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  • Writer's pictureSofia Greaves

Post-doct @ Prospera: 'Imagine a New Society'

After researching ideal cities of the nineteenth century, I became obsessed with the idea that there must also be ideal cities in present day. Ideal cities (blog) are typically understood to be visions for the perfect urban model and society.

The history of the ideal-city design is, to a great extent, a story of architects and others who dream of mastering the world. It is that of so many blueprints, invented by the human intellect, for the best possible city and society. In many cases, it is a tale of immodesty, of the belief that something as complex as the city can be projected in the mind’s eye; the belief that it can ignore natural contextual conditions, often in the name of conformity to universal laws to whose secret solution only an elite holds the key. [i]

I have previously ranted that Smart Cities are our 'ideal cities', (here) - highly technological solutions - which control nature to enable the pursuit of economic growth and a 'sustainable' (or perfect) mode of living - in the main, these solutions place technology into the hands of an elite. It is not clear whether more technology (and of this kind) will produce more sustainable and inclusive cities. This reflection drew me to PROSPERA, a five-year research project financed by the European Research Council, led by Dr Mario Pansera and Dr Javier Lloveras.

Innovating without growth means to imagine a future created by science and technology that cares about people and things.

PROSPERA will investigate (in part) the role of science and technology in bringing about and sustaining a post-growth future. Post-growth thinkers envision a society which does not require endless economic growth to innovate and prosper (blog). PROSPERA researchers will ask which technologies and forms of organisation could create viable alternatives to the ‘growth ideology’.

What would Science, Technology and Innovation look like in a world that is not dominated by the pursuit of endless economic growth? What futures would begin to unfold in front of us if we refocused technoscientific practices away from growth? What new worlds would be possible to build by placing a concern for human wellbeing and the natural environment at the centre of innovation?

Moving from a Phd in Classics to a post-doc in De-growth, science and technology studies is a leap, not only because I am really awful with my phone. The common ground is spatial planning and its effects. Space is clearly not neutral. Urban space is a technology. It dictates the dynamics of societies and their systems, produces behaviours and works in tandem with the technologies which govern it. [1] Some spaces are therefore more ‘post-growth’ than others - at least currently - and at a macro level our cities and the institutions which plan them promote economic growth and its associated behaviours by design.

This problem is further complicated by the trajectory of technological innovation, which largely occurs to facilitate a growth form of urban life. This has long been the logic of urbanisation and technological progress: compare the two images below, which illustrate a particular mentality well-entrenched since the nineteenth-century. Planners sought to create the best possible combination of layouts, infrastructure and technology to sustain economic growth whilst improving public health conditions. Cities like Paris and London became capitals of modernity because planners managed to make them Capitalist spaces; they introduced straight and efficient roads and commodified basic necessities like clean water. Such technologies shaped society towards particular values whilst excluding certain groups (Only half of Paris had the money to access clean water, for example).

'The modern city' as understood in Italian urban planning manuals of 1890-1955. Azzi, Azzo. 1955. Trattato d’Igiene. Volume 1. Epidemiologia e Profilassi delle Malattie Parassitarie. Milan.

But what would the city be if we were to challenge and reroute the longstanding logic behind technological change and urbanisation? Which spaces might enable non-growth-oriented organisations and forms of innovation? What technologies would they require? What are the mechanisms required to implement them? These are the general and enormous questions I would like to address. Possible research avenues are summarised elsewhere (blog).

Asking these questions is complicated further by existing definitions of ‘innovation'. 'Innovation' is an increasingly wide-ranging concept which straddles economic, social and technological spheres. It is attached to its own scientific discipline, which theorises how and whether knowledge, science and technology produce ‘innovation’. This discipline addresses, amongst other things, how goods and systems develop and improve, and the commercial and social benefit which arise from such changes.[2] Scholars also study the implementation of new technologies and systems which are thought to facilitate innovation. By assessing their implications, they promote ‘responsible innovation’ – because (as summarised above) technologies often introduce hierarchies which are harmful as well as beneficial.

Within this context, innovation has typically been understood as a partner to Capitalist entrepreneurship, which relies upon cycles of creative destruction (and often inbuilt obsolescence). This raises questions about the role of innovation in a post-growth era should the economic logic change - an anxiety which is less problematic if the ways in which ‘innovation’ is theorised and understood also change. Hence, PROSPERA proposes that ‘we need new narratives for innovation’.

This project posits that untangling innovation from growth is key to imagining a post-growth era. If growth is going to be unsustainable, we need new narratives for innovation that would accordingly also have to change and increase the scope of the innovation concept itself, beyond technology, into cultural and institutional change, and indeed social life and social order.

Producing these alternative narratives may be difficult for 'the city', particularly in light of the interdependent Sustainable Development Goals (blog). The SDGS are intended to guide urban development and establish a framework for innovation policy in the urban context.

SDG#11 argues that cities must be sustainable, inclusive and resilient. SDG#9 declares "Technological progress is the foundation of efforts to achieve environmental objectives, such as increased resource and energy-efficiency. Without technology and innovation, industrialization will not happen, and without industrialization, development will not happen." Technological innovation is therefore geared towards industrialization, which seems to contradict the wider attempts at living within planetary boundaries. More technology may not even produce sustainability. [3] The new narratives for technological innovation could disrupt these ideas and open up the possibility for building ‘new urban worlds’.

These ideas are theoretical and open-ended (washy). However, there is some clarity on the spaces and settlement patterns which post-growth living requires - at least according to existing scholarship and the New Urban Agenda (NUA). Degrowth literature emphasises grassroots initiatives (here). The NUA believes that ‘equitable and safe public spaces are platforms for civic participation, collaboration and relationship building’. [4]

The NUA focuses on public space because it defines the city as a social entity rather than a high-tech or ‘economic' or technological entity: the ‘City [is] a common good, inclusion, equality, livelihoods and quality public spaces’. [5] As indicated (left) the NUA calls for STI scholars to research public space as a means to foster these values, presumably because it might promote forms of innovation ‘by design’. We can therefore research the ways in which public space is used and re-used 'differently' by organisations for non financially motivated purposes and in combination with technologies. This marries marketing and Degrowth research with 'cultural geography', pulling the discipline further in a direction which publications are beginning to take. What is 'innovation' in this context and does it produce well-being? The outcome of such a research project will be a better understanding of what the 'Degrowth' city should look like and the technologies we will need - a provisional toolkit for post-growth urban life.

I will join PROSPERA at the University of Vigo (Spain) in October with 8 other researchers, and am really excited to apply myself to this research agenda.

Since antiquity the city has been understood as a force for social harmony. These ideas were reaffirmed in the 19th c. "The word urbs provided me with a concept to encompass without violence all that set of diverse and heterogeneous things, that harmonized, by the superior force of human sociability form what we call a city." Cerdà, I. 1867. Teoría de la Urbanización.


[i] Eaton, R. Ideal Cities. Utopianism and the (un)built environment. London, Thames & Hudson, 2002.

[1] The New Urban Agenda recognises spatial organisation as a form of technology and a subject for STI studies. ‘Spatial organization, accessibility, design of urban space, infrastructure and basic service provision (25)’. ‘The Global Platform for the Right to the City identified the elements of the Right to the City in the New Agenda Urban Agenda’.

[2] 'Innovation, Policy and Development'. Handbook.

[3] Clearly infrastructural investment is necessary in certain contexts.

[4} Guttieres, D., Fransiska, G. A., and Dewi, S. R. K., 2016. ‘Role of Science, Technology and Innovation in Urban Frameworks. Enhancing the Scient-Policy-Practice Interface for Resilient Cities.’ Global Sustainable Development Report.

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