Cities of permanent experiments and atmospheres of reception

We have been thinking quite a bit about the effect that urban experiments may have on cities, particularly when sustainability experiments become business as usual. This was inspired by our recently work on an Innovate UK project, On Street Residential Induction Charging (or OSRIC for short). The project involves the deployment of wireless chargers for electric vehicles. The idea is, once EVs become mainstream, using wired connections will be undesirable because nobody wants to have cables running across every pavement.

OSRIC is a technology trial, with a handful of chargers to be installed in locations in Milton Keynes (MK), the Borough of Redbridge in London and two or three Buckinghamshire towns. In Milton Keynes OSRIC builds on the expertise, institutions and even on the narratives developed during a previous experiment, the “Plugged-in Places” programme for the deployment of EV charging points that ran between 2010 and 2013. Plugged-in Places, in turn, was enabled by the Milton Keynes’ Low-Carbon Living programme. This led to the deployment of further wired charging infrastructure, a wider Low-Carbon living programme and to Milton Keynes installing wireless chargers for an electric bus route.

The point is that MK has experiments sitting on top of experiments that are also sitting on top of other experiments. At the same time, there are multiple unrelated experiments going on simultaneously sometimes in isolation and sometimes interacting with each other. This happens all the time in cities but what is interesting about Milton Keynes is that such design and technology experiments have played a particularly prominent role in the city’s development and continue to do so.

A non-exhaustive list of the experiments that are taking place in MK would have to begin with its grid road layout and would also include: the Home world and Energy world exhibitions for energy-efficient housing, the MK energy cost index that would later evolve into the National Home Energy Rating, the UK’s first purpose build Materials Recycling Facility, the FALCON smart grids project, the MK:Smart smart city programme, the Vivacity sensors for the detection of traffic and pedestrians and the Urban Traffic Management Centre they connect to, the Autodrive driverless car project, the Starship autonomous robots delivering groceries to people’s doorsteps and, of course, the already mentioned wireless eBus, the Plugged-in Places charging points and OSRIC.

The impact that a continuous stream of experiments might have on the city is unclear. One thing about experiments is that by definition their outcomes are uncertain. Some experiments failed, for example the 1970s attempt at including postcodes on road signs. Most have had a legacy of some kind. Experiments are driven by exploration rather than by masterplanning. To further complicate things, the various experiments mentioned above were planned and implemented by a variety of coalitions with their own agendas: the Milton Keynes Development Corporation (the government agency that steered development to 1992), MK council, various national government agencies such as InnovateUK, the Office for Low Emission Vehicles or the Higher Education Funding Council for England and also a variety of private actors ranging from small start-ups to developers and transnational consultants.

Now, it is said that too many cooks spoil the broth. Cities are generally more complex than soups so the question is… how can one design and govern a city that is constantly re-shaped by urban-scale experiments? Karvonen (2018) looks at the issue in terms of “cities of permanent experiment” and Cugurullo (2018) speaks about the threat of “Frankenstein urbanisms”. They explain that the emergence of urban experiments points towards small scale, tentative interventions that incrementally shape urban development, countering the reliance of conventional urban development on ambitious, comprehensive, and long-term planning. Cities embrace uncertainty as they reinvent themselves through fragmented projects made up of a plethora of sub-projects which do not act in concert. Cugurullo warns of the danger that even when urban experiments conceived designed and implemented on an individual basis perform well, their lack of connection may create fragmentation so that what is nominally a cohesive smart city will degrade into a patchwork of disconnected built environments.

Milton Keynes runs counter to such a negative viewpoint. It has managed to ride the wave of permanent experiments rather successfully and Frankenstein urbanism has been largely avoided. There are surely many factors behind such success but here we will explore one: the cultivation of atmospheres of reception and experimentation.

In everyday speech, one can talk about the atmospheres of places, people and things: epochs, societies, streets, rooms, meetings, landscapes and much more are all said to possess atmospheres or be possessed by them. Atmospheres are used to denote shared feelings and moods in a particular space or environment. Importantly, the things that people feel have an effect on what people can do.  Every affect is experienced both as a particular feeling state and as a distinctive variation in one’s willingness or capacity to act in response to that state.

Thus, we may claim that Milton Keynes has a particular atmosphere of reception that makes the city amenable to urban experiments. Some cities have it, such as Manchester or Barcelona. Many others do not. Each city has its own atmosphere. Nobody could possibly mistake MK and Barcelona… and yet both of them and many others become cities of permanent experiments, each in its own way.

The “Utopia Station” at the Festival of Creative Urban Living (AFCUL) – a purposeful intervention to foster an atmosphere of reception and innovation in MK

An important feature of the atmosphere is that it is lasting and that it exerts force in a certain direction. It makes certain interventions into the urban form possible and at the same time it may resist others.  It may well be that Milton Keynes has not become an example of Frankenstein urbanism not because of a master plan or because of the leadership of individual actors – a single leader no matter how visionary or charismatic could not possible herd so many cats. The atmosphere of the city as a whole may be able to do it, however. The atmosphere is obdurate and it is patient, shaping the sediment of urban experiments spanning decades. It may well be that the atmospheres of reception and innovation of MK can exert sufficient pressure to align the heterogeneous experiments that take place within the city into a coherent whole.

Credits – Joint article reporting on research by Dr Miguel Valdez, Professor Matthew Cook and Emeritus Professor Stephen Potter

References:

Cugurullo, F. (2018). Exposing smart cities and eco-cities: Frankenstein urbanism and the sustainability challenges of the experimental city. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 50(1), 73-92.

Karvonen, A. (2018), The city of permanent experiments? In: Bruno Turnheim, Paula Kivimaa, and Frans Burkhout (ed.), Innovating Climate Governance: Moving Beyond Experiments (pp. 201-215). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108277679

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