Participation is the moment/practice in which things that are otherwise taken for granted can be problematized.

My talk will depart from two observations concerning current transformations in urban politics. The first one is that one of the most significant technological challenges for contemporary collectives lies in the design, maintenance and integration of urban infrastructures. If politics is understood as the making of decisions that are collectively binding, then infrastructures are thoroughly political not only because they allow for new forms of collective bonds and ways of live to emerge, but also because they might be impeding or blocking the existence of others. The second observation is that the complexity of infrastructural arrangements of urban life makes conventional understandings of participation obsolete. Participation has become a site of experimentation in itself, being tentatively reshaped through different forms of collaboration with and between heterogeneous publics. What is crucial to understand is that these infrastructural and participatory turns in urban politics cannot be studied independently. Rather we need to understand where and how these developments empirically intersect and conceptually challenge each other. Exploring these crossings will be the goal of my talk.

In the first part, based on Ranciere’s distinction between the parts of a whole and the part with no part, I will discuss how participation in infrastructural design takes place in a smart city project in Munich. Thereby I will propose to adapt Ranciere’s distinction between citizens and demos to study user and non-user participation, paying especial attention to how the non-user comes to enact the political figure of an ‘idiot’ (Stengers 2005) capable of questioning what seems obvious, slowing down decision making and opening up alternatives. In the second part, I will problematize current infrastructures of participation – including those developing experimental methods for visibilization and empowerment of people’s concerns, knowledges and valuation regimes – for their lack of attention to technical experts and their deficitary understandings of publics and participation. Continuing the analysis of a current smart city project in Munich, I will discuss some of the tropes and traps set for luring public administration officials and experts into democratic participatory events.

Questions to discuss

  1. Is power increasingly logistic? Is technical democratization the answer?
  2. Should we stick to the formula ‘urban movements of the world, unite’? Shouldn’t they rather ‘specify’ or ‘design’?
  3. Under which conditions it is worth entering in collaborations with governmental actors? Is it okay to betray them?

Farías, I., & Blok, A. (2016). Technical democracy as a challenge to urban studies. City, 20(4), 539-548.

Prof. Ignacio Farias
Professor for Urban Anthropology, Institute for European Ethnology, Humboldt University of Berlin

Ignacio Farías is Professor for Urban Anthropology at the Humboldt University of Berlin since April 2018. He researches contemporary infrastructural transformations of cities and the accompanying democratic challenges. In 2015, he was appointed to the Tenure Track Assistant Professorship for Participatory Technology Design at the Faculty of Architecture of the Technische Universität München as sociologist and cultural anthropologist. Previously, he was Senior Researcher at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB).

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Posted by:Dr. Carolin Genz

Dr. Carolin Genz is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer at the Department for Cultural and Social Geography at the Humboldt-University and Research Associate in the Collaborative Research Centre 1265 "Re-Figuration of Spaces" in the project area "Knowledge of Space" at Technische Universtität Berlin. As an urban anthropologist in the intersecting fields of social anthropology, human geography, and urban studies, she constantly develops ethnographic methods to capture the socio-spatial constitution of urban practices. Her research focuses on spatial theory and practices of resistance, housing, and gender.

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