Why do we Talk about Cities as Laboratories?

Public sector and academic groups are keen to treat cities as laboratories. There seem no end of groups, organizations, and companies that rhetorically connect labs to urban environments. If you want to study urban informatics, you might want to join UCL’s Urban Laboratory. The London Centre for Urban Science and Progress recently announced that they would “draw on the real experience and ‘big data’ available in cities, thereby using the cities themselves as living laboratories.” Philanthropic institutions have started to become involved in these efforts. The University of Chicago’s Urban Labs initiative recently received $10 million in funding from the Pritzker Foundation.

These groups have various histories and perspectives. Urban Labs seeks to influence policy, while MIT’s Senseable Cities Lab sees value in how sensors and mobile media connect residents in “smart cities.” My intention is not to reconcile these disparate perspectives. And even though I am wary about the unfolding political picture, I do not want to dismiss their efforts. There is much to laud about their approaches. A “city as laboratory” perspective tends to take a grassroots perspective to how residents view, behave, traverse, and live in cities. Yet, city-as-laboratory enthusiasts are performing a tricky balancing act. They want to fulfill resident needs, organizational prerogatives, and research desires all at once.

In many ways, cities are quite unlike laboratories. Scientific laboratories are carefully controlled environments. Cities are unruly spaces that resist measurement and management. Where did this vision of come from, and what are the implications of its rise?

Why Laboratories?

Students in an early 1900’s bacteriology lab

Robert Kohler’s book Landscapes and Labscapes traced the lab-field border in biology in the late 19th — 20th century. The boundary between lab and field was frequently crossed and re-crossed. Dirt from the field was brought into the laboratory, while researchers took tents full of research instrumentation into the field. A labscape was a “cultural zone with its own complex topography of practices and distinctions.” The hybrids Kohler traced over time enabled ways to balance control and openness while translating research to the broader public. Biologists in the late 19th century used a lineage of natural history to solidify public appeal. By the 1930s and 1940s “practices of place” emerged where biologists augmented field practices to treat particular places as sites for making causal claims through systematic observations and interpretations. The flow not only went both ways, but enabled new hybrid research concepts such as the “natural experiment” to enter the scientific world.

Perhaps the most famous study of the laboratory is Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life from 1979. They approached labs with an anthropologist’s eye. Most radically, they suggested that facts were socially constructed through instrumentation, lab talk, and publications. While the copious volumes in “laboratory studies” they founded evades easy summary, the distinction between inside and outside is particularly important. Latour and Woolgar were interested in the idea of border crossing, but were even more concerned about how laboratories held a particular power in society.

“Innovation must leave its closed laboratory and open itself up to the city and its users in order to be more collaborative and provide feedback.” 
City Lab in Nantes, France

Laboratories were sites of the construction of knowledge, tools and terms that carried authority. They permitted scientists to take ideas “inside” to bring them back “outside” as legitimated knowledge. Inside the laboratory was never hermetic; they were full of messy communication that gave coherence to knowledge, producing what we call “facts.” Latour went further, arguing that laboratories were “built to destroy the distinction” between macrosocial and micro-level laboratory science. He believed the world itself was being reshaped in the image of laboratories.

The City as a Social Laboratory

Social Science Research Committee population density map, University of Chicago, c1930–1934

In 1915’s The City, sociologist Robert E. Park described cities as complex, autonomous environments. They were “the natural habitat of civilized man” — living environments composed of traditions, cultures, behaviors and machinery mutually influencing one another. Cities also gave tangibility to the most pressing social problems. Chicago was the site of research and the Chicago School of Sociology that advocated an egalitarian and organic perspective on urban life.

To Park, the laboratory metaphor denoted the city simultaneously as a field site, source of empirical data, and site of experimentation. The prevailing wisdom of the day was that cities were harmful and dehumanizing. Park, by contrast, situated cities as beneficial ecosystems. Cities could be mapped and studied much an oceanographer would research a coral reef or a forester would approach a forest. The empirical “bottom-up” approach to social research Park and his collaborator Eve Burgess suggested was enormously influential on urban sociology.

In 1937, around the same as “practices of place” were taking off in biology, Park explicitly started framing cities as “social laboratories.” At the time, sociology was searching for legitimation as a social science. He took an ecological perspective on cities, framing them as living organisms. This was exciting and cutting-edge stuff at the time: thinking about all the moving parts of transportation, individuals, housing, and businesses that comprise cities as being “alive.” Approaching cities as laboratories provided insight into human collectivity and made social problems visible, but also controllable.

Park used scientific methods of maps and surveys to gain insight on human attitudes and behavior. These data, then, could capture the various moving pieces that constituted urban life. Cities allowed Park and the Chicago school to balance empiricism with specificity. While he stressed city-based research was often best described as case studies, also believed that “individual cities are enough alike so that what one learns about one city may, within limits, be assumed to be true of others.” As a sociologist, he was still concerned with how society was structured and patterned. These lessons could be tentatively transposed to other urban areas that exhibited similar physical features.

Sim City, where you can exert complete control without actual consequences. Not like most cities.

“Give me a Lab and I Will Raise the World”

The history of “city as lab” gives coherence to the range of public and private actors that adopt the metaphor. They seek recognition as authorities with empirical knowledge and the ability to intervene in unruly cities. They are activated by a bundling of ideas that reminds us of Park’s interest in cities simultaneously as a “truth spot,” a site for experimentation, and an opportunity for legitimizing reform. City-lab enthusiasts want to show that that particular interventions can lead to tangible positive results for residents. “City as laboratory” is a perfect metaphor for progressive improvements to civic life. In the current day, most progressive urban reform has only liminal effects. Advocates of progressive social change struggle to obtain political support and resources in an era of austerity measures. Theirs is a bootstrapped version of liberalism.

The point is perhaps not that the idea of viewing cities as labs is new or particularly radical. In fact, cities as laboratories revive quite old ideas from biology and sociology. Rather, the rise of the metaphor tells us more about what these groups seek in our current historical moment where it has gained traction. Latour would warn us that scientific authority is the true power structures that undergirds more formalized Politics. Vague but persuasive combinations of mobile media, “civic tech,” and urban design are starting to be taken seriously by academia, political institutions and funding agencies.

It is not yet clear how these new players will achieve their most audacious hope. This hope is often not about a new mobile app, or even technology itself. City-lab hybrids don’t want to just work around cities and city government. They want to change how they function. They are never just tinkering.

Thanks to Mihir Pandya and Nick Seaver for helpful suggestions on an early version of this post. Nick gets credit for the dirt and tents bit.