I’ve noticed a change in the way people are talking about me at work. At least I think so—it could just be that I’ve started to see myself differently. It seems that I’m no longer one of the new PhD candidates in my department.

A couple weeks ago, I was asked whether I would speak at a seminar for new PhD candidates. Normally I attend those seminars to listen. Then, after a colleague’s 60% progress seminar, I asked whose 60% seminar was next…and it turned out to be me! (Though to put it in perspective, I have only used about 30% of my four years of funding.) Finally, another colleague asked me about experience in publishing a journal article. I haven’t even considered writing something yet, but he figured that I have been around long enough to have something published!

Have I done anything at all?

Yes, I have. It is starting to feel like I am getting somewhere. Not so much in the grand scheme of things; I would say that I have made a transition from being thoroughly confused to having an idea of what I will study. During the past two weeks, I presented a research plan at two different seminars. My research plan has been under construction for a few months and it’s my first attempt to write something cohesive about my project: stitching together a literature review, background, aim and research questions, theory, and how I will “go out into the field,” as we say.  (Note to engineers and natural scientists: no safety gear or rain clothes required. )

My research plan describes not only how I will do my research, but also why. Practically, I will interview municipal planners, politicians, and representatives of companies that build infrastructure in a new district in the city of Malmö. The aim of my research is to understand why things turn out the way they do—by analyzing who is involved in the process, which ideas are given priority over others, and how social and technological problems are resolved in practice. For example: why the focus on a ‘climate-smart’ city district in the first place? What other options were considered?

For the rest of the spring, I will focus on ‘empirical work’ in two ways. The first is to get in touch with planners, politicians, and various companies to interview them. These interviews will form an important part of my thesis, but they’re not the only material that I work with. The second task is to systematically analyze the documents that I have been collecting over the past year, such as reports, press releases and web pages. Analysis means piecing together the history of this city district, looking for patterns in the way people write and talk, and looking for traces of tensions and conflicts that could have influenced the process. It also involves comparing my tentative findings to previous research, coming up with unanswered questions and getting back into the field.

For the next few months, I will likely be at the office a bit less. Instead, you might find me sitting on the train, dressed in a suit jacket, nervously double/triple/quadruple checking that I didn’t forget my voice recorder and interview questions. Or if I am at the office, I might have the door shut, carefully reading documents and transcribing interviews. With any luck, some ideas for that first article will be developing in the back of my head.

Assembling Cities

With a workshop called Assembling Cities, you might think that I had given up on Sweden, moved back to Canada, and started working as an engineer again. That is not the case. When I travelled to Zurich, Switzerland a month ago, it was to listen to researchers in urban studies and get some new ideas for my thesis.

This trip was less adventurous than the conference I attended in Poland in September. No car rental, no berths on the ferry. I flew to Zurich on a Tuesday for two intense days at ETH Zurich (a campus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). Eight social scientists were invited to present their research about cities and technology, and there were about 20 presentations on similar topics by other researchers, PhD candidates and master’s students.

But what was that about assembling cities?

The definition of a city is, unsurprisingly, an important aspect of research like mine (where my focus is smart cities). But what is a city? Some would say, that it is a piece of land contained within a set of administrative boundaries. But what boundaries? Take Toronto, for example. Do you draw the line at the municipal boundaries (post-amalgamation), the Greater Toronto Area (where you could include the entire regional municipalities, or just the urban parts), or around the other side of Hamilton?

These types of boundaries, which exist as they do for all sorts of reasons, make many social scientists uneasy. We look for any possible way to avoid taking such messy and seemingly arbitrary boundaries for granted. One alternative is to consider what ‘the city’ means in practice. What is ‘Toronto’ when it comes to elections? It’s the post-amalgamation boundaries. What is ‘Toronto’ when you’re complaining about traffic problems? A much bigger region. And if you live downtown, don’t have a car, and are looking for a job? Then the ‘Toronto’ where you live is probably a lot smaller.

That was the common theme of the workshop: studying cities without taking them for granted. Instead of using the city’s boundaries as a starting point, it means studying (for example, in my research) how planners work and how the city is ‘assembled’ as they connect more and more pieces (technology, infrastructure, people, visions, companies…the list goes on) to achieve their goals. Such a ‘relational perspective’ isn’t actually anything new urban studies and human geography, but researchers have in recent years borrowed some ideas from science and technology studies. That was the reason for holding the workshop.

It was an interesting workshop to attend and left me with lots of questions. There were several presentations by the invited researchers that gave me lots to think about. However, no concrete tips on how I can apply these ideas in my research. Instead, I have a new stack of articles and books to get reading. And probably more workshops and conferences to attend!