The Wicked City

The published version of ‘The wicked city: Genealogies of interdisciplinary hubris in urban thought’ is now available online at Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. (Let me know, and I’ll happily send the PDF – here is the pre-publication draft). The paper explores the revival of interest in the concept of wicked problems over the last couple of decades, and how this intersects with the breakout of ‘metrophilia’ (i.e. the widespread interest in the idea that cities and urban practices of all sorts are the key to ‘solving’ all sorts of global problems). Methodologically, the paper is another exercise in the empirical analysis of social thought – more specifically, it works through the idea of tracking ‘ascriptions of responsibility’ as a way of taking problematizations as an object of analysis. This kind of analysis is developed on the understanding that rather than taking it for granted that everyone is talking about ‘cities’ these days because loads of people – more of them, and a greater proportion of them – live in ‘cities’, it might be worthwhile cultivating a kind of ‘epistemic surprise’, as Foucault had it, when faced with the proliferation of ‘true discourse’ about urban life in the twenty-first century: “a true thing’s reality is never the factual reason why the truth of this thing is said in a discourse.” (It’s best too not to reduce the appearance of such a thing in discourse to some version of ‘ideology’).

My discussion of the wicked problems idea in this paper is specifically focused on its relation to what I refer to as ‘urban thought’, but this is just one part of a wider trend of renewed interest in this concept. A recent PhD by Anke Gruendel locates renewed interest in the emergence of governmental rationalities indebted to design-thinking – and includes a fascinating discussion of how the intellectual debates in the 1960s out of which the wicked problems idea was developed included discussions between Horst Rittel, the originator of the idea, and Jürgen Habermas: Anke’s account demonstrates the degree to which the idea of wicked problems is centrally implicated with core questions of critical democratic theory.

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