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!