Urban geographer Ash Amin explains to Robin Wilson why modern metropoles can be hubs of innovation and dynamism.
Robin Wilson: Let me start, Ash, with your idea of cities as networks of myriad social actors. Frustrated by the rise to power of Louis Bonaparte after the 1848 revolution, Karl Marx described the smallholding French peasantry, from which Bonaparte’s authoritarian reaction drew much support, as akin to ‘a sack of potatoes’—an inert aggregate of separate individuals. By contrast, for you, the vibrant character of contemporary metropolitan milieux, from Barcelona to Budapest, derives from this networked connectedness. Can you explain what is going on here, perhaps with examples?
Ash Amin: Well, cities are certainly not sacks of potatoes. If anything, I would call them gathering points, gathering points of diverse peoples, institutions, cultures, technologies, past histories and, of course, global connections. And in this, let’s call it—after Doreen Massey—thrown-togetherness, arises the possibility of creativity and innovation that’s afforded by constant churn, enabling infrastructures and institutions, social and cultural diversity, an ecology of connectivity and, finally, an urban symbolism of advancement and opportunity.
Now of course none of this is guaranteed. And in fact all cities, in the global north or the global south—whether it’s London or Bamako—have their abundances of misery, exclusion and abandonment. But in the amassment of plural life and the coming together of multiple geographies of connection in the city is offered the possibility of making opportunity, of exceeding the standard, of exploring newness. And this can happen in the central business district, in the marketplace, in the slum, in the in-between of the internet and the street.
You could say that in the modern city, everywhere in the world, there is a kind of situated potentiality, which of course could go in any direction but very often it steers towards harnessing new energy. And there is in this city of thrown-togetherness a considerable infrastructural capacity that underwrites the experiments of social innovation.
For you, it is not just important that cities engender connections among their citizens, conceived of in the abstract. It matters that these individuals are diverse and that this diversity makes of exchanges among them learning experiences which spur innovation—which, for instance, Oslo, Europe’s fastest-growing city of recent times, recognises with its promotion of in-migration and a diversity charter which enterprises are invited to sign. But why should such ‘moments of encounter’ not be dialogues of the deaf—in the way the ancient Greeks first described as ‘barbarians’ those they encountered speaking unintelligible tongues?
Become a Social Europe Member
Support independent publishing and progressive ideas by becoming a Social Europe member for less than 5 Euro per month. Your support makes all the difference!
Well, interestingly, in the city that contains myriad people, spaces and happenings—let’s call it the ordinary city everywhere—as it happens, most people do pass by each other without connecting with or acknowledging each other. This city does host a ‘dialogue of the deaf’, which isn’t necessarily a brake on creativity as long as the urban environment itself offers a way forward through its centres of learning, sources of finance, spaces of sociability and of course provisioning infrastructures.
So when this dialogue of the deaf involves what I would call a civility of indifference to difference, such that the city’s diverse communities can go about their lives without the numbing conformism of anti-immigration national politics today, that’s no bad thing. If this takes place in an environment of shared urban commons, where there are no wars over access to the means of flourishing—well-kitted out public space, liveable neighbourhoods, various infrastructures of education, credit and connectivity—then this civility of indifference to difference offers the possibility of plural and diffuse forms of innovation.
In this kind of city, there is no requirement of encounter or recognition between the strangers who inhabit it—only the signal that from the overlaps of shared resources and spaces might arise a certain mutuality of cohabitation, a social disposition towards inhabiting the common city. This at least is one line of thinking I’m pursuing in my book After Nativism, which is out in September with Polity Press, on what lessons there are to be learned from practices of urban cohabitation for a progressive politics of belonging in an age of intolerance.
And I want to come back to that when we talk a bit about the politics of Europe’s cosmopolitan cities today. First though, in a previous book you wrote with Nigel Thrift, Seeing Like a City, you described the city as a highly complex, machine-like entity. This implied that its governance could only be what you described as ‘collaborative, strategic and inclusive, not panoptical’. In other words, city administrations cannot imagine themselves to be omniscient and omnicompetent but must engage a wide range of actors and stakeholders in an iterative dialogue. So how should progressive city governors lead with that in mind? And how can they distil that complexity into a narrative in which citizens can have confidence?
Well, there is one panoptical implication that arises from seeing the city as a kind of infrastructure machine, which is that here progressive municipalities could use urban infrastructures to engineer generalised wellbeing, instead of fashioning grand utopian plans or rolling out, as we find today, data-led ‘smart cities’. Now in the case of cities with very sharp social and spatial exclusions, this would mean ensuring that good-quality and affordable services and collective facilities are more equitably distributed. Provision of land, public space, housing, education, healthcare, energy, water and sanitation, and of course of work and social insurance could become matters of fiscal priority, public ownership and in general of distributive justice far more than they are now. And they could become such as questions of collective survival.
The justification of such extensions of infrastructure could be a moral one. But, more importantly, it must be a political justification, beginning with city leaders persuading publics of the wasted potential and costly harm of organising the city for only the few.
But you’re also right about the limits of godlike public administration. The city of thrown-togetherness is, of course, the city of plural authority and agency, which is dispersed in its material systems—machinic intelligence, for instance—in its different communities, in its different institutions and neighbourhoods. And, of course, let’s not forget, this is always an agency that comes through the imprint of past legacies.
Now these autonomies resist any attempt to over-engineer, to oversteer, to overwrite the city. They redirect the politics of the ‘master plan’ towards open design, where the role of the authorities should be to harness various kinds of expertise—to set out the ley lines, and only the ley lines, of a possible future. The authorities could incorporate intelligence from the urban palimpsest, from the past, and from lived experience. And they should routinely readjust priorities through a series of ongoing public audits and consultations.
These autonomies press city leaders fundamentally to decentralise power and authority and also to recognise embedded and vernacular intelligence as a form of expertise while attending to the great challenges of bringing things together, through synergy, complementarity and radiated gains. So this plural and embedded authority redefines urban strategy as the art of temporal awareness, collaborative anticipation and, above all, diplomatic negotiation, which is quite a challenge of public persuasion and governance in the case of many 100-mile cities of ten million inhabitants and millennial evolution—a challenge we are trying to explore in a five-year international programme on humanity’s urban future, which has been funded by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
So that’s what it looks like from the city hall looking down to the street, so to speak. In terms of a facilitative leadership as you present it, let’s look up from the city hall to the national government—seated in the same city where it’s a capital city. Because on the one hand Europe’s cosmopolitan cities tend to be ruled by progressive coalitions of left, liberal and green parties but they often find themselves politically at odds with national governments in which populist parties—their support mainly drawn from small towns and rural areas—have a veto power. Think London, for instance, ruled by its (nominally) Muslim mayor, opposing the ‘Brexit’ driven by the right-wing Conservative government at Westminster. Progressive figures from the capitals can of course offer themselves as national leaders, as with António Costa who graduated from successful Lisbon mayor to Portuguese prime minister. But how else can these municipal coalitions avoid being hemmed in by conservative national governments and indeed shift the terms of political trade nationally in their favour?
There is an irony in the populist turn, in the sense that it is both nationalist and localist: localist in expressing a fervent desire for ‘popular rule’ (whatever that means) and above all, the preservation of regional identities—admittedly, in this case, without elites, cosmopolitans and migrants. But nonetheless, the localism of the populist turn presents an opportunity to progressive urban coalitions.
If they can make the case for an open and inclusive city, with no preordained sense of place or deserving or meritorious subject, a political opening exists for mounting a progressive localism through collaborations between municipal and regional assemblies—those assemblies that can show they’re capable of delivering generalised wellbeing and social security without the strictures, the constraints, the exclusions of nativist localism, which privileges only particular social subjects.
That said, progressive municipalities are increasingly collaborating with each other internationally. Through their representative bodies—and there’s a host of these international bodies of city mayors and progressive municipalities—they are acquiring formidable political power and of course economic capital, because most of these circuits include capital cities.
What we see through the formation of these international, intercity alliances is a de facto circumvention of conservative nationalism in the major centres of population concentration, which could shift the terms of political trade nationally, as you put it, by developing what I would call a charismatic politics of devolved nationhood. Isn’t this exactly why nationalist governments so often fear municipal democracy?
That’s very interesting, because if were to take Ulrich Beck’s notion of cosmopolitanism—the ability to make a connection with the other at every level, from the local through the regional to the national to the global—what matters in this context, whatever the scale of the government we are talking about, is this progressive ability to make connections in ways which perhaps disarm some of the populists, since this is a politics without any enemies and populism is defined as a politics with enemies at its heart. Is that a fair way of describing what you’re saying?
It’s a very fair way of describing it. Very much starting from Beck’s acknowledgement that cosmopolitanism is an ability to work with multiple geographies of formation and connection, it is not to deny globalism but to work with it while at the same time not negating the local or saying that the local is parochial—far from it. Doreen Massey had a fantastic phrase, which is to work with a global sense of place—to be as committed to a place as you are to its place in the world.
Equally, with that kind of cosmopolitanism, you automatically seek out international alliances and local commitments that, in a sense, work in synergy with each other: you don’t, as a municipal authority, ‘go global’ for the purpose of then neglecting particular forgotten communities—displaced people, black lives in your own homegrown patch. And the trick to this kind of municipal globalism is to ensure that the internationalism you embrace essentially works from below. That’s the sine qua non.
To come back to your point about the populists, of course they always present themselves not only as counterposed to some Other—whether they be Roma or members of some other ethnic group—but they also present themselves as hostile to what’s represented as a ‘metropolitan elite’ purportedly out of touch with their sense of the local, of the street. So what you are implying is that it is possible to have a progressive alternative which is at least as much in touch with the street but, because it’s a politics without borders, can also extend completely transnationally and globally.
Yes and this politics of the street is not one which privileges particular ‘subjects’. It works with all the subjects, all the bodies who find themselves cohabiting on the street: black, white, brown, disabled, of multiple genders and the rest.
One of the things that’s emerged from the Intercultural Cities programme of the Council of Europe has been how much it matters to newcomers to cities, migrants and refugees, to feel they have a sense of local citizenship—that they quickly have a right to vote, for example, or otherwise feel that they are treated as equal members of the local citizenry, regardless of quite what their legal status is. Symbolically, that really matters to people. From what you’re saying you would tend to bear that out.
Very much so. In After Nativism, one of the arguments is that if you look at multicultural or multi-ethnic cities, if you look to the ground, of course you will find racial conflicts and a politics of aversion. But in many, many, many neighbourhoods, you will find a daily practice of getting on and getting by, which is not a daily practice of mutual respect and recognition but of different communities—for want of a better word, black and white—essentially sharing the same set of goals, which is to survive and to flourish in the urban environment, to make home, to secure one’s future.
And interestingly, from bottom up, whether you’re talking to migrants or majorities, in Stockholm, in Kinshasa, in Naples, in Belfast, in Brussels, their sense of the other, their proximities with the other—through the common resources and common spaces that are shared—are much, much stronger than the nativist fiction of people of different backgrounds at war with each other. These two narratives are worlds apart.
So from what you’re saying one of the ways these global cities can be glued together, finally, is by this common sense of ‘home’—that the city can be a common home to everyone who is a denizen of it, wherever they are from and whatever their precise status might be. And from the standpoint of the city as a whole, if it’s generating the public goods and the infrastructure you’re talking about and giving an opportunity to everyone, it may turn out to be a very well-performing place to be.
It will be innovative and creative in the way you would want it to be.
This is the first piece in a series on Global Cities, supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
Ash Amin is professor emeritus of geography at the University of Cambridge and author of numerous works, including with Nigel Thrift, on the city. His most recent book is After Nativism: Belonging in an Age of Intolerance (Polity Press).