Investigating Testbed Urbanism in Cape Town: Urban Experimentation and ‘Developmental Design’ for Resilience and Sustainability

An increasing number of global decision-makers is rallying behind the idea that (co-)design ‘solutions’ can help alleviate the plight of people living in poverty. In consequence, African cities have become primary testbeds for urban-focused design interventions; not least those seeking to intervene – with the help of advanced technology and ‘big data’ – in the realm of climate change adaptation and disaster risk mitigation. This begs the questions: How can we understand design, resilience and smartness as selectively entangled governmental imperatives or ‘worlding devices’, deployed to manage African urban futures?

Urban testbeds are heterotopias, i.e. experimental world-making dispositives that hold up a mirror to our contemporary cities, while also offering unforeseen openings for new ideas and pathways for human development to emerge. In turn, urban experiments “transform territory, population, truth, and risk with implications for representative government, subjectivity, and urban form” (Halpern et al. 2013, 275), thus making them an exciting and multifarious rubric to empirically understand urban change.

Cape Town is a place where entrepreneurial and developmental urban governance logics frequently rub up against each other. It is also a city that allows for interstitial thinking, a “conjunctural city” that requires relational and trans-disciplinary research approaches to grasp its intricate urban dynamics. This idea of Cape Town as a conjunctural city also resonates with recent arguments around the so called ‘Southern’ turn in urban studies that urges scholars to move beyond siloed Theories (with a capital ‘T’) like global cities, state-rescaling, developmental governance, and even postcolonial urbanism and develop new vocabularies careful contextual observation and engagement.

Hence, in line with the project’s aim of contributing to place-based knowledge production through nuanced ethnographies, the project will employ a methodological mix of observation (non-participant and participant where possible) and in-depth narrative interviews with city officials, design practitioners, NGOs and representatives of communities where specific design, smart city and resilience ‘solutions’ are piloted.