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Urban Laboratories: Experiments in Reworking Cities


  • The articles in this symposium originated in a workshop entitled ‘Urban Laboratories: Towards an STS of the Built Environment’, held at Maastricht University in the Netherlands in November 2009. The event received financial support from the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology Studies (EASST) and the Netherlands Graduate Research School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture (WTMC). We extend our gratitude to our fellow workshop co-organizers Sally Wyatt, Simon Guy and Ralf Brand, as well as to workshop participants, for contributing to a constructive space for trialling new ideas and approaches to urban laboratories. A special thank you goes to Tom Gieryn for his guidance and inspiration for this symposium.


The notion of the ‘urban laboratory’ is increasingly striking a chord with actors involved in urban change. Is this term simply a metaphor for urban development or does it suggest urbanization by substantially different means? To answer this question, we review the work of science and technology studies (STS) scholars who have empirically investigated laboratories and practices of experimentation over the past three decades to understand the significance of these spaces of experimentation in urban contexts. Based on this overview of laboratory studies, we argue that urban laboratories and experimentation involve three key achievements — situatedness, change-orientation and contingency — that are useful for evaluating and critiquing those practices that claim to be urban laboratories. We conclude by considering some future directions of research on urban laboratories.