The Urbane Ecologist

Bulkeley, H. and Castan-Broto, V. (2012) “Government by experiment? Global cities and the governing of climate change.”

“Government by experiment? Global cities and the governing of climate change”

Harriet Bulkeley and Vanesa Castȧn Broto

Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

  1. Vol. 38.


  • over past 2 decades cities increasingly recognised as playing significant role in responding to climate change
    • transnational municipal networks increase, membership diversified
    • other actors (e.g. national gov’ts, WWF, World Bank, Transition Towns, HSBC, etc) have recognised
    • research — urban carbon accounting; urban metabolism, land use, land cover change; interaction between urbanisation, vulnerability, climate change; policies and processes of governance that might be best able to address these challenges
    • IPCC has specific chapters on urban dimensions of climate change in 2014 Fifth Assessment
  • paradox in enthusiasm for potential for urban resposnes to climate change
    • research suggests that translation fo political commitments and policy rhetoric into substantial and programmatic municipall responses has been limited. Municipalities that havve pursed comprehensive, planned approach to climate governance are few and far between and most have encountered significant challenges related to institional capacity and political economy
    • number of initiatives and interventions in cities that seek to address climate change appears to be proliferating (eco-development, new technologies, specific policies, community-based initiatives, corporate buildings, infrastructure renewal programs, etc); climate change increasingly attaching itself ot development, repair and maintenance of city
  • interventions that fall outside the framework of/addressing issues of limited capacity are regarded as curiosities — nice to look at but of little substantial value; this paper argues that rather than occupying margins of urban responses to climate change, such interventions can be regarded as climate change experiments that are central to the ways in which mitigation and adaptation are configured and tested.
  • this paper does two things: (1) considers how we can conceptualise/theorise experiments in urban context: consider how emerging landscape of urban climate governance is currently theorised and offer alternative reading that draws attention to ways in which governing is conducted through multiple sites and forms of intervention; offer three theoretical lenses for these experiments: governance experiment, socio-technical experiment, or strategic experiment; (2) establish extent to which climate change experimentation takes place in cities globally; have survey of experiments in 100 global and mega-cities
  • earliest urban responses to climate change are in late 1980s and early 1990s
  • municipalities adopt structured way of designing policy (e.g. ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainaiblity’s Cities for Climate Protection programme)
  • recent analysis suggests that rather than systematic and structured approach, prefer to implement no-regret measures on case by case basis; happened because as municipal authorities seek to engage with issue that is outside of core competencies, turn to enabling mode of governance that depends on discrete pots of financial assistance and on re-framing climate change as issue related to core agendas (e.g. financial savings, congestions, air pollution, urban planning, etc –resulted in fragmented, case-by-case approach to development of initatives and meausres
    • supported by events (e.g. sporting events, disasters, infrastructure renewal programs)
    • supported by funding (e.g. C40 Better Buildings programme)
  • “The ubiquity of climate change as a discourse ensures that it is attached to a range of different projects, from flood protection measures to tree planting schemes, which may have previously existed outside of the climate arena, adding to the fragmented landscape of human responses.”
    • for some this landscape indeicates the lack of capacity to coordinate and deliver integrated, planned approach for urban climate governance
    • for others, suggests that the idea of climate change is active across many human activities, institions, practices and therefore responses to climate change simply exceeds what is termed governance
    • moving beyond institutional account of governance to one that regards governing as a process orchestrated by “the will to improve…social processes” (Murray Li 2007a); an “explicit, calculated programme of intervention (of government)… is not the produce of a singular intention or will. it draws upon and is situated within a heterogeneous assemblage” of artefacts, knowledge, authority, agency, etc. (Murray Li, 2007b) à implies that interventions matter in both social and material sense, and they may provide critical means through which particular form of governing assemblage are established and maintained within an urban mileau
    • this analysis suggests that climate change initatives are critical means through which governing as normal takes place
  • two reasons why understanding urban climate governance is not only matter of analyzing development of strategy, discourse and policy
    • empirical evidence points to multiple forms of urban response that are happening that exceed categorization
    • theoretical position that regards governance as conducted through governmental rationalities and practices suggests that such forms of response may be centeral to ways in which governing is accomplished
  • suggests that analysis in this field needs to consider how, why and with what implications projects undertaken in name of climate change may intervene in the city; can be fruitfully considered in terms of experiments in order to signify their potential and also to recognize their often tentative nature
    • here, don’t use “experiment” in formal scientific sense but rather to signify positive interventions in which there is a more or less explicit attempt to innovate, learn or gain experience.


Urban climate change experiments as governance experiments

  • 1932 – Brandeis says US states may function as “laboratories of democracy” by “testing new ideas and policy proposals, gradually building a record of policy innovation that can be tapped by national officials when the time is ripe”; since then, sub-national governments have been studied as policy laboratories and places of experimentation
  • Hoffman (2011) offers alternative: twin pressures of disillusionment with process of international policy negotiations and fragmentation of political authority has created both political space and the imperative for an era of ‘governance experimentation’ (Hoffman 2011); Hoffman defines climate governance experiments in 3 ways (Hoffman 2009):
  • – this is practical measure to constrain the number of governance experiments under analysis because of proliferation of climate action plans at municipal level but also in conceptual manner
  • Hoffman (2011) suggests that actors are motivated to devise and implement experiments on basis of profit, out of sense of urgency, through desire to expand authority and claims to resource, or as form of ideological expression
  • roots of urban experimentation lie not only in shifts in international governing of climate change but also in restructuring of (local) state; analyzing geographies of urban climate change experiments can seek too examine whether differences can be discerned in nature and type of experimentation in relation to variations in political and economic dynamics of urbanization, or in terms of who is leading and funding experimentation


Urban climate change experiments as socio-technical experiments

  • niches are critical to process of socio-technical change
  • niches are primarily regarded in technology or market terms and as sheltering new forms of technological innovation
  • technological niches can be “made operation through (a series of) protected test beds such as pilot and demonstration plants where technologies are applied in a societal setting for the first time” (Raven, 2007)
  • social niches AKA bottom up experiments with environmental technology by various groups that operate outside institutional structures of firms and governments AKA “grassroots innovations” à novel forms of social organization co-evolve with technological artefacts and practices to create alternative forms of service provision
  • Smith, 2007: “intermediate” projects (including third sector organisations, individual pioneers, and mainstream building companies) that seek to “inculcate in the mainstream some of the principles and framings held in the green niche” are important in challenging dominant regime practices
  • across the technical and social perspectives on niche development, experimentation is regarded as critical to stability and dynamics of socio-technical regimes, although the ways in which experimentation is conceived vary
  • accounts that analyse political economy of experimentation have underplayed conflict as means through which experimentation arises and have neglected ways in which such interventions enact or challenge existing power relations – esp problematic in urban sustainability because “green niches” often “constructed in opposition to incumbent regimes” (Smith, 2007)


Urban climate change experiments as strategic experiments

  • cities have been area in which many utopian ideals have been tested (e.g. garden city, machines for living, sustainable communities)
  • in context of globalization, link between cities and creativity and innovation has been emphasized in studies looking at concentration of labor, institional networks, resources and infrastructures in city-regions associated with emergence of “social and cultural economies of agglomeration” (Jonas and Ward, 2007)
  • Focus of innovation generally technical; projects often embody passive sense of experimentation, where urban context functions as the background for particular interventions and function as a means for “testing existing forms of knowledge and technology” rather than giving rise to explicit processes of learning or efforts to redirect urban development (Evans 2011)
  • experimental quality of the urban seems to have become the focus for recent strategic efforts to address environmental problems
  • Evans 2011 – in the reading of Evans 2011, climate change experiments are regarded primarily as purposive interventions undertaken by research and policy communities and associated with a “particular style of adaptive governance that seeks to feed environmental monitoring back into a management process”, although a process that is more open-ended in response to emergent properties of system (Evans 2011)
  • this way of looking at experiments is better about showing conflict of these experiments; in this way of looking at things, experiments are the means through which discourses and visions concerning the future of cities are rendered practical and governable



  • adopt Hoffman’s general principle that experimentation takes place beyond existing channels of policy-making
  • three criteria to define an urban climate change experiment:
    • purposive attempt to reconfigure one or more socio-technical system for specific ends
    • explicit purpose is to reduce GHG or adapt to effects of climate change
    • urban in so far as it is conducted by or on behalf of an (imagined) urban community
  • select 100 cities by ranking 250 cities according to 4 different criteria and 2 additional weightings and add subsequent scores to select the 100 cities with highest aggregate scores
    • four criteria used:
      • total population in 2007
      • density in 2007
      • GDP in 2005 (from website City Mayors data)
      • role of city in international city networks using World Cities Research Network roster (Beaverstock et al., 1999)
    • two weightings introduced to favor includion of cities that participate in climate change city networks (C40 and ICLEI) and to favor cities that are ranked as most vulnerable to climate change (Nicholls et al., 2008; Stern et al., 2006; UN-Habitat, 2008)
  • search conducted in five languages, variety of literature. each city afforded roughly same amount of research effort
  • Cape Town and Joburg included in database
  • mitigation and adaptation experiments
  • five key sectors to represent mitigation initiatives: urban infrastructure, built environment, urban planning, transportation and carbon sequestration
  • five questions asked for each experiment
    • what type of social or technical experiment is being undertaken in which sector?
    • where is it taking place?
    • when was it initiated and completed?
    • who is involved in leading action, partnerships and funding?
    • how is it conducted?
  • database intended to provide snapshot of landscape


Where and when climate change experiments are happening

  • urban climate change experiments are relatively recent phenomenon with 79% of initiatives starting in past 5 years and only 5% preceding Kyoto Protocol – suggests that urban experiments may indeed be part of wider process of governance experimentation
  • most numerous in Europe, Latin America, and Asia
  • relatively recent emergence of experiments and their presence in rapidly industrializing global south could imply that norms and opportunities that are being generated by global climate governance are creating opportunity for experimentation within these regions
  • regional differences in the processes and political economies of urbanism matter in terms of extent to which emerging climate and carbon opportunities may be pursued


Where and how do experiments try to intervene in socio-technical systems?

  • regarding mitigation, the order of what is most common to least common: (1) urban infrastructure; (2) built environment; (3) transport; (4) urban planning;(5) sequestration
    • focus on built environment and infrastructure sectors shows explicit interest in production and consumption of energy (45% of all experiments have energy focus)
    • infrastructure – energy-related projects dominate at 78%; 17% in waste sector (often associated with energy provision from methane capture)
    • focus on energy may be associated with new market opportunities – e.g. forms of low carbon investment and finance, association between energy saving and financial gain, emerging forms of carbon control
  • paper has useful table with summary
  • In Asia, North America, Africa climate change experiments most frequently take place in urban infrastructure sector
  • Europe and Oceania – built environment sector is most common for experiments
  • Central and South America focus on transportation; likely connected to examples of Curitiba, Bogotȧ, Mexico City
  • Carbon sequestration most often in Central and South America, driven by interest in Amazon (Brazil) and urban treeplanting programs (Bogotȧ, Caracas, Lima, Quito)
  • fewer experiments specifically address climate change adaptation à clear distinctions in terms of different elements of climate change problem that are being addressed through experimentation; most adaptation initiatives concentrated in North America (pioneering climate change adaptation programs in Vancouver, Toronto, New York) and in Asian cities (esp. in coastal areas with previous experiences in disaster management)
  • across sectors, experiments seek to intervene in explicitly technical manner
    • only in carbon sequestration is social innovation predominant, reflecting community and institional engagement with issues surrounding forest conservation
    • technical innovation particularly predominant in urban infrastructure sector; programs dedicated to changing end-use behavior most common
  • “The significance of urban infrastructure systems and forms of technical innovation in climate change experimentation reinforces the notion offered by work on socio-technical regimes, niches, and experiments that the material fabric of cities is a critical site for intervention, and in turn for the governing of climate change in the city.”


Who is governing climate change experiments?

  • across diff. sectors, vast majority of experiments led by public-sector actors
  • 48% of experiments involve some form of partnership; local governments are actors that lead most (59%) of all partnerships but when analysed separately, only 42% of all actions led by local authorities are in partnership; initiatives led by CBOs, NGOs, private actors most often developed in partnership à suggest that processes of state restructuring and emergence of new state spaces may be critical to development of experimentation in this field
  • private sector actors are most common partner
  • most surprising is relatively limited participation of international organisations (e.g. World Bank, Asian Development Bank, UN) à show that limited attention has been given to urban climate change in political agendas of such organisations
  • most common form of partnership is between local authorities and private companies
  • multitude of different forms of partnership and institutional arrangement shows that experiments are creating new political spaces within cities à establish means to govern climate change in absence of polity (Hoffman, 2011)
  • At same time, emphasis on forms of technical innovation and material infrastructure systems suggests that such interventions provide a foci around which a heterogeneous mix of actors, ideas, artefacts, etc are gathered and assembled
  • find a very limited role for scientific or academic organisations in urban climate change experiments (unlike in other forms of living labs)
  • this paper/database tells us little about how and why experimentation is taking place on the ground



  • Three areas for future research:
    • need to determine kinds of experimentation that are emerging in distinct urban contexts, to identify the ways in which expermimentation is structured through political economies operating at different scales and through different circuits of power and finance, and to consider whose interests are served through these processes; will entail further analysis as to whether there are different typologies of experimentation, different forms of intervention or transition that they aim to produce and, if so, whether and with what effect these vary geographically
    • need to understand how, why, and with what effects experiments take shape within specific urban contexts: how experiments emerge, are established, and become part of urban responses to climate change and cto consider how experiments intervene in urban life
    • need to consider effects of experimentation – role in achieving climate and other urban goals, ways in which the interventions serve the interests of some over others; will consider effect of these experiments in relation to reconfiguration of urban socio-technical systems and whether they lead to broader processes of transition and change


References cited in notes

Beaverstock JV, Smith RG and Taylor PJ. 1999. A roster of world cities. Cities. 16. 445-58.

Evans JP. 2011. Resilience, ecology and adaptation in the experimental city. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 36. 223-37.

Hoffman, MJ. 2011. Climate governance at the crossroads: experimenting with a global response. Oxford University Press, New York.

Jonas AEG and Ward K. 2007. Introduction to a debate on city-regions: new geographies of governance, democracy and social reproduction. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 31. 169-78.

Murray Li, T. 2007a. Practices of assemblage and community forest management. Economy and Society. 36. 263-93.

Murray Li, T. 2007b. The will to improve: governmentality, development, and the practice of politics. Duke University Press, Durham NC.

Nicholls, RJ, Hanson S, Herweijer C, Patmore N, Hallegatte S, Corfee-Morlot J, Château J and Muir-Wood, R. 2008. “Ranking port cities with high exposure and vulnerability to climate extremes.” OECD environment working papers no 1 OECD, Paris.

Raven, R. 2007. Niche accumulation and hybridization strategies in transition processes towards a sustainable energy system: an assessment of differences and pitfalls. Energy Policy. 35. 2390-400.

Smith, A. 2007. Translating sustainabilities between green niches and socio-technical regimes. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management. 19. 427-50.

Stern, N et al., 2006. Stern review: the economics of climate change. HM Treasury, London.

UN-Habitat. 2008. State of the world’s cities 2008/2009: harmonious cities. Earthscan, London.


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