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Ash Amin on Cities

Ash Amin on Cities

Professor Ash Amin (Foreign Secretary and Vice-President, British Academy) talks to Dr Tatiana Thieme (UCL) about ‘Cities’, at a British Academy workshop on ‘Resilient Urban Economies’, held on 5 December 2016.

• Ash Amin

Ash, thanks for talking to me about cities. With so much of the world now urbanised and shaped by cities, it seems pretty clear that our global futures depend quite centrally on the shape and dynamic of cities, yet we seem to be still in the dark about what cities are and how they function But, to start, I wanted to ask you about the city or the cities that informed your upbringing and your worldview in a sense, and your interest in cities more broadly.

 I grew up in Nairobi in the 1960s, and at that time the city was a beautiful compact city: managed, liveable and pleasant. Not for everyone though. One large dark cloud hung over the city, which was the persisting colonial legacy of segregation, poverty and sharp inequality. I very much doubt that what for me was the ideal city to grow up in, meant the same for the city’s poor black majority, fast expanding as migrants from the countryside poured in, and living in paltry conditions away from the eyes of the middle classes. I did not see the majority city until pretty much when I left in 1971 at the age of 16.

How did it form my worldview? That it is wise to intervene in a city before it starts expanding in an uncontrolled manner. That decolonisation comes with no magic of prosperity and wellbeing. That care be given to ensure the city sustains all its inhabitants in a fair and decent way. That the city left alone soon settles around points of power, privilege, segregation and resentment. That’s the lesson I learnt: plan the city properly and equitably early on.

What happens in cases where cities are, have grown so vastly in an uncontrolled or unregulated way, what does intervention look like in that case?

Well, intervention in that case is quite difficult, but still requires some kind of strategic and shared vision of the good life between citizens and city leaders. Especially in recent years, under the pall of market society, this kind of urbanism has given way to planning the city for elites, investors and high-end consumers, and then spending the rest of the time keeping down those left out. The obligation to see the urban whole and how it can be adjusted in all its complexities, entanglements, and obdurate legacies has all but disappeared. Getting strategic priorities right is a first step in this complicated context, matched by minor or major adjustments in the collective arena – services, transport, information and financial networks, public spaces, and welfare systems - that work the whole and sustain the general interest.

You’ve recently written a new book with Nigel Thrift published by Polity Press. Could you say something about its core ideas and how they inform your on-going work?

The book is called Seeing Like a City and it tries to conceptualise what makes cities tick, increasingly in world making ways. You know, the dispersed city, the city of sprawl, the city of excess, the city of thousand realties. Our answer is that we shouldn’t get misty eyed about some magical properties of spatial agglomeration and urban density, nor think of the city in humanist terms as an entity run by people – leaders, elites, citizens, dwellers. We see cities as machines, that is, giant assemblages of sociotechnical systems of varying sophistication and state of repair, which make or unmake prosperity, distribution, wellbeing, intelligence, power and ecological futures. Humans and nonhumans combine in and through these assemblages, such that even subjectivities, affects and social orientations formed in the city cannot be reduced to the personal and interpersonal. So in that regard if you want to intervene in the city across its spectrum of wants and properties, you have to intervene in its machinic qualities, you have to look at how algorithms allocate or misallocate, you have to look at the liveliness and political economy of provisions of water, electricity, transport, education, and welfare, you have to look at the distributions and mobilisations of knowledge and information. You have to think of the city as a set of overlapping infrastructures that make urban life possible, and it is through them that the book tackles questions of knowledge, human being, economic competitiveness, poverty and environmental sustainability.

I have begun to apply this kind of thinking in my work on informal settlements and slums, initially in Belo Horizonte in Brazil, more recently in Cape Town, and currently in Shanghai (as a collaborator in a King’s College project on the mental health of migrants). Echoing an ‘infrastructural turn’ in urban studies, I have been looking at how human subjectivities, needs and possibilities are formed in the intricacies of infrastructural provisioning, in the delicate and fragile balances of improvised supply, the struggles of gaining access to housing, education, services and collective goods, the accommodations that are daily made because infrastructures fail, the vast power of providers and regulators, the shaping of prospects through a combination of rule by market or government and rule by infrastructure, the constant play between habitat and modes of dwelling. Here, slum futures can’t be reduced to the mechanics of good governance, functioning markets or responsible citizens, as we find in most of the policy literature, but hang in the detail of provisioning systems.

I notice that the British Academy, with you as its Foreign Secretary, has launched a five-year research programme on the Plural City, and indeed, this seminar on resilient urban economies is one of the early initiatives. I also see that the Academy has launched a Global Challenges research programme on cities and infrastructure. What does the term plural city mean to you?

It is a term that encapsulates the contemporary city. There is still a tendency to think of cites in singular ways, for example, as the space of leading sectors, smart technologies, particular modes of governance, certain skills, professions and dispositions. Yet, the reality is that cities are constitutionally plural – spaces of many kinds of economy, many cultures and ethnicities, many geographies of organisation and affiliation, multiple forms of know-how, expertise and agency, and a plethora of sociotechnical arrangements, as I have already suggested. This means the city has to be governed as an open complex system, through its pluralities and its many possibilities, where the task of management becomes that of linking up, staying with multiplicity, strategising through and not at the expense of manifold forces, however small or subaltern.

Is there possible contradiction or tension between the thesis that the city is a machine, which perhaps overrides some of the agentive aspects of people, and what you’ve just said about the plural city that takes into account the plurality of visions and ways of doing the city?

No, I think the plural city depends on effective machinic agency. The assemblage of sociotechnical systems – assuming it works and for the many – provides the commons on which the pluralism thrives. It is the animated backstage that instantiates and supports plural economies, social groups and lifestyles, knowledge environments, transactional systems, and habitats. Without it, the city would simply select out the forces that fail to survive the law of the jungle or of the powerful. In so many parts of the world, we see the plural city, but its full yield and potential are held back by the absence of a functioning shared commons – the machinery of automatic and extensive provision and amplification.

Thank you. I want to segue into the theme of the British Academy workshop on resilient economies and I wanted to ask you, what do you see as the economic powers of cities? What are they based on?

We tend to think of core properties and numbers, for example, the concentrations of smart people or smart technologies, leading industries, universities and research centres, firms in competition or collaboration, foresight and capable managers. We tend to assume that large numbers of key growth factors generate economies of agglomeration, scale and scope, thus allowing the cities with the numbers to excel in the world. But this vanguard economy of clustered assets, let’s call it that, accounts for a tiny part of the economic life of a city. And in providing global economic thrust through leading sectors, new ideas and innovations, cutting edge knowledge and influence, this vanguard economy located in central business districts often bypasses or suppresses the rest of the plural urban economy by commanding resource and policy attention and by commandeering collective services and public goods. The city at large is pretty much the ‘jobbing’ city, full of informal work, small firms, retail companies, service providers, maintenance and repair firms, social enterprises, and the like. It’s full of circuits of mundane organisation that create and circulate value in different markets dependent on the life of the city. This vast hinterland is the economy of meeting everyday needs, keeping things on the move, and maintaining the city. It is a variegated and diffuse economy that benefits from urban size and spread, from skills of improvisation and perseverance, from infrastructural and institutional presence, from informational and knowledge availability, and from urban cultural diversity and creativity. It’s not part of the vanguard economy, but it meets a lot of needs, keeps a lot of people in employment, circulates a lot of income within the city, keeps commodities on the move, and sustains most parts of the city. This is the plural economy that both sustains and requires the city.

Do you think that all cities are growth machines? Should they be?

No, it follows from this analysis that most cities are not growth machines, but only the central business districts of particular cities, for example, world cities or capital cities, which serve parts of those cities and power world economic prosperity. That I think we can take as read. But the rest of the urban world - the jobbing city - is not a growth machine, but a provisioning machine that creates wealth, employment, skills and knowledge around the facts of population concentration and urban organisation. It is a machine that makes and meets needs, and that keeps people and things on the move, in the process building specialisms and comparative advantages securing returns in national and international markets. Thinking on the role of cities in the world economy, dazzled by vanguard urbanism, simply fails to recognise this aspect of the urban base.

Well, that’s pretty succinct! So, I wonder if I may segue into the next question which is to ask what you consider to be the major pinch points of urban economic future, whether these are different in the North and the South, and whether the urban future worries you.

Uncontrolled urban expansion is a problem. Because with it you get lots of diseconomies – of congestion, of pollution, of infrastructural aging and failure, of the different parts of the city not coming together, of the city simply malfunctioning. Urban expansion is unstoppable, as cities have their own expansionary momentum and continue to suck in the rest of the world (despite failing to meet the promise). But when expansion escapes the levers of planning by government or other authorities then the diseconomies have punishing effects, to the detriment of the city as a whole. I am staggered that market-based organisation – planned or unplanned – which is in reality a lottery of irreconcilable interests has prevailed to the degree that it has the world over. It is going to be very difficult and expensive to row back from this situation if and when governments and municipalities decide to act. Another major problem, partly linked to uncontrolled expansion is the mass concentration of poverty without anything like adequate housing and welfare provisions in the slums and informal settlements fast dominating the landscape of cities in the South. Yes, this is an urbanism of improvisation, making do and struggling, but it is also an urbanism of extreme deprivation, inequality, socio-spatial segregation, and disaffection. I am surprised that there are no urban uprisings on a daily basis around the world. A third problem that cities face, and it’s a real threat, is whether cities have the means to hedge off or survive global hazards. We live in an increasingly risk prone world, with cities confronting extreme weather, unanticipated attack, social breakdown, financial flight, hazardous toxins, freely circulating pathogens, along with a host of risks generated by urban concentration itself, along the lines mentioned earlier. Are cities prepared for these threats? They need to develop a kind of anticipatory intelligence and a capacity to react fast and minimise damage. They need to become resilient. But the ground of laissez-faire and unmanaged expansion is not a secure ground, but that of robust infrastructures, social inclusion, welfare equity, modest consumption, green technologies, and emergency planning might be. I don’t think city leaders have really worked out what anticipatory intelligence and risk mitigation in non-singular terms involve. For example, around the former, there’s a tendency to think of intelligence in terms of smart data, of wiring up every part of the city so that city leaders have an appropriate information base to act from. But in my view anticipatory intelligence has to be about making sure that the cities infrastructures are intelligent, that urban decisions do not add to vulnerability and risk, that diverse knowledges including lay awareness are mobilised and harnessed together, and that municipal decisions involve scenario planning and public consultation. There is a need to know what there is already in the animated city.

You talked specifically about the cities in the South facing some of these risks in particularly acute ways, both because of their own vulnerabilities, and because of the stack of global risks confronting them, for example large-scale migration. In the last few years that there’s a lot to be said about cities in the North facing very similar challenges albeit in a very different way. Do you see cities in the North facing new risks that in some way echo what’s been happening for a long time in the South?

We live in a fairly integrated world. So, yes, the risks southern cities face also confront northern cities, perhaps in less extreme form. Global risks know no boundaries and they don’t discriminate between cities. The problems of the adversarial, extreme and profligate world face all cities, but urban ontologies and mitigation histories and capabilities are place specific. So, there is a limit to the sameness argument. For example, cities of the North are highly dependent on technological intelligence and capability, shot through their myriad infrastructures, institutions, and publics. These assemblages are getting quite old and also very expensive to maintain, and unlike the South where in the absence of robust infrastructures people are often the means of risk intelligence and mitigation, their qualities will turn out to be crucial in securing the future. This, at least in the short term, because it will take a long time for people to learn grounded skills of survival and improvisation in case institutional and technological intelligence fail to deliver. Here is one northern specificity..

Can you tell us a little bit about what makes for resilient urban economy? What do you think resilience means? It’s an in vogue term and in some ways nebulous and in other ways evoking the qualities of physical ecosystems. What does the term mean to you?

I think the resilient urban economy is one that is able to hedge its bets by having plural economic circuits and capabilities. The world of small firms, the world of leading industries, the world of high tech, the world of elites and expertise, the world of the informal economy that gets on with what it does best. So economic variety, and making space for it, is one aspect. Another aspect, following from what I’ve said earlier, is the availability of robust and capacious, provisioning infrastructures. So if the city is a machine, an efficient one makes sure that knowledge, information and finance flow freely and far, that there is universal welfare coverage, that the urban commons, from public goods and public spaces to the air of the city, are capacious. The socialisation of costs and of search lies at the heart of the resilient urban economy. Then, to repeat an earlier point, the resilient urban economy is one that is able to draw on a broad and differentiated knowledge base, from smart technologies, research, and experts, to a host of civic capabilities including craft cultures, neighbourhood intelligence, and lay capabilities. Once again, pluralism as a means of hedging bets when one form of knowledge gets exhausted or hindered.

I want to press you a little bit about the role of different actors. What is the changing role for actors like government and particular experts and you mentioned civil society? Can you tell us a little bit about how resilience can be strengthened moving forward from different actors?

At the moment, the mainstream understanding of urban resilience is that local governments work with local science and expertise to then find ways of protecting the city, but also expecting city residents to become resilient subjects protecting themselves and reporting on transgressors. There is an arrogance of expertise here, as there is a fantasy of the vigilant citizen. Urban complexity, and indeed the complexity of risks and threats faced by the city requires the mobilisation of all actors, including non-human intelligence, in a non-hierarchical, complementary, and cross-referenced way, so that strategic plans can be presented as publically debated scenarios, so that government becomes more transparent, so that hidden technological intelligence is made more visible and accountable, so that local and lay actors who are close to the ground of need and specificity are empowered and part of the city-wide effort, and so that the scientific, expert, governmental and social get mixed up and on equal terms. This is not easy to manage, for it lacks the clarity of top-down governance, but it is the basis of ubiquitous and distributed urbanism, and requires a lot more inventive and collaborative thinking from city experts and leaders. But, let’s not get too carried away by an emphasis on actors, for I repeat, the urban commons and urban sociotechnical systems – call them an actor if you will – are crucial. They take up the slack, they instantiate and direct the efforts of the diverse humans and institutions responsible for urban governance, and they act in their own right in managing the city. Go back to my analogy of the city as machine. Ensuring resilience is about making sure that the machine really works, it’s about making sure that the hidden hand of maintenance and repair, distribution, and sociotechnical intelligence that you find embedded in organisations, public service and utility networks, welfare systems, transport, communication and knowledge infrastructures, kind of just tick over, there in the background whirring away to provide and mend. None of this happens automatically and fairly, as we know from the skewed political economy of collective provisioning the world over serving particular interests, but this remains the arena of generalised resilience.

I wanted to ask you Ash, if there is more beyond this sort of urban machinic understanding and it’s functioning in a more equitable way. When you spoke about civic engagement, especially in the context of the South, where people do the heavy lifting, are there messages here for the future that is about returning to certain elements of resilience that have already existed?

In places where the urban machine has failed or never been there, the reliance on social power is a fact. That’s not going to go away. It is not a question of return. But this situation is not necessarily one without huge sacrifices by those without access to other means of urban provisioning, without the basic provisions and protections of a functioning collective urban infrastructure. So I’m slightly wary of a language of community, social power, and human resilience that justified the status quo and play down the significance of institutions, technologies and infrastructures. In any case, the heavy lifting we observe is never without material props, however basic or improvised. So, even in these contexts, let’s look for the fair and functioning urban machine that can do some of the heavy lifting, leaving people to get on and up. Community organisation is most effective when supported by functioning infrastructures, responsible government, and rules and laws that guarantee rights to the city. The future should rest on this.

Time for one last one. To end on a more optimistic note, what do you feel hopeful and optimistic about when you think about economic and urban futures and the role that they play?

The world has become urban, pretty much since large chunks of the world’s population are located in cities. The world economy is driven out of what happens in the city. The city is the Anthropocene and the Anthropocene is the city. It is cities that make the world’s carbon footprint. So if we get the city right I think we could tackle a lot of contemporary world problems, we really could, and it’s not inconceivable that we can get the city right, through new forms of urban imagination and organisation. If we could get the infrastructural problem in cities right, if we could make sure that the city is a place of social wellbeing and not just social hardship and disenchantment, if we could invest in spare and slack capacity, if we could make sure that the city is a place of universal welfare, the dividends could be immense. Am I optimistic? No I’m not. Do I think this is necessary? Yes I do. Otherwise the whole world – now so tied to the fortunes of the city, will be at risk. The need to reimagine urban planning is urgent.

Do you have a favourite city?

Well, I guess I can’t say Nairobi, as this is the city of my memories set in aspic, so I am inclined to say Naples, where I did some of the research for my doctorate and where I lived for a year in the late 1980s and to which I return often. It is the quintessential plural city troubled by many challenges, but it remains seductive and vibrant, just as when Walter Benjamin wrote about it in a haze of intoxication.

Thank you Ash.

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