An Ethnographic Inquiry into the Haus der Statistik in Berlin
Urban experiments are gaining widespread attention as new ways to test, implement, and diffuse systemic sustainability solutions in the city (Sharp & Raven, 2021). But which types and in what way can experiments actually plant seeds of deeper questioning and change that enable a truly transformative politics of urban change? A recent assessment suggests that the contribution of the first generation of urban experiments to system-wide sustainability transformation has fallen short of expectations (Scholl et al 2022). One possible explanation might be that the term “experimentation” has become a rascal concept: promiscuously pervasive, inconsistently defined, empirically imprecise, and frequently contested (Schäpke et al., 2018; Storpe, 2016), making impacts harder to grasp due to conceptualization and operationalization shortcomings. Indeed, existing theorizations of urban experimentation in the sustainability transitions and transformation literature either appear to be apolitical and ontologically naïve or to lack practicability and orientation.
To close this gap, this paper proposes a framework that offers a new way to study urban experiments, structured along three analytical entry points: emergence (the background and imaginaries driving experimental beginnings), functioning (the institutional and cultural practices through which experiments are implemented and maintained), and tensions (the constraints arising in the processes of enrolling the experiment and the strategies to circumvent them).
It applies them to an empirical case study of the Haus der Statistik in Berlin as an award-winning and prominent example of how urban experiments can challenge and implement changes to contemporary practices, institutions, and cultures of capitalist urban planning.
Main Question: How does the Haus der Statistik (re)envision, practice, and negotiate urban experimentation towards sustainable cities?
(i) Emergence: How did relevant actors re-envision the Haus der Statistik and what background did they mobilize to realize this vision?
(ii) Functioning: Which cultural and institutional practices are key to understanding the dayto-day functioning of the Haus der Statistik?
(iii) Tensions: Which tensions arise in the Haus der Statistik and and how are they negotiated in strategic ways?
The in-depth ethnographic case study of the Haus der Statistik in Berlin demonstrates the usefulness of the proposed framework, revealing that new forms of urban change can be both action-oriented, pragmatic, and targeted whilst striving towards a more radical, politicized and imaginative ontological politics beyond capitalism. Based on these insights, the concept of “deep urban experimentation” is introduced: historically contingent place-based interventions aimed at creating socially, ecologically, and democratically sustainable cities, which are animated by shared capitalist struggles and imaginaries of new forms of urban life, attainable through strategic negotiation and institutionally stabilized by public-civic-partnerships. The concept enables the recognition, differentiation, and specification of what may be an emerging new type of urban experiments that pushes the boundaries of the possible and probable in urban sustainability towards yet unknown territory. Moreover, the concept contributes to “deepen” an ongoing shift in transitions research that has recently been striving to equip itself with the analytical and intellectual tools to address the influence of capitalism on sustainability transitions, and vice versa. The paper concludes with an outlook on further research.
Léon is a sustainability and transitions researcher, urbanist, and social entrepreneur. He studied earth system science, philosophy, and economics in Europe and the US. Grounded in principles of care, craft, and creativity, Léon’s professional experience includes roles as an academic, speaker, founder, journalist, lecturer, consultant, and community organizer, with expertise in the urban and business sphere. He is always happy to connect and work with inspiring people!