Salut from Neuchatel! My name is Evan, one of two Doctorate researchers on board the Smart Cities: Provincialising the Global Urban Age project. I come into the project from South Africa and will be providing the project with an additional set of ears and eyes immersed in the South African urban landscape.
In between bouts of fieldwork, I will be based in Switzerland, where I have just recently moved. This move across to Europe is my first real experience outside of my home country (homegrown South African through and through), so not only does a PhD on this project offer the fantastic opportunity to develop vital career experience and deepen academic networks, it also provides an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience contexts beyond my homeland.
As a keen urbanist, this move has already provided a great source of inspiration for drawing comparisons between the urban geographies of South Africa and Switzerland. Although there are naturally quite stark contrasts emerging from the remarkably different contexts, from the short amount of time I have spent getting lost in the local streets and watching life unfold as I aimlessly meander, I have already begun to witness and experience micro-moments and nuanced rhythms; moments that parallel those in South African cities where I am most at home, such as Cape Town and Durban. Today alone, I have witnessed in passing:
The jovial remarks thrown between a diverse group of municipal workers as they routinely collect the neighbourhood waste outside of my apartment on a Monday morning. Their issuing out of loud morning greetings to all and sundry who pass is met in response by the frantic rush and a flurry of apologies from neighbourhood parents; those who forgot to take the trash out the night before.
On a walk through the downtown quarter during my lunch break, passing by a small collection of foreign nationals and expats collected around a storefront, deeply engaged in an intense conversation frequently switching between a mix of French and Arabic. This tête-à-tête soon becoming a street-wide, public affair as passerbys and store patrons are brought into the mix of the conversation; their own role in this moment switching from disinterested, passive observer to engaged participant.
Around the corner and spilling onto the street, an elderly fruit and veg seller animatedly negotiate prices with a customer fresh off the surrounding pavement, making a weak attempt to haggle. This is countered by the trader with a riveting tale as she naturally spins a yarn across three different languages, drawing the bargainer closer towards a compromise.
These anecdotes could be pulled directly from a stroll through any typical South African city and township, or perhaps anywhere else in the world. They are moments that – while seemingly insignificant in their fleeting and mundane nature – demonstrate the fundamental, universal manner in which people negotiate and connect across different lives as a course of daily action. These quotidian geographies therefore articulate a performance and production of shared set of urban experiences, rhythms and routines that transcend the boundaries of nations and structural differences. There are, of course, key differences in the urban experiences between these places; but after having spent a good chunk of my life studying differences and distinctions in the urban conditions between the Global North and South (and consequently defining cities according to such differences), it has been an emotionally rewarding experience to instead begin to identify moments of shared value and humanity as points of comparison.
Working with and unfolding these mundane narratives are my bread and butter as both an ethnographic practitioner and academic researcher. Therefore, I will regularly use this blog space to keep an eye on how such embedded, routine power relations and the juxtaposing agency-routing play out between my homeland and my newly adopted home (with a particular lens placed upon smart cities), especially when my fieldwork in South Africa begins in earnest.
To offer some context about my background and interests, and what I bring to this project from South Africa, in terms of academic experience I come in with a predominantly human geography background. My Honours and Masters postgraduate degrees were conducted at the University of Cape Town under the guidance of South African geographers operating in both central city and township contexts. Alongside guiding fieldwork through varied urban environments, their mentorship offered a solid theoretical foundation in a variety of interdisciplinary fields, including cultural geographies, historical geographies, popular memory, and urban ethnography.
My own personal passions as an urbanist closely parallel and intersect my academic interests; each informing and inspiring the production of the other. My specific interest is focused on the cultural manifestations of mundane life in South African central city spaces. In working these passions, I tend to lean towards the use of psychogeographic methods, creative writing on speculative urban fictions, and producing local pop culture-fuelled street art as a means to interrogate and parse the surrounding urban fabric. Through this practice, I work towards understanding how collective moments of place converge and coalesce to form an unspoken yet popularly experienced je ne sais quoi; or rather, cityness.
My interest in relational urbanisms emerged in the years between my Master’s degree and the start of this PhD. This work across various jobs involved the daily application of human geography, cultural studies, urban anthropology and ethnographic practice across a variety of South African urban spaces. During my time with a place-making oriented public-private partnership in Cape Town, my work focused on the disconnect between municipal policy and planning practice, and the livelihoods of those living on the street. Through actor network mapping and daily relationship building between a variety of communities, this work helped lay down the organisational groundwork necessary to help people come to terms with and acknowledge their different roles in their shared urban environment.
My most recent work as a consultant has been more commercially-aligned. Through producing grassroots insights for prominent, international brands, I was tasked with investigating the livelihood strategies and emerging social practices of various central city and township-based consumer groups across South Africa. This commercial work was aligned with discourse that prominently figures innovation and creativity as routine, matter-of-fact livelihood strategies employed by South Africa’s urbanite majority; an embodied set of actions and rhythms to remain dynamic as to cushion against unexpected livelihood shocks and uncertain times.
As a consequence of this motley set of experiences (producing an academic identity more akin to a pavement special than a purebred greyhound) I enter this PhD with an array of Global South-oriented relational and grounded urban insights. I arrive in Switzerland not from a pre-configured postgraduate and academic career route, rather, I land with a far more meandering career journey in tow; a dérive fitting the hustle that is commonplace in South African cities. This pavement special persona, and its ability to hustle and negotiate the South African urban space, is perhaps beneficial considering my role in the project; to investigate smart city discourse as it lands and operates in a variety of South African contexts, from the level of municipal government to the scale of everyday life.
I come into the project without any formal, prior academic experience in Smart Cities. However, my collective interests, academic study and applied knowledge in the fields of postcolonial and rogue urbanisms, South African cityness, and actor-networks flows is closely aligned with the goals of the project. For example, while working in the innovation and social insights-driven commercial realm, I have begun to develop a burgeoning interest in the mutations and repurposing of digital technologies and social media channels in South African urban spaces; an interest that fits in well with the project, and one I would like to further develop through a smart cities lens.
On a whole, I envision this PhD as an opportunity that marks a new stage on which to find a fresh start and carve a new set of experiences; to draw on knowledge and expertise from a new context that is distinct from where I have come from so far, and to hybridise it into an existing foundation. The chimera that is ultimately produced from such a formative process can only be a beneficial beast, offering grounded and relational insight into smart cities that is relevant and respectful to the daily lives of South African urbanites, informed by the perspective and experience offered by my current base.
Therefore, I enter this PhD open to new pathways and experiences. Less than a month in and I have already been challenged to move beyond my ethnographic methodological comfort zone, and to think of new methodological approaches that can build a versatile interdisciplinary arsenal. This to me is bliss. If anything is to come from this PhD experience, it is learning to embrace such opportunities to routinely grow in unexpected ways.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for taking the time to read through this! I promise that such waffling will not be typical of the posts to come; those will be far more grounded and relevant to smart cities.