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!

A year as a PhD student, by the hour

Ever since working at a consulting company, I’ve been accustomed to keeping track of my time at work. It was at the same company that I spent days upon end doing calculations in Excel, making me an expert in the world of COUNTIFs, SUMPRODUCTs and named ranges. It was only a matter of time before I created a spreadsheet to keep track of my time at school and work, which I have done for the past few years.

While it takes a bit of upkeep, it’s great for looking back at what I actually did last year. It’s how I know that I spent about 1800 hours at work last year. Of which I spent 48 hours having coffee in our break room. (I would have guessed more.)

Here is my look back my first full year as PhD student. Here’s what an ‘average’ work week looked like (42 hours, including lunch and breaks), divided up according to how much time I spent on different projects throughout the year. (Including links to the posts I wrote throughout the year.)


My alarm goes off at 6 a.m. Microwaved oatmeal for breakfast while I get dressed.

Front row seat on the bus7 a.m. On the bus to Norrköping. Last winter and spring, I was a tutor in the bachelor program in Environmental Science. All my teaching was in Norrköping, an hour away by bus. I caught the bus on campus at 6:55 and spent the hour reading student papers. Once in Norrköping, I would meet each of my tutor groups for two hours each. (5 hours total)

12 p.m. Lunch.

1 p.m. Small stuff. I had few small projects throughout the year, such as trying to re-write my master’s thesis into a journal article (which I gave up on). Sometimes I would just take the bus back to Linköping and relax. (1 hour)

2 p.m. Preparing for seminars. I attend two of our weekly seminars, both of which take place on Tuesdays, so it wouldn’t be strange for me to spend a couple hours reading on Monday afternoon. (2 hours)

4 p.m. Time to go home. (If it’s December or January, the sun set an hour ago!)


A later start today.

8:30 a.m. Time to do some reading to prepare for Wednesday’s course seminar. (1 hour)

9:30 a.m. Fika (the Swedish word for coffee break). I’m a pretty regular attendee at the morning fika these days, but I missed a lot in the spring when I was teaching in Norrköping.

10 a.m. The weekly seminar called Technology, Everyday Life and Society. We usually discuss a draft paper that one of our colleagues is working on. (2 hours).

12 p.m. Lunch. (1 hour)

The shores of Vadstena, where the summer school was be held.

1 p.m. An afternoon spent organizing the STS Summer School that we held in August: handling applications, payment, answering questions, preparing the course handbook, etc.

3 p.m. The weekly info meeting for our unit. (30 minutes)

3:30 p.m. More work on the summer school. (4 hours total)

5:30 p.m. Done for the day.


Lazy start today. Sometimes I would get up early and do laundry. I might do course reading at the same time. I might just read the newspaper.

9:30 a.m. Bike to work in time for the morning fika, because one of my colleagues talks about their research each Wednesday. It’s a chance to learn more about research going on in the other seminar groups. (30 minutes)

10 a.m. Working on my thesis. I might be reading articles about smart cities, or meeting with my supervisor to get his comments on something that I am writing. (1.5 hours)

11:30 a.m. Meetings. This year I took over a chairperson of the department’s PhD council, which discusses issues relevant to PhD students. We have our monthly meetings at lunch and being the chairperson involves a bit of preparation. I am also part of our unit’s advisory board, which meets three times per term. (2 hours)

1:30 p.m. Course work. Maybe a course seminar for An introduction to science and technology studies, or more reading. (3 hours)

4:30 p.m. Done as much reading as I will do today. I bike home and go for a run.


8 a.m. At work early to work on my thesis. I have been better about getting to work early this fall, especially while I have been working on a literature review. Or maybe I was on the train to Stockholm or Malmö to interview someone at the municipality. (4 hours, including a half hour break for fika)

12 p.m. Lunch

Standing by a copper canister in a tunnel dug in the bedrock1 p.m. Another course seminar or time spent reading for our summer school. Or maybe a study visit to a nuclear waste storage repository. (2.5 hours)

3:30 p.m. Answer emails and clearing up some loose ends. (1 hour)

4:30 p.m. All my emails answered—I’m free!


An easy start to the day. It is Friday, after all.

9 a.m. More to do with teaching. Writing feedback about their participation in seminars, or grading their term papers. I also did a lecture for the master’s students this fall, so I could be putting together some lecture slides. (1.5 hours)

10:30 a.m. I switch from teacher to student and attend a course seminar. (1,5 hours)

12 p.m. Lunch.

1 p.m. Administration. Booking travel for a conference, filling out expense reports, or reporting my hours to the department administration. Good thing I have this spreadsheet! (1 hour)

2 p.m. More reading to do for my courses. I spent an hour reading at work, then bike home and read there for a couple hours. (3 hours total)

5 p.m. It’s the weekend!

And that’s my week (and my year). 2015 looks a bit different so far: not as many courses, less teaching and administration. More focus on my thesis, including doing interviews. More on that in a month or two.


If you prefer numbers, here is some of the same information in statistics:

  • Taking courses: 474 hours, 26%
  • Teaching (including preparation and grading): 267 hours, 15%
  • Other work on my thesis: 201 hours, 11%
  • Preparing for and attending seminars: 158 hours, 9%
  • Lunch: 161 hours, 9%
  • Conferences, including travel: 46 hours, 3%