Workshop description

Urban Laboratories: Towards a STS of the Built Environment

Manchester Architecture Research Centre (Ralf Brand, Simon Guy and Andy Karvonen)
Maastricht Virtual Knowledge Studio (Bas van Heur and Sally Wyatt)

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University, the Netherlands

Thursday 5 and Friday 6 November 2009

European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) and the Netherlands Graduate Research School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture (WTMC)

Theme and Focus
It is crucial to analyse cities holistically as ensembles of technologies, infrastructures, buildings, institutions and the actors who design, manage and inhabit them as no single discipline can effectively tackle the enormous challenges cities currently face. The emerging field of socio-technical studies of architecture and urbanism is well equipped for such a task. However, as Moore and Karvonen observe, “there has been little emphasis in STS scholarship to date on the design of the built environment” (2008, 29). This workshop provides much-needed coordination between scholars in this field and an opportunity to develop an active research strategy that avoids redundancies and identifies potentials for synergies and future collaborations.

Conceptually and theoretically, the workshop follows a recent argument by Collier, Lakoff and Rabinow (2006) in highlighting the relevance of the laboratory concept for the human sciences and proposes to analyse the urban built environment as an assemblage of local knowledge claims, collaborations and emergent interactions. This has little to do with the self-representation of many laboratories as being involved in rigorous experimentation through the employment of controllable observation techniques, but instead highlights – following a veritable tradition in STS – the contingent cultural and institutional dimensions of knowledge production. Such a shift allows for a more ethnographic investigation of laboratory dynamics and creates awareness of the heterogeneity of urban laboratories: besides academic research institutions, it might also be productive to investigate policy think tanks, planning departments, economic development agencies, architectural firms and creative clusters as urban laboratories. In taking the well-established trope of the laboratory as starting-point and in applying it to cities – in a world characterized by increasing urbanization – the workshop results will offer inspiration to the STS community at large. Also, by actively engaging with research developments in the fields of urban studies, architectural sociology and design theory, the workshop will generate a process of mutual learning that is to be of lasting value for all disciplines involved.

Despite increasing references to the notion of laboratory in specific urban development and policy projects, sustained research on the role of these and other laboratories: in shaping and transforming our cities is almost absent. This seems to reflect a broader trend in STS: after foundational work in the 1970s and 1980s that investigated the socio-cultural and technical context of knowledge production, this once active field of laboratory studies is now rather neglected (Kohler 2008) and Karin Knorr Cetina’s hope in a 1995 review essay that laboratory studies could be further extended by investigating “processes of laboratorization” (163) in a variety of settings has hardly been realized. This workshop aims to contribute to this extension by revisiting the theoretical notion of laboratory and by investigating the ways in which this notion can be productively put to work in our analysis of the urban built environment. Three dimensions seem central in this regard and in need of further research.

Dimension 1: laboratory studies has promoted a thoroughgoing contextualization of science by emphasizing the interests, techniques, materials and discourses involved in the stabilization of supposedly neutral scientific facts. What are, in Ian Hacking’s (1992) terminology, the relevant ideas, things and marks shaping contemporary urban laboratories? This is largely a descriptive interest, but – despite many years of research on urban governance from a number of disciplinary perspectives – we still know very little of the actual dynamics involved in the emergence and reproduction of urban laboratories. Research, however, needs to avoid the internalist bias of early laboratory studies and should pay explicit attention to communication between urban laboratories and the rise of regional and transnational networks of expertise (Dierig, Lachmund and Mendelsohn 2003). How do facts emerge and circulate in and through these networks of expertise?

Dimension 2
: historians of laboratories have increasingly paid attention to the heterogeneity of laboratories: whereas the twentieth-century modern laboratory was seen as ‘set apart’ from the surrounding natural and social world (an idealistic representation effectively deconstructed by laboratory studies), earlier and other laboratories often operated with less rigid distinctions and, for example, effectively meshed scientific research with artisanal and commercial work (Klein 2008). A similar sensitivity to the variety of laboratories in contemporary urban environments is still lacking. What are the similarities and differences, for example, between the many policy think tanks, creative incubators or planning agencies currently active? Can one understand all these laboratories as ‘centres of calculation’, as Latour (1987) would have it, or should one instead understand these institutions as tools of reconfiguration that ‘upgrade’ the natural and social order (Knorr Cetina 1992)? This second dimension is related to the first, but zooms in on questions of method i.e. the ways in which features of urban life become objects of laboratory research and manipulation. In the case of research on and in the city in particular, there seems to be a constitutive tension between laboratory and fieldwork science that needs to be addressed (Gieryn 2006). Through the use of which methods and in what ways do the various urban laboratories construct and manipulate local objects of research?

Dimension 3: also countering the internalist bias of early laboratory studies, there is a need to investigate the complex and shifting relations between laboratories and their environments. Laboratories interact with other laboratories, but they also engage with a world directly outside the laboratory. On the one hand, this refers to the obvious but often ignored fact that the laboratory is always also a social institution: its logics and dynamics will, to some extent, reflect broader societal processes (Kohler 2008). On the other hand, and perhaps more interesting, this third dimension refers to the fact that laboratories actively shape the urban environment in which they are embedded. In reconfiguring the natural and social order in the laboratory, these laboratories can potentially also change the world outside of the laboratory through a variety of translations (Knorr Cetina 1995). Collier et al. (2006) also see an advantage in the adjacency of laboratories to the object of investigation in that this allows for possible transformation of the object. This in turn raises important questions concerning the role of local collaboration in urban change. How and to what extent do processes of laboratorization transform the built environment in which laboratories are simultaneously embedded?

Referenced Literature
Collier, Stephen J., Andrew Lakoff and Paul Rabinow (2006) What is a laboratory in the human sciences?, Discussion Paper, Laboratory for the Anthropology of the Contemporary. Available online:
Dierig, Sven, Jens Lachmund and J. Andrew Mendelsohn (2003) Introduction: Toward an Urban History of Science, Osiris 18, pp. 1-19.
Gieryn, Thomas (2006) City as truth-spot: laboratories and field-sites in urban studies, Social Studies of Science 36(1), pp. 5-38.
Hacking, Ian (1992) The self-vindication of the laboratory sciences, in: Andrew Pickering (ed.), Science as Practice and Culture (Chicago: Chicago UP), pp. 29-64.
Klein, Ursula (2008) The laboratory challenge: some revisions of the standard view of early modern experimentation, Isis 99(4), pp. 769-782.
Knorr Cetina, Karin (1992) The couch, the cathedral, and the laboratory: on the relationship between experiment and laboratory in science, in: Andrew Pickering (ed.), Science as Practice and Culture (Chicago: Chicago UP), pp. 113-138.
Knorr Cetina, Karin (1995) Laboratory studies: the cultural approach to the study of science, in: Sheila Jasanoff, Gerald E. Markle, James C. Petersen and Trevor Pinch (eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (Los Angeles: Sage), pp. 140-166.
Kohler, Robert E. (2008) Lab history: reflections, Isis 99(4), pp. 761-768.
Latour, Bruno (1987) Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (Cambridge: Harvard UP).
Moore, Steven A., and Andrew Karvonen (2008) Sustainable architecture in context: STS and design thinking, Science Studies 21(1), pp. 29-46.


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