My research interests lie at the junction of the two macro areas of Science, Society & Technology studies and Space, Society & the Environment.  My works can be mainly ascribed to the Critical Geography and Urban Studies domains, but I  firmly believe in the power of transdisciplinary research as the only able to produce powerful social technology tools.

I’m interested in innovative modes of geographical production, planning and governance performed by heterogeneous, multilayered and multiscalar networks. Notably, I wonder how these networks assemble and negotiate socio-environmental issues, and how the material and semiotic implications of their agency is brought to the public fore.

Research approach and methods for qualitative social research include: Social Construction of Technology (SCOT); Sociotechnical Imaginary and Discourse Analysis; Participatory (Action) research; Actor-Network Theory/ Material Semiotic; Scenario Building; and Social Network analysis.

Against this broad framework, I particularly proposed the following original approaches or theories:

1. Critical Digital (Participation and Innovation for) Urban Governance

Picture by Veronica Vitale

I am interested in understanding how digital and societal technologies interplay in producing innovate participatory processes that cha(lle)nge the traditional forms and function(ing) of urban governance. This entails investigating, amongst the other, the following questions: what novel agents have emerged in the digital age and do they exercise agency in public space? What are the contestations and antagonisms brought about the massive introduction of digital technologies in the urban life? How critical issues of monopolist appropriation and control of infrastructure and power imbalances, opinion polarisation and manipulation, (cyber)control, data-protection and censorship, limitation of freedom and social dissensus pigeonholing, trust and legitimacy are brought to the public fore and addressed via the city governance? Stepping beyond the dichotomy between the post-political technology-optimism of the smart innovation perspective and the positions of the “wisdom of the crowd” discontents, I aim at offering a critical appreciation of the epistemological, geographical and socio-political challenges posed by digital social innovation in line with those prefigured by the “Shared Digital Europe” manifesto.

I name this form of agency as Critical Digital Social Innovation and describe this as:

  • Deconstructing the re-production processes of the neoliberal city (instead of perpetuating them);
  • Advancing collective agency to answer unsatisfied needs by transforming social institutions (e.g. welfare systems job organization, unsustainable models of consumption…) and political institutions (direct action instead of representative);
  • Creatively re-interpreting the political possibilities of intervention in the public space;
  • Being performed by heterogeneous and plural constellation of social actors that empower social relationships from the bottom-up;
  • Contrasting the material and symbolic commodification of urban (public) space rooting on ideals aspiration for more equal, democratic and sustainable society.
Photo by Chiara Certomà

Therefore, critical digital social innovation characterised political agency as a form of performative, instead of discursive, material-semiotic practices endowed with a political value. This is the object of my current research on “the ordinary political” that characterises as a “spatialized political procedure  [that] can be made enduring and give content to the equality expressed in the extra-ordinary events in the aftermaths of the insurgencies” (Swyngedow 2014 ).

This research line builds upon my previous work on what I called “spontaneous smartness“. It investigated how different social agents imagine and assemble the city via smart technologies and processes; and how smart configures, engages and empowers (or not) social differences. The research focused on the emergence of spontaneous smartness (i.e. the effect of bottom-up agency of heterogeneous actors deploying the potential of smart processes toward innovative community-oriented initiatives) which addresses different social needs via creative&collective smart solutions; and avoid social differences to turn into inequalities.

2. Urban Political Gardening

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Photo by Chiara Certomà

For more than 10 years I worked on urban gardening (including allotments, community/collective gardens, guerrilla gardening and street gardening) to establish that (1) even though urban gardens has been seen from some academia as a pimp-your-neighbourhood activity, it actually addresses and affects some of the most striking issues of our time, such as the social and spatial injustice conditions, marginalisation and deprivation; and (2) urban gardening is a first and foremost a socio-political gesture that that is performed via the mobilisation of biological material and the activation of material-semiotic networks in the space of the polis.

3. Postenvironmentalism

Photo by Chiara Certomà

In line with the transformation of the political in the post-political age, post-environmentalism has been debated in environmental political theory from the 90s onward and has called for the re-politicisation of the politics of nature, which had been reduced by the global institutions’ mainstream to a matter of general consensus with no effectuality. My research is intended to advance a material semiotic interpretation of post-environmentalism theory and practice by starting from the recognition that the everyday making and unmaking of the world is a political activity which requires the mobilisation of the social, environmental, and techno-scientific dimensions all at once. Here heterogeneous social actors adopt a plurality of (linguistic and non-linguistic) means to exercise political agency by opposing resistance or practicing resilience, refusing assigned roles and dissolving or re-shaping social formations in the re-creation of nature, and engage in the transformation of space via a bodily form of politics.

4. Informal Planning

Photo by Chiara Certomà

Urban (social, spatial and political) planning is one of my long-lasting and deeper interest and constituted a file rouge amongst my researches on different topics. I started working on planning by digging deep into the hidden rationality of planning, even in those cases in which only the progressive face of power is apparently involved, to unveil the dark side of planning which is unavoidably present in the form of a disciplinary power. Elaborating on Flyvbjerg’s concept of “real rationality” I aimed to show it as the product of biopolitical technologies (disciplining of non-human further than human life), which makes it possible to control the “uncivilised” instincts of society through urban planning. My preliminary exploration of the constituency of public gardens planning in Europe lead me close to the elaboration of the informal planning concept which I conceive not as the climax of the liberatory power of urban counter-culture, neither the consequence of a progressive inclusion of alternative practices in the neoliberal institutional planning practice, rather as the expression of an emerging and transactive/fluid governmentality. Informal planning refers, thus, to collectively organised and structured initiatives aimed at designing the form and functions of public spaces and services in the absence of a legal definition, guidance and funds provided by the public or private sector. This allows the entering of informal actors in institutional planning processes and the redefinition of what is urban, and for whom.

5. Environmental Human Rights and Environmental Conflicts

Photo by Chiara Certomà

This research line is intended to investigate and document how far the definition in the 2014 of U.N. “Environmental Human Rights” (which expands the traditional understanding of environmentally relevant HRs focused on substantive rights, with procedural rights, whose violations are likely to both cause or to be caused by environmental harms) has been influence by Political Ecology theory and agency. This last critically deconstructs the mainstream liberal perspective to explain how environmental challenges are permeated with issues of power circulation and social justice; points out the mutual influence of environmental degradation and economic, social and cultural poverty; and offer the theoretical framework for the legitimation and discussion of environmental conflicts. My research aims at clarifying whether and under what condition environmental conflicts can be considered as originated from EHR violation or the inadequate application of procedural EHRs, in situations where state or non-state actors (particularly national or multinational enterprises) are threatening the enjoyment of the substantive component of these very rights.

6.  Politics of space and place

Photo by Chiara Certomà

In working on this research line I used environmental theory as a conceptual frame to investigate the politics of knowledge at the center of disagreements over the management of space, and to chart the great diversity of opinions over the significance of place identity for different actors involved in preserving, planning, or contesting spatial developments.

7. Post-rural development

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Photo by Chiara Certomà

Post-rural areas are characterised by social and economic dynamics produced by a large number of heterogeneous actors working on the contestation and re-assertion of local identity and the control over immaterial assets. My research consequently focused on the possibility for governing the complex relationship between stable and transient actors and the multiple tensions (e.g. resident vs. tourists, local vs. global, real vs. virtual, ancient vs. postmodern, tradition vs. innovation) these generate. The use of dedicate processes for  creating “listening territories” able to integrate local planning and management strategies has been also explored.

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