its techno-political consequences. Anastasia Golovneva (EUSP) presented the results of a study on the infrastructure of the collection, transportation and storage of waste in St. Petersburg. She emphasized the multi-faceted nature of waste, which is included in various kinds of infrastructures like ontologically distinguishable urban assemblages. Lyubov Chernysheva examined the emergence of public bicycle rentals in St. Petersburg in terms of relevant social groups that influenced the particular characteristics of this new type of urban mobility. Marko Marskamp (ETH Wohnforum – ETH CASE) proposed that urban zoning and urban development should be considered not as a rational project for urban growth but rather as a collision of a variety of assemblages of real and imagined urban forms and lives contained within specific socio-material practices. This approach opens new possibilities to study how planning creates issues for political discussion or offers up technological solutions.

The next group of reports was devoted to studies of democracy within urban contexts. The anthropologist Tomas Sanchez Criado (Munich Center for Technology in Society) studied the issue of translating the experience of city dwellers into the socio-material configuration of an accessible urban environment. The primary object of his research was the practices of activists advocating for the rights of people with disabilities through the production and establishment of “documentary interfaces” to transform the urban environment in accordance with their needs. Alberto Corsin’s (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) research focused on representatives of Madrid’s “free culture”: artists, software engineers and members of architectural collectives, etc. that are carrying out “liberation” policy in the city by opening up technical and structural sources (for example, access to programming code and a variety of documents), as well as developing the infrastructure for free educational resources. Monika Kurath (ETH Wohnforum – ETH CASE) raised this issue of the framing of “citizen” and the idea of “democracy” through the active involvement of city residents into urban planning practices.

The presentation by Ignacio Farias (Munich Center for Technology in Society) problematized the “fragility” of the universe of people living together in a city. His research of means for the legislative regulation of noise in different European cities allowed him to problematize the concept of noise itself, and also to consider the cosmopolitan process on the basis of the co-presence of heterogeneous activities within it. Colin McFarlane (Durham University) examined problems of global urbanism, putting forth two main issues. The first—the concept of global urbanism, which he proposes to study through the concepts of “fragment” and “assemblage.” The second — the concept  of global policy in the context of global urbanism. He presented a number of tactics that not only politicize growing inequality within the framework of global urbanism, but also reconfigure the very notion of urban policy.

The conference ended with a discussion of the challenges that STS is faced with. During the discussions, participants spoke about the possibilities for a descriptive language that will offer approaches for the study of urban assemblages. Despite the fact that this theoretical framework allows us to make a “thick description” what the “urban” is, the presenters also expressed a certain satisfaction with the ambiguity that the category of assemblage can provide. To expand the category’s potential they suggested a reconsideration of the classical language of urban theory and its revision in terms of actor-network theory and the STS approach in general.

Anastasia Golovneva, Lyubov Chernysheva