Summary of the Workshop

Urban Laboratories: Towards an STS of the Built Environment
_by Bas van Heur, Ralf Brand, Andrew Karvonen, Simon Guy and Sally Wyatt

On 5-6 November 2009, the workshop ‘Urban Laboratories: Towards an STS of the Built Environment’ took place at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Organised by the Manchester Architecture Research Centre (MARC) and the Maastricht Virtual Knowledge Studio (VKS) and financially supported by the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) and the Netherlands Graduate Research School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture (WTMC), the aim of the workshop was to trace the different uses of the urban laboratory concept both within and outside of academia and to analyze the analytical relevance of this notion and related vocabularies for interpreting socio-technical urban change.

Despite a few last-minute cancellations due to the flu and a Belgian train strike, the workshop was of a consistently high quality. The original call for papers (see post below) attracted approximately 35 abstracts, reflecting the resonance of the ‘urban laboratories’ theme amongst the wider STS community. The organizers selected ten papers that best fit the goals of the workshop and distributed the papers to participants beforehand. The varied academic and geographic backgrounds of the participants, coming from the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany, made for lively and diverse discussions.

Opening the workshop with a word of welcome, Wiebe Bijker – professor and chair of the Department of Technology and Society Studies at Maastricht University – emphasized the need to distinguish between actors’ concepts and analytical concepts used by researchers. This important distinction would return in one way or another in the various discussions throughout the workshop. The metaphorical usage of the notion of laboratory partly overlaps but also differs from the more analytical usage of this notion in STS. Explaining the reasons for organizing this workshop, Bas van Heur summarized the core dimensions of the laboratory according to the STS tradition: 1) the malleability of objects (i.e. the capability of a laboratory to enable manipulation of objects in a controlled environment); 2) the role of researchers as interveners in the object of research through various actions; 3) the importance of an inside/outside distinction between a controlled laboratory space and an uncontrolled field site; and 4) the achievement of successful experiments through the establishment of a relatively stable context.

This introduction was followed by five sessions in which the relevance of the STS notion of laboratories was unpacked, and alternative or extended conceptualizations were proposed. In the first session, Barbara Allen (Virginia Tech, USA) offered an analysis of the ‘green’ rebuilding of Holy Cross, an historic neighbourhood in New Orleans, after the flooding from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 by following Latour’s distinction between problematization, interessement, enrolment and mobilisation. Referring to Anique Hommels’ argument that cities are comprised of obdurate technologies, Allen argued that the hurricane ‘solved’ the obduracy problem and opened up the neighbourhood to green NGOs and other groups. She also suggested, however, that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) might be complemented with tools from the New Political Sociology of Science (NPSS) to address more explicitly issues of justice and fairness. This paper was followed by Philipp Dorstewitz (Maastricht University, Netherlands) who presented the case of the Zollverein, an abandoned colliery and coking plant in the German city of Essen. Originally scheduled for demolition, the plant is now a protected cultural heritage site. Understanding the dynamics around this transition process as an urban laboratory, Dorstewitz drew on the pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey to make the claim that the laboratory is above all a place of work involving situated inquiry concerned with identifying the potentials inherent to particular contexts.


The second session commenced with a paper by Michael Liegl and Björn Krey (University of Mainz, Germany) in which they critiqued the Soziale Stadt (Social City) program in Germany. Focusing on the website of this program, they argued that this website is a ‘centre of calculation’ because it is a place to which particular urban neighbourhoods submit their reports and where findings are documented, archived, and redistributed as templates for new applications to the Soziale Stadt program. The tension in this program – which respondent Beth Greenhough described as the “thorn inside the laboratory model” – is that agency is centred in the website and the institutions responsible for this site, but at the same time distributed to citizens under the heading of participation and empowerment. This question of participation also returned in Andrew Karvonen’s (University of Manchester, UK) paper on design and practice-based research. Using ANT to conceptualize the city as a relational achievement, Karvonen argued that despite the increasing influence of relational perspectives, most relational researchers still rely on well-established qualitative methods such as interviews and ethnography. To address this, performative research methods that explicitly recognize research as a form of engagement need to be developed. The closing part of his paper addressed the case of design practices that combine participatory action research and community outreach to substantiate this claim.

On the second day, the morning session started with a paper by Beth Greenhough (Queen Mary, University of London; co-written with Tim Brown and Steve Cummins who could not attend the workshop) on experimental aspects of public health. Also drawing on Latour, she argued that laboratorization involves a series of three key moves: from enlisting the interests of those outside the laboratory and isolating phenomena thought to be significant to the development of an intervention in the field. She used this framework to analyze two public health cases: the promotion of ‘green space’ in nineteenth century London and the contemporary Health Towns programme in England. A paper by Paula J. Davis on urban laboratories and the African city concluded this session. Drawing on empirical data from Kampala in Uganda, she traced the problematic assumptions in the mainstream laboratory studies tradition as well as the discipline of urban studies when approached from the perspective of non-Western cities. Rethinking Thomas Gieryn’s ‘lab-field shuttle’, Davis argued that this model (which Gieryn claims underlies the arguments of the Chicago School of Sociology on the city of Chicago) cannot easily be translated to African cities, since African cities never attain the status of a laboratory. Instead, these cities are usually seen as “monstrosities” highly specific to the locality or the “Third World”. In effect, the generalizability promised by laboratories disappears.

The next session included papers by James Evans (University of Manchester, UK) and Christian Solberg (University College London, UK). Evans offered a detailed discourse analysis of the Social-Ecological Systems (SES) approach that underlies current debates on urban resilience and sustainability. The SES view of the city as an unpredictable social-ecological system and as a terrain for scientific experiments needs to be criticized, he argued, since it depoliticizes processes that are fundamentally political. Within the SES approach, nothing is outside the laboratory. In contrast, Solberg’s paper investigates the dark side of ecology by focusing on earthquakes and the disaster sciences. Earthquakes are usefully understood as natural experiments that reshape the urban environment. Disaster sciences try to regulate and stabilize these experiments by developing a range of anti-seismic technologies and building styles. He supported this argument with empirical data from colonial Manila and Meiji-era Japan.

In the final session of the workshop, Ignaz Strebel (ETH Zürich, Switzerland) discussed his paper (co-written with Jane M. Jacobs, University of Edinburgh, UK) on the scientification of architectural form through practices of high-rise mass housing. Focusing on 1961 and 1971 reports on mass housing architecture in Britain, Strebel and Jacobs demonstrated how the ‘building facts’ inscribed into such reports are produced and preceded by messy scientific work. In taking this comparative approach, they identified two models of laboratorization although they suspect that other models exist. Their findings are echoed in the closing paper by Michael Guggenheim (University of Zürich, Switzerland) in which he identified a number of conceptual problems with the “laboratorization of everything”. Criticizing overly metaphorical uses of the laboratory concept to describe urban processes, Guggenheim argued in favour of two new notions: the locatory and the unilatory. Where the laboratory is characterized by placelessness (following Robert Kohler) and inconsequential action, the locatory is tied to a specific location and its actions are consequential and typified. The unilatory, similar to the laboratory, also creates an inside/outside distinction, but the object it aims to manipulate cannot be controlled since it is not in the laboratory. More explicit than Strebel and Jacobs, Guggenheim argued that the identification of these three types points in the direction of a theory of research types.

Although the goal of this workshop was never to reach consensus on the one and only correct definition of urban laboratory, a number of core issues did return and are in need of further development. First, the notion of laboratory has been heavily shaped by the STS laboratory studies tradition, but other theoretical lineages – such as the pragmatism of Dewey, relational sociology and the NPSS – offer the potential to extend and transform this STS tradition in exciting ways. Second, most case studies appropriated the notion of urban laboratory to investigate particular spaces within the city and with good reason. Conceptualizing the city as a whole as a laboratory is questionable since it downplays the inside/outside dynamic of laboratories, ignores the uncontrollable aspects of such a complex phenomenon as the city and tends to depoliticize the notion of laboratory. Third and finally, applying the notion of laboratory to urban processes raises questions concerning the types of intervention developed by researchers. Although this workshop clearly led to a conceptual clarification of the notion of urban laboratory, more research on new interventionist methods is needed. This also raises questions concerning participation and the role played by non-academic researchers and actors in shaping the object of research, which are all issues currently also discussed in other parts of STS.


One response to “Summary of the Workshop

  1. thank you for your work!
    there is a house in bremen which had multiple uses in the past (including rehabilitation of drucg addicts), which was officialy turned into an “urban laboratory” lately:

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