Accepted Paper:

Cities as test fields. Urban innovation projects as democratic experiments  


Roman Solé-Pomies (MINES ParisTech)
Brice Laurent (Mines ParisTech)

Paper short abstract:

This paper analyzes a state-sponsored program of urban innovation. It introduces an understanding of cities as "test fields", to account for the practical conduct of the program. We discuss the controversial "democracy of test fields" that emerges from urban experiments.

Paper long abstract:

In 2010, the French state launched a 668M€ investment program called "Ville du futur" ("future city"), which subsidizes hundreds of energy, transport or risk management projects in 31 French cities, often involving public and private stakeholders. Drawing on an empirical study of some of these projects, we show that the program encompasses not only technical, but also political experiments, which re-problematize the principles of democratic ordering.

We first comment on the description of the program in the official documentation. Here, the experimental objective is explicit. The industrial prototype is used as an analogy, cities being expected to be laboratories isolated from democratic life, where these prototypes can be field tested. We then turn to the practical conduct of these projects. Drawing on a field study focusing on a dozen of projects in two cities, we show that the prototype analogy fails to account for the diversity of actors involved, the variety of their expectations, and, eventually, the many experiments they are involved in, including about what cities themselves are. Cities are then better described as hybrid "test fields" where the practices of local government are re-defined, than protected laboratories for field tests isolated from democratic life. We conclude the paper with a reflection on the "democracy of test fields" that emerges from the projects of the "Ville du futur" program. We discuss the changing role of the state as it is expected to act as an assessor-experimenter, new political roles of economic actors, and alternative imaginations of democratic ordering.

Panel E09
Experiments in democracy