The Methodological Framework 2019

The Methodological Framework 2019

The methodology

The School aims at building a glossary of terms focused on a number of key themes.

The first key theme is sustainable development. What image of this guiding concept can the North and South of the world build together, starting from such diverse situations? How can this concept be built through field work?

Economic indicators, e.g. GDP per capita, do not say much on how essential needs are met by communities in the different Souths of the world. Compared to the OECD average (=100), the GDP growth of Chile (from 34 to 54 between 2001 and 2013) and the degrowth of Southern Italy (from 74 to 53) highlight two significantly different trajectories in these two Souths of the world. But what about African and Asian countries, and others, in which urbanization has just begun and is rapidly transforming the social and environmental landscape?

It is a matter of dealing with issues such as the unreliability of data and information, the scale of the phenomena and their temporal dimension[1], and analyzing through field work (to be carried out in different cities) the micro-rationality of the actors in their choices and strategies: adaptation, survival, consumption, saving, innovation, mobility, etc. It is also a question of understanding what sustainable development means in such a decentralized, articulated framework, which often lacks reference to economic or institutional macro-rationality: in the Indian megalopolis, in recent African urbanization, in the Latin American barrio, in the dense city of Southern Europe. What rewards, incentives, rules are in place to achieve the goal of sustainability? With what parameters, and thanks to which institutions defined as systems of rules, etc. ? All these issues are included in the investigation.

The field work will therefore have to analyze the role of norms (social, traditional, tribal, family and caste) when combined with the more typically market-oriented economic rationality of the actors involved in urban and environmental transformations. For example, how do construction and dwelling, the use of natural resources, mobility, and the informal economy relate to the policies of urban planning, energy, water, infrastructure, welfare etc. of an African, Asian, Latin American, South European community?

The investigation should both deconstruct old meanings (e.g. “sustainable": for whom? according to what parameters?) and reconstruct new ones (e.g. “essential goods": water, energy, education, transport). All of these are rare goods, or goods subject to uncontrolled exploitation, or unbalanced goods (the very high cost of education in Africa is an example), or unsustainable goods (deforestation in Africa accounts for 50% of energy consumption). In our investigation all of these are considered collective goods, i.e. « commons », and this could allow us to assimilate the economy of « commons » to sustainable development).

Field work should also help us define the concept of community, which is the second key theme. How do the actors involved in the field work play (people, social groups, companies, institutions)? And what are they looking for? This is an important aspect to be defined: what game do the real actors play? The critical knowledge provided by each participant during on-field interaction (regarding the meaning that each participant gives to concepts like « urban economy », « sustainability », « rule », « governance », etc.)  is an important contribution to our project that could not be taken for granted at the beginning[2]. This aspect also concerns the faculty to act and the skills of each subject[3], with different degrees of power and different degrees of exclusion. The participation of all these subjects in the “field of investigation" will allow us to build a taxonomy of relationships ranging from informal to formal, from family to state, from community network to public redistribution, from vulnerability to security, from adaptive resilience to dependence on legal institutions, from irregularity to the prevalence of rules, etc.

The variables

The field work will develop on the basis of a common conceptual grid, such as the one that follows (Table 1):

   Table 1 – Cities in the Souths of the world: 10 explanatory variables and measurement methodologies











Social and geographical mobility


Informality, poverty, informal economy


Social norms and commons


Governance and social capital



Relationality and openness



and ecology

“physical”: inhab./km2

and “moral”:

social norms and dynamics

Dynamics of the mix and of the cohabitation, on an ethnic, social, geographical basis, etc. Use and extension of urbanized land, land ownership rights etc. Private/collective life and use of spaces, services etc. Professions, zones and layers. Mobility in and out of the city, role of migrants’ remittances Consumer goods prices: modes of production and modes of access to major goods Rules of conduct and anomic behaviour in some typical cases (environment, water, energy, waste) States, urban governments and associations: political, religious fabric, NGOs, public and private volunteering Export, sectors and people open to competition, foreign investment, economic innovation, activation of resources Monitoringover time of neighborhoods, blocks and real estate units by type of inhabitants

The following comments will clarify the variables selected in Table 1.

Density, diversity and dimension (variables 1-2-3) have been elaborated since the 1920s by the Chicago School of Sociology to define urbanity, and are regarded critically today by the planetary urbanization literature. The recent Princeton University Press Atlas of Cities (2014) gives a variegated image of the urban mixes. Our aim is to re-evaluate Southern and Eastern world cities as cases of peculiar mixes of density, diversity and dimension whose nature has to be reinterpreted in the light of porosity (variable 4), a concept used to define the imbricated and nested nature of private and public spheres (housing, working and urban life) in Southern and Eastern cities.

Mobility and informality (variables 5-6) are the main characteristics of Southern and Eastern cities, whose societies are highly “mobile” in geographical terms (migration) but partially “immobile” in the socio-anthropological and cultural sense (material culture). Comparative research could explain how the social production and consumption of basic consumption goods is peculiar in Southern and Eastern cities, due to social networks, survival strategies and material cultures. Also migration patterns and the role of attraction of the Northern and Western world are at stake here.

Social norms and anomic behaviour are connected to regulation/deregulation (variable 7) related to social and political regulation/lack of regulation of common goods (« commons ») in the communities, which have to be assessed and analyzed.

Governance and social capital (variable 8) are connected to the nature of urban societies: e.g. Southern welfare in Europe is normally assumed as “familistic” as opposed to “universalistic” welfare states, however variable mixes can emerge from our research. Eastern and Southern welfare systems are in a different vein, whose historical track and future development should be assessed. Social capital is normally divided in ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘bonding’ and ‘bridging’: however such mostly “Western” cathgories need appropriate reconsideration in the light of the Souths of the world’s peculiarities.

Relationality and openness (variable 9) are expressions of the capitalist economic dynamism of countries and cities, whose nature has been (in the Western case at least) to connect different economic models passing from past industrial production to contemporary service economies. This is not the case of Southern and Eastern emerging cities, whose industrial nature is clearly very important nowadays and in the next future. If so, which distinctive characteristics are these cities showing in terms of urban sustainability?

Housing issues and ecology (variable 10) can be read as a key variable of the production of urban space (both in physical, environmental and symbolic terms) by the interrelated roles played by States, firms, individuals and families, technologies and markets.

Last but not least, housing is also related to central State policies in different national contexts (state-led, market-led, pro-environment and green, and so on): a matter of utmost importance, as the history of conflicts and compromises between cities and States witnesses.

Urban labs: a critical approach

In North American universities (e.g. University of Chicago) Urban Labs have been set up for different urban thematic areas (violence, poverty, education, environment and energy etc.) to analyze problems and propose policies for the weak portions of the urban population. We are therefore dealing with assistance to educational and social policies.

Citymart’s approach is much more business-oriented. It provides consulting services for cities that want to find solutions to problems, through calls and tenders involving companies and start-ups to be selected and funded for the development of innovative ideas (e.g. Barcelona Open Challenge proposed six urban problems that needed to be solved, such as water and energy saving, non-automotive mobility, etc.).

Lobbying is the approach of the “What Works Cities" program of Bloomberg Philanthrophies. The program provides North American cities with methods for using data.

Thomson Reuters Foundation’s approach is different and global, documenting the status of property rights (land, property, access, cities, empowerment) in 12 cities around the world, Asian-African-European cities (, through reports, analyses, photos.

The Living Labs concept has emerged in Europe. Living Labs have a new approach to research that allows users – the inhabitants of a city or one of its areas – to collaborate with the designers in the creation and testing of new products developed specifically for them.

Living Labs aim to stimulate innovation by transferring research from laboratories to real-life environments where citizens and users become “co-developers". Together with the designers they create new products and define their specifications, they evaluate the first prototypes and experiment with new technological solutions for a sufficiently long time in their homes and in the real applications of everyday life.

At the same time, Living Labs aim to encourage the meeting, exchange of ideas and knowledge, and aggregation between scientists and researchers from various geographical areas, thus providing an opportunity for economic, social and cultural development. In Europe there are about 130 Living Labs focused on various technologies; about 10 of these are in Italy. The latter were often contributions to “smart city" initiatives of the EU, in an open innovation environment.

The different models proposed, i.e. the North American and European ones, are susceptible to criticism by the Souths of the world. The reason is that these models take for granted that designers with solutions (technical, educational, practical) can adapt them through the direct interaction with the users. In no case is the problem co-created and processed by the citizens who are reduced to mere users: that is, end users of innovations, albeit open and shared, which are processed elsewhere, in laboratories or think tanks.

These experiences, which are put into practice by external actors with their own rationality, risk proposing the typical neo-colonial pattern: reproducing the outlook and vocabulary typical of the North compared to the South of the world, in which macro-scale « universal concepts»  such as civil society, transparency, good governance, rule of law etc. are transferred to micro-scale « operational tools» such as participation, co-decision, co-planning etc. We must therefore drop the vocabulary used so far and create a new one, through research on the actual meanings of each term used by the actors in the field.

Data: instructions for use

The collection and comparison of data concern the sources, the scale of the operation, the historical series, the criteria of interpretation etc. Statistics were the tool through which the State “built" its population in Europe between the end of the 16th and the middle of the 17th century. Colonialism has transferred this process to the colonized countries in forms of domination, in what has been defined as the colonial encounter. In countries where data collection is unreliable, this is a major problem.

To touch on a macro issue of great importance, we can take as an example the data on debt in IDA countries[4]: “Despite significant improvements in debt data, current public debt statistics suffer from limited debt data coverage and debt transparency (specially related to SOE-State Owned Enterprises debt, fiscal risks related to PPPs-Public-Private Partnerships, and collateralized debt) – which leaves room for unpleasant debt surprises. Data on domestic and external debt is often recorded in separate databases. Contingent liabilities, such as those arising from government guarantees, debt of SOEs, and Public-Private Partnerships (PPP), are rarely collected in the central debt recording system. Several countries lack a systematic mechanism for collecting and recording information on collateralization. As a result, debt coverage is often incomplete. These shortfalls, besides lacking sufficient information on the terms and conditions of public debt (including collateral requirements), impede reliable debt projections and, in some cases, have led to unpleasant debt surprises.” This interpretation of the data is entrusted to the organizations, World Bank and IMF, which represent a Western vision on developing countries with all the related cognitive and political consequences: use of value criteria, unconscious biases, team spirit of the bureaucracies of the “Washington consensus" etc.

The collection of data on a micro scale, e.g. on an urban scale or part of it (neighbourhood, street) can be a useful start to the necessary change of pace. Let’s take the data on informality (informal housing, informal work etc.) in Table 1. While a standard definition of informality presumes a formal-regulated segment as opposed to an informal-unregulated segment, field research may highlight a different picture. M. Castells and A. Portes’ definition[5] of the informal economy is “all income-earning activities that are not regulated by the State in social environments where similar activities are regulated". This dualistic approach, typical of developed countries and reproduced in developing countries, is not necessarily the right one. An anthropological definition of the informal economy, a complex mode of daily life, may be a better definition than an imprint of structural forces.[6] It would then be a question of recognizing in a “separate development" the fruit of different forms of modernity[7], such as those studied by the German sociologist Peter Wagner, which characterize many cities in the South of the world, from South Africa to Brazil. There has been talk of “apartheid city". Some have argued that urban informality is not an attribute of the urban poor, but of the elites who build Indian cities in violation of environmental laws and through the inclusion of protected areas in the new construction of cities[8].

This approach aims at ethnographic investigation, case-studies and forming groups that interact and debate with urban, sedentary or mobile populations.

Another line of research is possible on the basis of data, not only administrative information, but coming from different and open sources (qualitative, through interviews, focus groups, etc.), on issues such as the geographical mobility of people, home-work commuting, periodic migrations across borders related to informal trade, social community life, the mode of acquisition of essential consumer goods, the acquisition of land through different modes of ownership and land use rights (see Table 1).

There is also the immense field of open data, of their processing for research and non-business purposes, to identify different ways of living in the city, commuting or remote working, interfacing with others in local or distant markets, etc. The possibilities are huge thanks to sensors, the IoT (Internet of Things) and technologies applied to cities, which are today the main sources of data on the planet. But data neo-colonialism represents a risk. In the language of the MIT Senseable Lab[9]:

“While open data is usually promoted as a way to provide everyone equal opportunities to access data, the reality is that the skills and resources required to effectively generate new knowledge that can be transformed into innovations create a barrier across different social groups, some of which may be disadvantaged in terms of reaping benefits. The scientific community in the Global South may be particularly vulnerable to this phenomena. Despite growing international collaborations among researchers in developed and developing countries, data flows still follow South-North routes, while expertise moves in the opposite direction. Without similar technical and financial resources, researchers from the Global South seldom publish or file patents on data they help gather, jeopardizing capacity-building efforts of intended collaborations. The scientific results therefore seldom benefit the communities that generated or gathered the data. As Serwadda D., Ndebele P., Grabowski M.K., Bajunirwe F., Wanyenze R.K.[10] point out regarding biomedical research, the point is not to stop data sharing, but rather to be aware of the “risk of imperiling rather than promoting public health” if a “colonial science” approach persists under the guise of open data. From a policy perspective, this creates a scenario in which public money from scant budgets in cities within developing countries are spent on open data programs and effectively leveraged as scientific research and commercial patents elsewhere”.


Policies in the West have been studied through different models. Among the most influential, the “pluralist" model of Theodore Lowi distinguishes between: regulatory, distributive, redistributive and constituent policies. The first provides the rules of the game to the players, the second distributes resources to the public, the third redistributes resources according to criteria of equity, the fourth establishes new institutions, agencies, etc.

In Lowi’s typology, distribution policies take on a primary role: they act on individuals according to the patron-client relationship. The aim of these public policies and of the agencies that implement them, is to respond to political conflicts by disaggregating them: treating each decision or benefit, each unit of output, as separate and distinct from all the others[11]. It will be important to verify to what extent these policies are present in the cities of the South of the world. The English term «client» conceals this origin, and confuses it with the more neutral term of user (which is taken directly from the language of the market). Hirschman’s fruitful distinction between exit, voice and loyalty is no longer remembered: only the economic behaviour of the exit is now contemplated, like that of any dissatisfied consumer who passes from one product to another, while the use of the voice (protest) is no longer part of the language of politics. It is reduced to the domain of consumer objects.

But if we leave the small stronghold of Western politics and look at the world with these same categories, we discover a different picture. Politics as “voice" is still widespread here: opposition to authoritarian regimes (in 2019 in Istanbul as in Hong Kong and Khartoum), mass mobilization (in Latin America), use of public space (perhaps of social networks) to express dissent (as the Chinese are trying to do) are all current meanings of political action. Here the mobilization continues towards the States that continue to “see like a State"[12] ; i.e. to plan in an authoritative way. Huntington’s visions of the clash of civilizations do not capture this side of the political discourse, as they consider a democratic and pluralist West that will clash with an authoritarian and fundamentalist East. Scott’s visions, on the other hand, highlight the same statist approach that marked the 20th century in Russia, Brazil, Tanzania, etc., wherever ‘high modernism’ has claimed to design society. The archaeology of these state powers allows us to dig both in the fields of the political modernity of the West and in that of the Eastern and Southern versions of the world. But the same archaeology must be used to look with disenchantment at the alleged “modernity" of political tools, whether they are political market technicalities or economic contracts. Both of these tools are unable to provide adequate responses to the bottom-up requests of sociality, development and sustainability.

Urban policies are a typical field where bottom-up and top-down requirements meet, both are necessary but neither are sufficient. Table 2 shows different types of urban policies to be explored in the different contexts of the Souths of the world.

                                  Table 2 – The urban policies of the cities of the Souths of the world

Strategies Structures of implementation Case-studies Innovations
Growth of urban dimensions Metropolitan plans, agglomeration schemes, creation of urban regions Asian and African megacities Related to processes and products
Regulation of relations with levels of governance Covenants and agreements between cities and central governments Strategic urban plans Related to processes
Identification of a competitive role for the city in global space Shared process of mission definition Global cities Related to processes and products
Reaction to urban decline Development agencies, emergence of new stakeholders Various South European and South American cities Related to processes and products
Creation of networks of cities and urban corridors between cities City networks, real estate investors Cases in Latin America, India, etc. Related to processes
Selection of sites to be protected, with the solution of local and environmental conflicts Environmental plans, plans for the protection of Unesco’s heritage, etc. Various cases in Asia, Africa, Latin America Related to processes and products
Involvement of the business community Donors, Philanthropy, Public-Private Partnerships Various cases in emerging countries Related to processes
Sustainable Development Goals Climate, environment, sustainability, sustainable mobility policies Various cases in views of COP 25 in Chile Organizational and related to processes and products



This conceptual scheme avoids simplified visions such as “extractive policies"/"inclusive policies" (a simplification that leads to the classification of different systems and countries in two opposing fields). On the contrary, there are articulated, mixed and unusual situations in the different systems with various forms of participation, negotiation and conflict. Individuals and groups that participate in the processes of city building, planning and self-production, democracy and participation in decision-making arenas are an important resource to consider. Called upon to participate in decision-making arenas or to negotiate on a case-by-case basis and often informally, acting through pressure groups or claims, etc., they tend to develop pragmatic skills for debating decisions. These are practical skills, as each actor in the cities of the South, even if lacking political expertise, contributes a direct knowledge that would otherwise be lost: it is contextual knowledge where skills are integrated into direct experience and the effects of which can be empirically observed.

Of course, for this to happen, there must be incentives for participation. Therefore, if we want to encourage the participation of individuals and groups through the contribution of their specific and idiosyncratic knowledge, we need a certain degree of aspiration and organization – a point stressed by Appadurai about Mumbai but valid more generally. It consists of the decomposition of the decisional processes in which the excluded can participate, through the decentralization in specific functional and territorial areas.

The extension of these areas varies according to the type of public policies and the scale of the problems considered: it will range from the micro scale of the neighborhood, to the larger scale of the city or the network of cities (as in strategic planning).

The limitation of these policies leaves many problems open. The first concerns the possibility that the experiments may be disconnected from each other and may concern some areas and not others, thus enhancing inequalities. Moreover, the policies applied could be limited to the environments with a low rate of conflict, and therefore already open to cooperation among the actors. Both these possibilities, which are certainly present, must, however, be counter-balanced with other arguments.

First of all, experiments tend to spread, both because of the spillover effect of innovations and because of the pressure towards potential adopters by higher-level policies. The theme of dissemination of good practices, knowledge of emblematic cases and the role of universities as a guide for experimental knowledge goes in this direction.

There is a risk that participation in policies will lead to the prevalence of strong interests, which would use these opportunities in an instrumental and opportunistic way to impose their own economic and real estate interests. In this sense, it would be a diversionary tactic to mask a lobby. The participation of weaker interests, on the other hand, could be inhibited by the high costs of participation: being present and informed involves a significant organizational and cognitive commitment. Here too, however, there are arguments that counter-balance both possibilities.

First, the fact that the participation of strong interests in policies is also an opportunity. Although there are doubts about selfless civic participation that would push strong interests to participate in politics, the other possibility that remains open to those with strong powers is an exit. Exit options are typical of economic actors who do not intend to sit at the negotiating table. These options would certainly be more damaging than their active, albeit conditional, participation. There may be attempts by strong actors to use public policies to impose their own private agendas, but it is up to the public actor to authoritatively guide the definition of the agenda. And it is up to the higher-level actors (such as the international bodies involved in the Sustainable Development Goals) to intervene.

The authoritative role of the public actor – local, central, international – is therefore key to avoiding information asymmetries to the advantage of strong interests. Otherwise, lobbies will use their influence to obtain favourable rules, as happens in contexts based on “disregulation" or on “crony capitalism".

In the formation of technical élites in the cities of the South of the world (starting from the Universities), it is important to support the qualified competence of the actors, providing training for skills that allow informed participation. Equally important is to stimulate convergence towards interpretative frameworks shared by the different actors, through an action that can be defined as pedagogical. Persuading the actors to participate is just as important for the main public actor as ensuring an outcome to the process. Just as a credibility strategy is essential, which consists in avoiding being “captured" by the interests that should be regulated.

On the other hand, weak interests also have a tendency not to participate or to choose other forms of expression, typically protest (voice). For them too, choosing to participate in politics is a more responsible response. The role of motivational incentives to participate also applies to weak interests. Among them, it is important to know that one does not participate in a collusive game or in opportunistic and deregulatory coalitions, a risk that is always present in these cases. Think of the issue of the use of the city, its urban aspects, natural resources and common goods.

The development of good citizenship is an open and controversial issue. A “path-dependent" approach, whereby citizenship or its absence would depend on the accumulation of long-lasting and practically incorrigible historical factors, might be unable to capture the novelties underway in the South of the world. A more dynamic view considers social capital as a resource whose growth or destruction lies in the practical availability of the actors of a society. It is therefore possible to build, rebuild or squander social capital through political actions and practical orientations of the actors. In the cases that we will study, which aim at comparing actors and rationales, it will be a matter of learning sound lessons for the cities of the Souths of the world.

[1] Hugon 2013

[2] My thanks to Sergio Poeta of Fondazione Basso for clarifying this point.

[3] Amartya Sen, On Ethics and Economics, Oxford 1987.

[4] International Developoment Association, Debt Vulnerabilities in IDA Countries, 2018.

[5] M. Castels, A. Portes, World Underneath: The Origin, Dynamics and Effects of the Informal Economy, in A. Portes,M. Castells, The Informal Econom : Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries, Baltimore 1989.

[6] S. Kipfer, Worldwide Urbanization and Neocolonial Fractures, in N. Brenner, ed., Implosions/Explosions. Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization, Berlin 2014.

[7] P. Wagner, Modernity, Cambridge 2012.

[8] A. Roy, A. Ong, eds., Worlding Cities, Chichester 2011.

[9] F. Duarte, R. Alvarez, The data politics of the urban age, MIT Senseable City Lab, 2019

[10] Open data sharing and the Global South—Who benefits? “Science” 359, 2018.

[11] T. Lowi, La scienza delle politiche, Bologna 1999.

[12] J.Scott, Seeing like a State, Yale 1998.