On Wicked Problems

Here is the pre-production version of a paper just accepted for publication in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, entitled ‘The wicked city: Genealogies of interdisciplinary hubris in urban thought’. (You can access a PDF of the final draft here).

The paper is one, probably the last, output from ‘The Urbanization of Responsibility‘ project, supported by a Leverhulme Fellowship back in 2014-2016, but which lasted longer than the funding, as these things do of course. (If someone gave me another fellowship, I might have the time to sculpt the various urban-focussed things that have come out of that project into a coherent looking book. Probably won’t happen).

Here’s the abstract to this latest piece:

“Across multiple academic disciplines and fields of policy, cities are now ascribed wide-ranging task responsibility for addressing a wide range of global issues. This paper elaborates a genealogical mode of analysis for understanding the ascription of causal and practical responsibility to urban processes. This analysis is developed through a case study of the revival of interest in the concept of wicked problems. The paper pinpoints aspects of the original account of wicked problems that are crucial to appreciating the significance now played by this concept in discourses of metrophilia. The focus is on the specific sense of ‘wickedness’ outlined in this original account. The career of the wicked problems idea is reconstructed, with an emphasis on different views of expertise and how these are related to the changing status of the city in recent accounts of wicked problems. The paper identifies differences and similarities between the two prevalent ways in which the invocation of the concept of wicked problems is used to ascribe responsibility for shaping urban futures – a ‘taming’ perspective and a ‘sharing’ perspective. In concluding, it is argued that the career of the idea of wicked problems brings into view the constitutive link between generalised ascriptions of task responsibility to urban processes and a set of chronic concerns about the ambivalence of urban expertise.”

Doing Research

IMG_2576Today is the formal start date of my Leverhulme Fellowship, the start of 21 months of focused research time exploring the ‘urbanization of responsibility‘, facilitated primarily by funding to cover some of my teaching (I still have plenty of teaching, it seems, and other things to do, too).

Actually, I’m still not quite sure how to set about researching what is potentially a huge and diffuse topic. One reason for this is that it’s been more than a decade since I have worked on an empirical project all on my own. I’ve worked on projects where other people have been doing the bulk of the empirical work, and collaborated with others on the generation and analysis of empirical materials. So this feels a bit like starting out on a PhD, all over again, just without a supervisor (let’s hope it doesn’t drag on and on though).

The project is, rather obviously, about things ‘urban’, whatever that might mean. I’m trying to avoid being captured by some standard ways of approaching urban things. At the moment, I’m interested in approaching ‘the urban question’ along three more or less unrelated paths:

– by thinking about the potential of the notion of problematization as a lens through which to think about how things show up as ‘urban’ things (that is, not thinking of problematization as something one does as a (critical) analyst, but as the object of analysis);

– by thinking a little bit more about the concept of responsibility, subject to a great deal or moralistic commentary in and around geography-land it’s true, but I’m more interested in linking this to the first theme of problematization, as a way of thinking about the ways in which fields of action are configured;

– not necessarily linked to these two speculations, I’ve also found myself collecting various ‘things to read and/or re-read’ on the topic of documents, a rather obvious topic to some extent given the proliferation of reports and commentaries produced about cities and urban problems; I have in mind a range of work coming from various fields in which the status of documents has become a renewed focus of attention: my list includes the work of Richard Freeman, Matthew Hull, Lisa Gitelman, Leah Price, John Guillory. The list also includes dear old Foucault too, as well as Miles Ogborn; and Harold Garfinkel on the ‘documentary method’ in everyday life, which somehow seems an important supplement to these other more or less ‘post-textualist’ approaches.   

The urbanization of responsibility

UntitledI’ve been on leave for a week or so, swapping the hustle and bustle of both Swindon and Exeter for the relaxing byways of New York City. Just before leaving, I found out that I had been awarded a Leverhulme Trust Fellowship, which I applied for before Christmas. The fellowship will provide space and time to work on a two-year project exploring the theme of ‘the urbanization of responsibility’. This is something I have written about in passing over the last few years (here and here, for example). Theoretically, the project builds on the ideas I have tried to articulate around the theme of ‘emergent publics‘ as well as ideas about the problematization of responsibility, amongst other things. It also develops some ideas that I first worked out as contributions to teaching programmes around the theme of ‘changing cities‘. I’m not sure if that means that the fellowship counts as ‘teaching-led research’?

Here is an outline of the research that I will undertake over the two years of the fellowship (along with other commitments, like book-writing, new teaching, school runs, that sort of thing). I still have to sit down and work out just what sort of real-world work this is going to involve (it’s a while since I actually had to do research on a project all on my own), and there are all sorts of routes down which this could lead, so if anyone has any thoughts about what to look at or who to talk to or what to read, I’d welcome any advice.