AUB City Debates: Rescaling and Counter-Hegemonies

This is a synthesis of the panel “Rescaling and Counter-Hegemonies” given by at the AUB City Debates 2016 (other reports are listed here). The panel was composed of Dr Seth Schindler (University of Sheffield, United Kingdom), Prof. Dr. Mustafa Kemal Bayırbağ (Middle East Technical University, Turkey), and Dr Aude Signoles (Institut de Recherche et d’Etude sur le Monde Arabe et Musulman, France).

Madinati ("My city"), graffiti on the paint used to cover another graffiti, Beirut

Madinati (“My city”), graffiti on the paint used to cover another graffiti, Beirut

1. Seth Schindler, “Urban metabolic conflicts in the time of ‘Big Data'”

Dr Schindler’s presentation focuses on the way the development of “Big Data research” has effects on city politics, and notably can be associated to the development of urban metabolic conflicts. This type of conflict is, a developing type of social conflict which is to be the main form of conflict in the coming years. It concerns all types of struggles around elements of life in urban contexts, such as electricity, water, waste disposal, materials, and so forth. These conflicts, says Schindler, are impacted by the development of “Big Data” in the management and government of cities.

This impact begins first of all with the development, in the midst of new public management, to quantify and compare cities, operations which require a reduction to a list of comparable elements and negate the specificiy and uniqueness of urban systems. A certain model of the “smart city” promotes this manner of governance and relies on a fiction according which cities can be managed efficiently via the “Big Data”: with the support of real-time information from all urban systems, a quick assessment of “needs” could be made and crises avoided. For instance, instead of relying on long time assessment of the lacks in waste disposal, an answer could be provided in a manner of days to borning social crises. Nonetheless this model, as we will see, appears as highly fictious to any urban system located in the “Global South”.

a. The normalisation of city governance and norm ISO-37120

The development of that type of governance relies on a process of normalisation, norm ISO-37120, “Sustainable Development of Communities”, which provides certification to cities that can then be officially recognised as “sustainable”, according to a system of indicators made of other indicators, relying on the idea that these indicators can be compared (the percentage of waste production going through recycling, for example).

According to that norm, for example, the city of Bogota has been certified “sustainable” despite a waste collection and recycling rate of less than 1%. A rather surprising feat for the people of Bogota, whose waste is regularly collected and disposed of, but by private and informal waste collectors – generally individuals operating at a small scale, like it is the case in most cities of the “Global South”. Two remarks can come from this state of affairs: at first, the certification process is obviously laxist (indeed, the only actual indicator which counts in attributing the certification is the provision of data), and second it does not account for what actually happens, leaving aside an essential part of what constitutes the life of cities in the “Global South”, that is, the informal sector. This remark can be associated with a recent water crisis in India in which the collapse of a dam caused about half of a city [Which name I have forgotten – AM] to lack water, while the reservoir was the sole source of running water for this city: the question was, why did the other half not lack water? And the answer was clearly because the other half of the city was provided water through informal networks, and not from the official ones.

Yet the policies developed on the basis of this flawed data collection method are causing conflict, as we will see in the second part.

b. A conflict around waste disposal in Dehli

Schindler’s case study concerns a conflict around a waste disposal plant in a middle-class neighbourhood of Dehli, which produces toxic ash and poisons its surroundings on a regular basis. What is surprising is that the plant is obviously flawed, which is acknowledged by local and national authorities, and nobody understands why it has been approved in the first place, while the previous network composed of informal waste collectors was marginalised. Previously this network did provide for the needs of the population but by definition was out of control of private owners of waste incinerators who had to buy plastics from them.

When looking at the certification process, we can notice that the project has been one of “normalisation” of the network relying on a quantitative argument compiled from “Big Data Research” methods – the compilation of the data on waste produced and waste treated by the incinerators with a neglect of the effect of the work of informal networks – promision an increase in treatment strictly equal to the amount of waste previously taken in charge by the informal networks. In parallel, a process of manufacturing consent had been put forward by the proponents, by organising “participation” meetings but informing nobody – except for the very few participants who all happened to be members of the staff of this company. The presentation of a manufactured and artificial “need” and the existence of manufactured consent led to the opening of the plant which nobody, including government, wanted.


The current use of “Big Data” is failing and inefficient. We ought to work towards more intelligent uses of this realm of information, and this can only be done by working at several scales and not only the macrosocial. In order to do that, we must stop reducing cities to comparable aggregates of data, and focus on the relation between people and space, and the forms of conflicts linked to it.

2. Mustafa Kemal Bayırbağ, “The Governance of Mobility: Contested Territories, Political Vacuum, and State rescaling”

The cases presented by this presentation supposed phenomena of state rescaling: contexts in which the state stretches toward markets and civil society on different scales. The bias is that we generally think of the state by assuming a consensus on its territoriality, even when we consider the possibility of the state itself being contested. A state is not always dominated by a consensual central authority and its territorial control is never entirely realised. It always comports a few situations of political vacuum, which it aims at reducing as much as possible, by controlling mobilities in its territory rather than the territory itself. Therefore mobility is not separate from fixity but linked to it via the question of political control.

Here we examine several cases of state rescaling:

  1. When the territory is consensual but its central authority is not recognised: The conflict will emerge around the redistribution of surplus toward areas previously marginalised.
  2. When the territory and its central authority are not recognised: This will be the case when an alternate geography is proposed on several countries, as in the case of the Kurdish Independence movement.
  3. When a territory is not recognised but a central authority is: This is the case when a new state attempts to emerge on contested borders without transnational links, like in the case of emergence of post-colonial states or ISIS.

The author then proceeds to develop an approach of the networks established at different scales by the critical actors between the various fields of society (markets, civil society, the state, armed forces, etc), and showing how these attempts are territory-defining.

3. Aude Signoles, “States and Spaces of Politics: A brief presentation of the debates on Decentralisation after the Arab Uprisings”

The presentation takes place in a long-time project of study of local politics in the Arab World. After working on the Palestinian Occupied Territories, the author has turned toward the existing debate on decentralisation in Egypt and Tunisia after the Revolutions of 2011. The comparison with Palestine in the 1990s is linked to the rise of actors such as donors and the importation of models of democratisation and public action, as well as forms of politics such as mobilisation against the privatisation of public services (water, for instance).

From that starting point, the question of this presentation is how political leaders have reconsidered decentralisation after the Revolutions, provided that there is both a demand for autonomy and state intervention, in two countries (we will focus mostly on Egypt) marked by a historical tradition of centralisation. So, how have politics (in terms of actors, relationships, conflicts, and questions) evolved around that phenomenon?

a. Egypt, Institutionalisation and political continuity

In Egypt the inherited situation is marked by a centralised local administration, without a municipal tradition, the local councils were only representative and had no real power, leading the opposition parties – except the locally-anchored Muslim Brotherhood – to ignore them.

After the Revolution the councils were dismantled and – the Revolution having been caused mostly by urban and spatial injustice – new bodies emerged to replace them. As soon as the Revolution started new bodies like Popular Committees tried to gain importance by installing a “tabula rasa” strategy. These PCs started providing the local population with urban services such as garbage collection, and also by organising makeshift local police forces. On this domain the presence of the previously-created NGOs was important in developing new projects of government.

With the rise in power of the Muslim Brotherhood, the party shifted its interests to the national scale, surprisingly as the local had been its point of focus in the previous decades. Nonetheless with the elections and access to the state and “deep state” apparatus, the local was once again marginalised in the state’s work. This relies partly on a continuity of the previous state institutions and agents, who remained in place (infrastructure, civil servants, economic networks, and so forth). The reformed Constitution similarly remained silent on the local. In return this lack of change led to a growing disappointment with the elected government and participated in the uprising against the party. We must acknowledge that, so far as the Al-Sisi administration is concerned, the situation remains the same to this day.

b. The Tunisian example

With a similar historical background, Tunisia after the Revolution knows a regain in the early days of interest for the local level. But activism quickly fades both for political parties – more interested by the national scale – and social movements. This is due on the one hand to a lack of knowledge on the local and the technical issues it carries, and on the other to the definition of these issues and the actors dealing with them as “apolitical”.

Besides, a debate on decentralisation has emerged in the country: the election of local representatives has started, along with new experiences of local participation, coordination between the various scales, and the strenghtening of the local administrations’ capacities.


In these contexts considering decentralisation is challenging, because it demands identifying who are the actors – new or old – in charge of defining policy and public models, what are the political vacuums present, how leadership evolves on the small scale, and how violence plays a role in these societies after the Revolutions.

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