GaWC Research Bulletin 437

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Global Environment Change and Global Urban Change: Research Opportunity, Research Practices and Research Obligations

P.J. Taylor*, K. Askins**, M. Barke*, A. Collins*, R. Kotter*, G. O'Brien*, P. O'Keefe* and J. Swords*


Starting with the observation that social science research has had a relatively limited impact on climate change science, we identify the co-incidence of two historically unprecedented global processes - projected critical environmental changes and seemingly unrelenting urban growth – as a research opportunity to create social science knowledges that can make a key intervention in the climate change conversation. Treating these mega-changes as intimately connected social products, we use Jacobs' urban development theory to identify cities as special places for economic, social and political innovations. Thus our ‘urban century' may have the collective creativity necessary to deal with the travails expected of it as ‘crisis century'. The practical research implications of the theory are an eclectic bottom up approach to knowledge production wherein participatory action research and actor network theory are featured. As a final step we consider the possibility of a global radical version of ‘we are all in this together' politics.


But it doesn't matter cause I'm packing plastic
And that's what makes my life so f***ing fantastic
And I am a weapon of massive consumption
And it's not my fault it's how I'm programmed to function
Lily Allen “The Fear”

Prologue: Social Science and Climate Change

According to the British Academy/ESRC workshop summary on sustainable prosperity we will need nothing less than a ‘new enlightenment' to combat the contemporary fixation on material wealth (Ince 2014, 7). This intellectual revolution is necessary because, as the World Social Science Report 2013 tells it: ‘global environmental change changes everything' (ISSC/UNESCO 2013, 22). No wonder the British Academy/ESRC discussants call for ‘more ambition from the research community' of social scientists (Ince 2014, 17). Such entreaties, at varying degrees of anxiety, are becoming commonplace in a growing expectation that macro-social change in the twenty first century is not going to be ‘what it used to be'. We are concerned for both the unfolding social change itself and the manner in which we have been trying to understand it..

The call for social science1 research to be more ambitious reflects the fact that such work has not figured prominently in the major debates currently proceeding on climate change policy, The physical scientists, organized as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have produced data, models, scenarios and predictions that call for government actions just as a dominant neo-liberal politics across the world, funded by corporate interests, is calling for a smaller state sector. Despite this contradiction being a quintessential social science matter, social science research has been largely squeezed out of this critical dispute between these global factions. This is not for the want of trying; it is just that social science research on climate change has found it difficult to make a decisive impact.2 The contrast between IPCC reports and the International Social Science Council's report on ‘Changing Global Environments' (ISSC/UNESCO 2013) is telling in this respect. Although there is an attempt to provide a framework for social science research on the subject, the report consists largely of disciplinary and country reviews and case studies lacking any semblance of coherence whatsoever. There is simply no social science narrative to engage with academically, politically or socially: we know the IPCC's story; the same cannot be said for the ISSC.. The first step for ambitious social science is to find means to address climate change through insertion into the global impasse between the IPCC and corporate neo-liberalism in new and radical ways that matter.

One possible way of doing this – and the central focus of this paper - is to look again at how cities relate to climate change. Our starting point is that we treat this in an affirmative and active manner so that it constitutes a research opportunity to provide an alternative global context for social science input into climate change research. We apply social science knowledge of cities – from the field of urban studies - to questions previously treated through disciplinary state-centric lenses that simply ignore cities.3 Breaking out of these cages, an alternative research programme can focus explicitly on what is a key unit of macro-social change in a theoretically informed way. This is not the same as considering cities as environmental problem – their supposed detrimental green footprint – or as environmental victim – most cities are vulnerable to rising sea levels because of their low-lying locations – both of which are typically based on empirical studies that do not address conceptually the nature of cities themselves and focus instead on practical mitigation (e.g. UN Habitat 2011, Bulkeley 2013). Using a theoretical treatment of people living and working in cities we provide a social science narrative of our global urban world to engage with climatic change research and politics.

In addition the chosen approach leads to further implications for both research practices and research obligations. For the former, an emphasis on ways of living in urban worlds requires methodologies to be employed that are intrinsically tied up with an epistemological requirement for ‘bottom up' research. And furthermore, this engages with important obligations with respect to how individual participations are integrated into the research. There are also obligations to the wider society that funds our work. Put bluntly, in the context of climate change, as we have suggested previously, society deserves more from resources they currently make available for social science research on this vital topic. Our contribution to rectifying this is to develop an argument that since we now live in an urban world – twenty first century as first ‘urban century' - just as with global environmental change, global urban change also ‘changes everything'.

Introduction: Urban Worlds of Smart People

In this essay we address climate change as a social product. We live in a world of ever expanding economic demand that is being fuelled by ever increasing production. There appears to be no evidence of this consumption being satiated, so that economic growth has become a social necessity to meet the needs of the ‘haves' and frame the hopes of the ‘have-nots'. Climate change is telling us that the Earth cannot ecologically maintain this global social model (c.f. Dauvernge, 2008)..

But human-induced global environmental change is not the only mega-trend defining our times: the worldwide expansion of cities is also unprecedented historically. It has been widely reported that the urban population now outnumber the rural population globally. However, emphasis on passing the 50% threshold misses the point about this seemingly irrepressible urbanization. By midcentury the urban proportion is likely to be about 70%, constituting some seven billion people: a global urban world. This juxtapositioning of cities as humanity's ‘greatest invention' (Glaeser 2011, 6) with climate change as potentially our greatest calamity (Emmott 2013, 7) should send our social science antennae into a frenzy. Put another way, if we accept that modern humanity's vital effect on the environment has generated a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, then we add to this ongoing debate (Johnson et al 2014) that, in Glaeser's words (ibid, 1), we have become ‘an urban species'. Our basic point is that the ‘anthro' part of this label is essentially urban and thereby should be integral to climate change discourses and practices as such. The research opportunity is to offer a specific way forward focusing on working and living in cities, on understanding the role of cities in current expanding demand, so that this might be transformed into credible ideas for future new ways of living worldwide.

The urban studies literature we deploy for this task is large and diverse – from social anarchists (e.g. Bookchin, 1995) to urban economists (e.g. Glaeser, 2011) – in which it is argued that cities are particularly special places. Since ‘cities enable people to become smart by learning from other smart people' (Glaeser 2010, 5), they unleash human potentials with results that can be best described as extraordinary (Taylor 2013). This is a consequence of unparalleled communication densities within and between cities (ibid., 99), or - again quoting Glaeser (2011, 7), -‘cities speed innovation by connecting their smart inhabitants to each other'. It is the reason cities have such a strong historical track record for changing ways of living. As centres of myriad innovations they have been the crucibles of all civilizations; the latter literally means societies containing cities. These special places have been converting peasants into new ‘citizens' for millennia; the former migrate to cities precisely to take advantage of the enhanced opportunities there. In the modern world, industrial cities changed traditional ways of living into modern clock-based disciplined behaviour in places (factories) and flows (railways). And most important for our argument here, nineteenth century cities in major countries around the world morphed established bourgeois thriftiness into consumption-driven behaviour (Laermans 1993), a new way of living that has been inherited and exported as continuously expanding global demand. Notice that the latter has not derived simply from any particular policy, public or private, and therefore we should not expect it to be subverted by a simple policy fix today. Rather it is a matter of unfolding social process. The process we investigate are cities themselves, following Jacobs (1969), Castells (1996) and Sassen (2009), who, from quite different theoretical perspectives, each insist on treating cities as complex networking process.

The question we address in this essay is how might we turn around our social, now global, consumption-driven inheritance? We argue that the twenty first century's billions of people are singularly special because, as largely urban dwellers, they encompass city potential for changing ways of living at an historically unprecedented rate. But potential is only theory, are there research practices that could work with this spatial accumulation of inherent ‘smartness', to develop the creativity of cities and generate sustainable living? There is an emerging (arguably re-emerging) orthodoxy that pathways to sustainability need to be informed by bottom up knowledge generation and engagement (e.g. Ince 2014, 18-19). This is because it is becoming widely accepted that ‘changing lifestyles' is what is required, stimulating questions such as: ‘Can we use people's sense of fairness to promote a paradigm change towards the more equitable and efficient use of resources?' (ibid., 15). In this quest there is inherently a requirement for ‘new data and methods' in which ‘learning should be regarded as an output just as much as the research results themselves' (ibid., 17).

In the above matters, we follow the spirit of these opinions of British Academy/ESRC discussants, but we depart from the more patronizing tendencies within their bottom up advocacy:

How can we respect and involve people who lack expert knowledge but whose opinions are valid for all that? We know that even people who have not studied the matter deeply accept the need for new energy systems. What tangible and imaginable scenarios can we generate to make the future seem more real to people who don't spend all day thinking about it? What might past transitions in infrastructure and behaviour suggest about possible future directions? (Ince 2014, 18)

We have already noted that ‘past transitions' have been predominantly urban in nature and not led by policies devised by ‘experts'. The experts in city smartness are the people working and living in cities and thereby constituting cities as special places. As social scientists, we acknowledge our research obligation to those who participate in our particular city work, to better understand how a sustainable future might be constructed. For our part, this essay consists of two sections, first an outline of our guiding urban theory and second, an exploration of relevant ‘bottom-up' methodologies. Our intention is that these sections should be viewed as wholly knitted together; their separation and order is for pedagogic reasons only. It is in this synthesis that we claim some fresh approach to cities and climatic change. In a short final section we conclude with a brief discussion on the implications of this synthesis for alternative politics of climate change.

Theory: Cities as Economic Development, and its Ecological Implications

Jane Jacobs (1969, 1984) identifies cities as the prime loci of economic development. In her argument the origins of cities result from trading, a behaviour unique to humans that has huge ecological implications. Whereas other animal species reproduce future generations by using strictly local resources in their home territory or along their migratory paths, through trading humans are able to use non-local resources in their social reproduction. Initially a very minor feature of reproduction (less than 1% of artefacts in very early settlement excavations), intensification of links between trading camps coupled with concentrations of specialist production resulted in the emergence of small city networks of commerce (Taylor 2013). It is from this point that economic changes, building upon non-local transactions through cities, created the latent capacity for societal reproduction to cause global environmental catastrophe. But such city processes have been proceeding for several millennia before the current century in which we appear to be on the brink of realising the catastrophe. To understand how we got to this position (and how we may get out of it) requires an urban economic theory of what happens in, through and between cities.

According to Jacobs (1969) economic change is the result of two master economic processes, innovation and import replacement, which are both features of city creativity. In this argument innovation is a function of the size and complexity of cities, where problems generate new demands that only these creative places can satisfy through new production and consumption. Import replacing derives from the diffusion of innovations through city networks of creative places, where innovations can be improvised for local production and consumption. Both processes generate new work thereby increasing the complexity of a city's division of labour. It is this that defines economic development as a special case of economic growth. An economy can grow by just increasing what is already being produced – adding more old work to existing old work such as doubling the output of a factory – but this does not diversify a city's division of labour and hence does not qualify as development. Thus cities are special settlements because of their complex dynamic divisions of labour resulting from their innovations and import replacements: it is these that make cities the prime units of economic development. As such, they are crucial for understanding today's ever-expanding demand.

One of the key advantages of this urban economic theory is that it provides the mechanisms for understanding the internal and external relations of cities together. In the broader literature, these are usually treated as agglomeration/cluster processes (e.g. Fujita and Thisse 2002) and network/connectivity processes (e.g. Taylor 2004) respectively, each providing cities with specific externality advantages. In Jacobs' work they are entwined in multiple urban spirals of economic development in which the crucial mechanism is import replacing. This generates explosive economic growth, short periods of time in which a city rapidly develops into a larger and increasingly complex economy. In contrast, the growth generated by exporting produces only relatively slow economic growth. In fact, the more a settlement's economy is dominated by exporting, the more it becomes dependent on distant markets and will experience little or no development even if exports (old work) grow. The limiting cases are ‘company towns' producing one product that is wholly exported and thereby constitutes a simple dependent economy with little or no development capacity.

However, in complex cities exporting is important for two reasons. First, exports are obviously necessary for the process of import replacing (from innovation in other cities) to operate. Second, a set of cities vibrantly import replacing (using and adapting each other's innovations) will eventually become more and more economically similar, increasingly negating the need for trade and thereby stagnating – trading exports are required to prevent this eventuality. Thus in successful cities exporting and import replacing operate together: a continual stream of innovations is needed to initially spark network vibrancy through export and diffusion of innovation, and then for further export followed by diffusion to keep the network vibrant and dynamic. This economic development spiral is a combination of exporting and import replacing, creating more and more complex divisions of labour within cities and through their networks.

So what has gone wrong with this growth process? From the beginnings of cities, economic development created more and varied work in cities at a relatively steady rate so that urban dwellers remained below 10% of populations across the world before the modern era. The fundamental change was the elevation of commerce from just one element of traditional societies into the dominant feature of modernity as capitalism (Wallerstein 2004, 23-41). This unleashed city economic processes, resulting in spirals of ceaseless capital accumulation with revolutions in (mass) production and consequently in (mass) consumption. Simply put, modernity is caught in an economic logic in which social reproduction requires ever increasing material growth. The result has been that economic development, increasingly based upon non-local transactions, led first to an imperial/dependency world economy of food and raw material flows, which then intensified into our contemporary economic globalization of myriad production and consumption flows. It is this corporate/inter-dependency world economy that is unsustainable as both inputs (raw materials) and outputs (pollutions) have become seriously problematic.

Key are the ecological implications of this process: harnessing non-local sources of reproduction enabled by trading has today culminated in what Jacobs (2000) calls a cultural breaching of the behaviour necessary to ensure ecological sustainability. Reproduction of a species requires ‘traits which prevent it from destroying its own habitat' (ibid., 119). For instance, many large animal species develop behaviours that check habitat destruction – these occupy time that could otherwise be devoted to material reproduction. Seemingly ‘social activities' prevent damage to the environment that would result from continuous grazing by, for instance, elephants, or incessant hunting by, for instance, lions. It is this ‘social' behaviour that prevents full-time exploitation of an environment to its destruction and thereby facilitates reproduction of the herd or pride. Of course, humans have highly developed social behaviours that have checked habitat destruction for most of their existence through reproduction as hunter-gatherers. But the danger of enhanced non-local reproduction is a very different matter, and a few millennia of cities and a few centuries of capitalism have finally undermined whatever evolutionary safeguards were in place. Initially, new behaviours were invented in cities to create a vibrant ‘social life' (e.g. guilds were as much social (religious-based) as economic (occupation-based)) but in modern urban worlds the social has been largely enveloped by the economic. Thus the contemporary domination of the social by consumption behaviour (e.g. shopping as prime leisure pursuit) has turned the traditional social time constituted by diversionary protective behaviour into a modern social time constituted by increasingly destructive behaviour. It is this toxic transformation that is being reaped in the twenty first century.

If cities are centrally implicated in the problem, how can they become part of the solution? This is where we depart from the usual ‘solution' argument on relative energy efficiency due to the compactness of cities (OECD 2012). Such arguments are valid yet limited; such thinking does not address the essence of cities, the work done in urban buildings irrespective of how energy efficient they are. Focusing on work provides an alternative way of seeing cities as ‘green'. Cities are actually the most self-sufficient of settlements; and further, the larger the city the more self-sufficiency. This is a direct result of import replacement, which is effectively a continual process of economic localization (Taylor 2012). It is this basic point that provides a first intimation of how we might move from a world economy as global growth machine to a global steady-state economy. But as we have seen, import replacment operating alone (i.e. without exporting) generates stagnation. As a solution to global sustainability this creates its own set of problems, not least removing the benefit from the propensity of urban worlds to generate innovations as a celebration of creative humanity. Thus rather than a static landscape dotted with green (compact and stagnant) settlements as a post-carbon geography, we should aspire to dynamic green networks of cities as a steady-state scenario that is vibrant and appealing.

Our argument seems to have reached a non sequitur: ‘dynamic stability' (Jacobs 2000, 84). How can green city networks be both steady state and dynamic? Of course they cannot if we continue to think solely in economic growth terms; we need to be thinking about urban worlds as more than mechanisms of economic development. For a city network to qualify as green there are two basic requirements. First, a matter of changing logistics: necessary trade – not all material needs can be supplied locally – has to operate on an intervening opportunity metric of distance to minimise flow (Stouffer 1940). This implies significant governance innovation: a new governance of flows very different from boundary-obsessed modern management of flows (e.g. protective tariffs versus free trade policies). Second, a matter of changing social time: there has to be a rebalancing of the material reproduction with the social. Treating cities as more than concentrations of economic activity has traditionally been a crucial part in any city's development, what Jacobs (1969) calls the ‘rounding out' of its work in terms of the social institutions of its times. Hence innovations emanating from cities have always been social and political in addition to economic (e.g. as well as inventing departmental stores, Victorian cities' are famed for their museums, art galleries, libraries, botanic gardens and zoos to educate the public,). The modern nexus of the material with the social as consumerism needs to be unravelled. The resulting new ways of living require cities to generate alternative social inventions that regenerate diversionary behaviour, which is ecologically protective. The new work from such innovations can be diffused through city networks so that creative cities continue to develop complex divisions of labour, curtailing economic growth by largely substituting myriad social developments for myriad economic developments. The research opportunity, then, is in this vision of a steady-state commercial economy with a vibrant society, operating through social-growing cities in dynamic green networks.

Method: Exploring Cities as Crucibles for Generating Knowledge

This green networks vision is intended to operate as a guide to our practice in a loose sense. It does not set out a goal to pursue, rather it identifies principles upon which research can be developed. Green networks of cities are one example of a post carbon geography that can be envisaged from what we know generally about how cities can develop, a possible preferred end, but we must make clear from the beginning that there are two unpredictability imperatives that transfer from the theory to the practice. First in terms of the complex nature of the city: every city is ‘self-organized and is making itself up as it goes along' (Jacobs 2000, 138) so that surprises are inherent to how cities change. Second in terms of the unknowable nature of the future: ‘nobody can predict better ways, let alone “best” ways, of doing familiar things – to say nothing of things not previously done at all' (ibid., 140). As argued above, innovation emerges through the people and process in and of cities; this was how consumerism developed in the nineteenth century and it will be how it can decline in the twenty first century. It follows therefore that

‘(t)he mistake is to conclude in advance that you already have the answer you need … Maybe you do, but probably you don't. Successful bifurcations tend to start modestly and be tested as they work their way into economic life – or else are dropped' (ibid., 140)

The challenge for social science, then, is to search out those modest changes that may have the potential to generate a vibrant and sustainable urban world, found in the experiences of contemporary urban dwellers negotiating their lives through dynamic cities. Such knowledges will inevitably be emergent, contesting and complex, raising unexpected ideas to be further explored.

Further, the study of future change in the twenty first century has its own specific methodological implications. A wide range of literatures proclaim that we are facing vital social changes: titles such as Wallerstein's (1999) End of the World as We Know It and Jacobs (2004) Dark Age Ahead describe a world very different to that we are used to. Given the demise of long standing modernity outlined in such literatures, debates regarding which specific methodologies are most relevant to study which specific interpretations/aspects of modernity are becoming besides the point: all methods, including new and emergent methods, are on the table because we are not in a position to define the interpretations, purposes and thus knowledges we need to meet our needs. Uncertainty requires eclecticism; moreover, it demands integrated methodological approaches in which epistemology is a central feature of the research practice. Two paradigms that we consider here are participatory action research (PAR) and actor-network-theory (ANT).

PAR is explicitly a bottom up approach to research praxis, ‘in which people collectively try to understand how they stand in relation to and interact with one another and the world' (Passila and Oikarinen 2014, 210). The core aim is, according to Askins and Pain (2011, 806), to ensure that

‘people who would be research subjects in more traditional approaches become producers of knowledge in research processes, in policy development, and in moving towards positive social change.'

This means that PAR is ‘a radical epistemological challenge to the traditions of social science, most critically on the topic of where knowledge resides' (Fine 2007, 3). PAR opens up new spaces for participatory knowledge co-production, reframing the “problem”, pushing scholarship in new directions and advancing theory and practice (Cahill 2014).

In particular, the ethical basis of PAR is important: paying close attention to issues of power, voice, agency and relationships within the research process, ensures that ‘research progresses through dialogue and co-ownership between researchers and participants' (Askins and Pain 2011, 806). Raising critical questions with regards to the purposes and audiences of research, PAR seriously engages with critique regarding the ways in which ‘expert' research not only embodies, but reproduces class, raced, age, and gendered hierarchies (Torre et al. 2012).

With its central focus on working with communities, PAR research praxis emphasizes working as change. Emphasis is on process, such that developing methodological tools become part of the research – new, creative ways of producing knowledges are always possible since learning processes are iterative and continually emergent (Passila and Oikarinen 2014). PAR, then, is more than a single ‘method', or even a set of methods, rather it is open to a variety of potential methodologies through which to empower participants:

‘Scholars of participatory action research have relied upon and utilized surveys, logistic regressions, ethnography, public opinion polls, life stories, testimonies, performance, focus groups and varied other methods in order to interrogate.' (Fine 2007, 4)

In its ethics, approach and epistemology, then, PAR has much to offer future research regarding climatic change and cities, and our understanding in this paper of social shifts in perception and behaviours as bottom up rather than policy-led.

In association with PAR we argue ANT is also relevant to the research opportunity outlined above, because it is based upon a broader interrogation of the ‘social' (Latour 2005, 1) that emphasises a sociology of associations. This leads to a relativist, dynamic and bottom up approach:

‘The duties of the social scientist mutate accordingly: it is no longer enough to limit actors to the role of informers offering cases of some well-known types. You have to grant them back the ability to make up their own theories of what the social is made of. […] Using a slogan from ANT, you have ‘to follow the actors themselves', that is try to catch up with their often wild innovations in order to learn from them what the collective existence has become in their hands, which methods they have elaborated to make it fit together, which accounts could best define the new associations that they have been forced to establish.' (ibid., 11-2)

Further, much work on ANT and ‘assemblage' foregrounds the ontological nature of Latour's associations of the social, critically unpicking the roles that material objects and the physical world play in how the social world unfolds. This is crucial in addressing our subject of climate change, and research on the topic more broadly (ie. outwith a focus on cities and the urban per se) is increasingly opening out to materiality and more-than-human geographies4 as vital – taking ontologies of water, air, food, etc. seriously regarding nature, ecology and sustainability (see Hinchcliffe 2010; Braun 2006). While in this essay we are addressing climate change as social product, increasing urbanization and changing climatic conditions have material effects in and beyond cities – what Brenner (2013) calls ‘planetary urbanization'. These process are affecting resource availability, mobilities and migration for example, and these cannot be ignored in how people experience living and working in cities. Research practices must be open to the role of such materialities in innovation and human potential.

Paying attention to the more-than-human also gives us a frame to better unpick the neoliberal agenda regarding ‘smart cities'. Contemporary corporations have been quick to understand the co-incidence of climatic change and urban growth and their joint potential for levering a new realm of capital accumulation. Beyond the traditional urban profits from real estate booms, a new corporate push towards creating ‘smart cities' conceives ‘smart' in a narrow sense, reduced to machines, technology and data. Throughout the world, new tech behemoths in the communication and computer industries are pitching their wares on ‘reprogramming cities'. Despite the significant creativity behind emerging products, they are peddling a simple instrumentalism:

‘Resource shortages and climate change don't have to mean cutting back. Smart cities can simply use technology to do more with less, and tame and green the chaos of booming cities' (Townsend 2013, xiii)

This is a classic case of what Monbiot (2014) calls the corporate smothering of social change movements – who challenge the social and environmental impacts of such unfettered capitalist growth - by attempting to recoup resistance discourses and ideas, and providing an encompassing support that de-radicalizes.

Within this corporate discourse, data generated from smart cities networked though an internet of things, complemented by user generated information, is heralded as a key resource to address social issues. As Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, puts it: “Technology is not really about hardware and software anymore. It's really about the mining and use of this enormous data to make the world a better place” (cited in Morozov 2013, ix). The power of data is widely known, but amongst the new breed of data evangelists and technology corporations is a set of worrying premises that states a) data and technology is all you need, b) data is neutral, c) it will change everything, and d) solutions don't require deep analysis of the data: “The era of big data challenges the way we live and interact with the world. Most strikingly, society will need to shed some of its obsession for causality in exchange for simple correlations: not knowing why but only what ” (Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier 2013: 7 original emphasis). The nature of this smart urbanism, then, is undergirded by a neo-liberal, market-led solutionism which redefines problems before providing techno-centric answers for individuals and governance organisations to buy (Morozov 2013; Kitchin 2014). Fortunately, as Townsend (2013, xiii) explains, grassroots social change that differs from what corporations would want is occurring in cities:

‘just as corporate engineers fan out to redesign the innards of the world's great cities, they're finding a grassroots transformation already at work. People are building smart cities much as we built the web – one site, one app, and one click at a time.'

Contra corporate discourses, methodological approaches that conceive a wide range of interconnecting actors is crucial if we are to understand how change happens, on the ground, not led by policy or technologies designed by experts, but as people become smart by learning from other smart people in and through cities.

ANT and PAR methodological approaches, then, resonate with the research opportunity we outline earlier, in their epistemologies grounded in ‘emergent knowledge' that unfolds through research practice, and we conceptualise them as mutually (re)informing one another. Following Wills' (2014) discussion regarding academic ‘engagement' with/in research and publics, we emphasise the political agency of humans as key, retaining a sense of human agency and critical awareness of how identities are made and remade in urban worlds, often through action (after Gibson-Graham 2008). There is a need, given the complexity of dynamism of contemporary cities, to hold in tension concerns about power, performativity, subjectivity and ontologies of becoming. Wills outlines an epistemology of engagement intended to practice ontological politics (after Mol, 1999), engaging in the world, as part of creating new ideas, and bringing a new world into being: research interventions as ontological politics, opening up new (real and virtual) city spaces as emancipatory potential.

Final Step: Emancipating the World?

We have argued for confronting climatic change as a dynamic social product with alternative city development that rebalances economic innovations and social innovations. The politics of this process is encapsulated in a research methodology that builds new knowledges embodying emancipatory potential. It implies a gradual process of myriad modest changes that are socially transformative. But this will have to occur in a prevailing world of politics that is currently not supportive of such political change. In other words we need an extra step in our argument to engage with, and confront, ‘real existing politics' at local, national and global levels.

Of course existing politics have their own dynamisms and how we understand the way these relate to future changes depends to a large degree on how modernity is treated as a historical process. We can debate with Latour (1993) as to whether we have ever been modern but we can surely agree that that we cannot be modern indefinitely. In this essay we reach this position by explicitly equating modernity with capitalism – in Wallerstein's (1979) terminology modern world-system and capitalist world-economy are but two sides of the same coin. From the latter perspective contemporary globalization represents the high point of capitalism's success that foreshadows its demise. The neo-liberal politics and its resulting growing material inequalities are a current power dynamic that, as we noted in the prologue, appear to be inimical to negotiating climate change. It is this that provides a political opportunity through cities, whose growth is also concomitant with capitalism's success.

Be that as it may, immense material inequalities remain the critical ‘elephant in the room' and have to be seriously engaged with in any discussion of an unfolding politics, not least in incorporating the inherent substantial smartness in the mega-cities of the ‘Global South' (Robinson 2012). At present ‘green politics' appears on the left-wing side of the modern political spectrum. This results from adding green initiative proposals to state policies to reduce carbon emissions, which translates into interfering with the market and increasing (green) taxes at a time when the right is striving for a smaller state. The neo-liberalism overrides the fact that stewardship of the environment – a necessity for green solutions - is a strong tradition in right wing politics from within its aristocratic (Europe) and philanthropic (USA) bases. This suggests today's oppositions are not set in stone when it comes to climate change.

The usual political bifurcation envisaged for the twentieth first century pits left against right, which Wallerstein (2004, 87) dubs ‘the spirit of Porto Alegre' (social and environmental movements) facing ‘the spirit of Davos' (neoliberals and globalizers) (Taylor 2013, 355). This is, of course, a continuation of the politics of modernity reflecting material inequalities. But currently this contest is highly unbalanced; neoliberal political hegemony at capitalism's zenith appears to have resulted in the 2008 financial crisis and consequent global economic recession being used to consolidate the power of the Davos party (e.g. welfare states for labour being converted into welfare states for capital). Swyngedouw (2013) has interpreted this as allowing the growth of ‘non-political politics' whereby the threat to ‘Nature' is used as a means to foreclose political conflict through ‘consensual governing and policy making' (ibid., 5). Of course, this is a ‘we are all in this together' (WAITT) politics commonplace to right wing mobilizations often very successful in times of inter-state conflict when presented as threats to the nation. What Swyngedouw is telling us is that this politics has been ‘up-scaled' to a global WAITT through a new ecological ‘invocation of fear and danger' (ibid., 3).

But the emancipatory politics we have premised as developing through knowledge building in urban worlds is a very different political animal. Swyngedouw quotes Beck's (2010) concern that depolitization is preventing a new ‘modernization of modernity' (ibid., 2) but we have identified modernity (aka capitalism) as the problem; modernizing it cannot be a solution. We are in the business of thinking through an alternative radical WAITT politics linking climate change effects to growing material inequalities. Unlike reactionary WAITT politics with its technocratic simplification, there can be another WAITT politics that does not forestall different emergent possibilities. This requires imaginings and political innovations to complement the economic and social innovations previously discussed. And cities are the likely locale where political innovations transcending modern politics of states can be spawned.

In this scenario the inter-state system - a spatial mosaic of sovereignties - has been and will continue to be a political recipe for how not to attend to global issues (free rider imperatives rule) while cities can become the arenas for the contest between opposing WAITT politics. Political networks of cities do have historical precedents such as pre-modern leagues of cities to draw on (Bookchin 1996) but the twenty first century is certainly not a matter of history repeating itself – political innovation within cities and between cities are as unpredictable as other city innovations. Bookchin's (1995) ‘confederal municipalism' does provide insights into what might be possible but can only have the status of a ‘guide in a loose sense' as previously denoted for green networks of cities. The bottom line is, as Pilon (2012, 2) tells it, drawing on Harvey (2006, see also 2012, x): ‘It is not only the right to urban resources, it is the right to change ourselves by changing the city: the kind of city we have is linked to the kind of human beings we are willing to be'. This is where social sciences can seriously contribute to climate change conversations; we are explorers trying to find how to make the twenty first century as ‘urban century' reach its exciting potential as an immensely – sustainably - creative humanity.


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* Department of Geography, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne

** School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow

1. We use the term social science to include the humanities; both deal with the human condition and social change albeit using various different methods for various different ends. We consider the boundary between these studies to be fuzzy enough to make distinguishing them unproductive.

2. For instance in the UK a contrast can be made between Giddens' (1998) earlier work on the ‘third way' in politics that defined a government (‘New Labour'), and his more recent, less influential work, on climate change (Giddens 2009). The nearest example of a social science climate change study being politically influential is Stern's (2007) economic report on climate change, though its impact appears to have been short-lived. However this is not to say that social sciences are missing from debates – in fact Urry (2011, 10, 16) laments the dominance of economics in this respect and aspires to promote sociology as replacement – but using the content of Hulme (2009) as our guide, climate change debate has not drawn deeply on social science theories with economics (on markets) and political science (on governance) being partial exceptions.

3. Such omission of urban worlds ranges from otherwise comprehensive assessments by Jackson (2009), who foregrounds creativity, novelty and change but with no reference to cities, to Emmott's (2013) populist plea for urgent action which foregrounds demographic growth to ten billion people without any reference to their concomitant urbanization. Cities do not appear in Hume's (2009) portrayal of the debate on climate change.

4. We can also link to Non-Representational Theory (NRT) and Science and Technology Studies (STS) here, unfortunately beyond the scope of detail in this paper.

Edited and posted on the web on 18th August 2014