OSU//The Interviews//Saskia Sassen


For the first of the series OSU//Interviews, I invited Saskia Sassen, Columbia University. Throughout her books and articles, she treats topics related with globalization and the future of cities, use of new technologies and networked territories.

Her work is related in many ways with Architecture and Urbanism, and this interview will try to point out those relationships. Her definition of an Open Source Urbanism is what triggered the beginning of this blog, and is an honour to have her as the inaugurator of the Interviews section of the blog:


The aim of this blog is to document a journey over different ways in which current cities are evolving, through the eyes of a professional in the field of Architecture and Urbanism. To look at the city and get information on its current status and evolution, I use as tools a series of design strategies. What are the mechanisms you use to look at the city, and which kind of conclusions do you extract from them?


Interesting question. A first move in my research is to ask what I don’t see about cities when I invoke the concept of city. This is a concept that has lost its innocence: It is so full of meaning that just saying the word is saying a vast amount. Thus it is a sort of invitation not to think.

When I am doing research I find that I need to discover what major categories such as “the city” or “urbanization” (or globalization, immigration, digital space) actually veil or obscure precisely because they are powerful. An explanation is not a description—it selects particular features and configurations and must eliminate many others or it becomes merely a description.  For instance, in my own work I have sought to show that the national and the global are powerful categories that hide as much as they reveal about our current epoch, and so does their putative mutual exclusivity (Sassen, 2008).

More generally, when I am doing my research, I need the freedom to suspend, even if temporarily, method and its disciplining of the what, the how, and the why of an inquiry. I need to engage in what I have come to call analytic tactics –the freedom to position myself in whatever ways I want/need vis a vis the object of study. I think of this as the space “before method.”

I develop this a bit in the book I am finishing (Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy). That is, for example, how I arrived at the notion of the Global City –a notion that sounded like a contradiction in terms: the global is above the national and the city is below the national… well, yes… and no!… the global does partly get made at the sub-national level.


Part of your work deals with the idea of a future in which a network of powerful super-developed cities will determinate the bases of economic, social, technological, etc, relationships. In this scenario, How do you envision the shape of those cities? Will the cities have an endless growth gathering most of the people of a region and change the relationship country-to-country for city-to-city?


Two aspects to this possibility. One is the emergence of what I have elsewhere developed as new geographies of centrality that cut across the old familiar divisions of North and South, rich country and poor country, east and west, communist and neoliberal spaces. That is my image of that vast networked urban space that grows and grows that you suggest in your question. This would mean that the major prosperous and rich classes in the cities that constitute those new geographies of centrality will have more in common across all the differences (So-NO, East-West, poor country-rich country) than they will have with the peopleof their own country. These new geographies of centrality are a new type of global fragmenting. 

Not unconnected to this, but broader, is what I see as an emerging “urban geopolitics”. Cities will play an increasingly important role in our global geopolitical future. The fact of economic globalization has already urbanized much of the global economy : these are city to city networks that urbanizing has expanded to traditional geopolitics as well.

This emergent geopolitics centered in cities rather than national governments does NOT replace the conventional geopolitics of  national governments, nor the IMF, or the G8 or whatever it might be. My interpretation of the facts is that a) it is emergent, and b) it will make a difference… 

The key actors engaging in inter-state politics are, yes, national leaders, but also cities – those national leaders do not go to a country, they go to Beijing, or to Washington, or whatever the capital of a country or its major business center. That is what they get to know, not “the country”.  It is not “the” country they are engaging with : it is national leaders and the complex mixed spaces and actors you find in the major cities of a country.


According to your definition of the best possible scenario for the future of the cities, you mention that people will be aware of processes and network relationship that currently are hidden or of difficult access (principles of an Open Source Urbanism). It seems to me that to get to that point the population needs a certain education on top of the mechanisms that will make possible that transparency. How do you envision the transition towards a more transparent city processes and what is the role of the Architect on it? 


Every neighborhood resident has a kind of knowledge about the city that is different from the knowledge of the center, of the city’s government, of its elites and experts. Small children know their neighborhood in a different way from adults, and not just because they are shorter and closer to the ground. The homeless person in New York City knows far more about the practices of rats across the cycle of day and night, summer and winter, the bad and the good they do, than the best urban expert. And this knowledge exists and is different from knowing the tech to communicate it, but that learning can come fast.


In this blog I have treated several times the Collective as a way of reshaping the practice of Architecture, based on a network of professionals working in different aspects of a project. Do you think this is a plausible solution for the future of the built environment?


Yes, but it would be a challenge, an important and a necessary one. Just picking up on my prior answer: Imagine connecting all these diverse actors, each with their specific forms of knowledge about their neighborhood , to open-access networks, or wikis, that circulate these bits of information, yes to the center (could be central government or major foundations) but also from neighborhood to neighborhood; they could compare problems and compare forms of knowledge and innovations as to how to handle issues. This would be but one step in a potentially much longer trajectory, one that might entail a re-making of the urban. Yes, it would take some learning of how to access the tech and enter the information.

In short, much of what is central here is the specific local knowledges of children and grandmothers and homeless….not just knowledge of the tech. They can catch up on that.


One of the most powerful tools that are playing a key role in the way the architectural practice is evolving is the internet. I believe there is a generation that has grown becoming used to that way of communicate to each other, and are looking for ways of using that in the professional life. This is a characteristic that applies to almost any profession. How do you think this way of thinking about professional life will change the physical space of the cities?


Well, just continuing on the prior two answers: it can allow the specificity of each neighborhood – some are more likely to have floods with little rain than others, etc… to come to the fore. Connecting up neighborhoods to enable them to access digital space to communicate their knowledge about their neighborhood could really make each neighborhood into a specific space… rather than merely “the rest of the city”. And I see all of this as one step in a larger and longer term mobilizing of city residents. One you take a first step, who knows what comes next.


To conclude, I would like to bring up the concept that entitles this blog. I am reluctant to accept the figure of an Architect as a simple designer of beautiful objects for the city, or as a building manager. I strongly believe in the commitment an Architect should make with the environment in which he designs (people, climate, economy…) and an Open Source approach would allow this condition. How do you think an Urbanism based on Open Source could change the profession and the role of the Architect in the city?


Well I don’t know too much about the variety of trajectories architecture could take. But let me tell you what I think about the types of urbanisms and city making. A first impact would be to open up what are often closed systems of knowledge coming from the center or the top.

Government agencies, but also many leading urban civic institutions, tend to verticalize their work. Bringing these bits of street and neighborhood knowledge into standard knowledge systems would destabilize the latter, open them up to alternative forms of knowledge. Central city government agencies could learn aspects about the city they simply are not well positioned to access. Eventually this might enable at least some neighborhood users to develop versions, even if simple, of open-source technologies aimed at incorporating diverse bits of knowledge and diverse knowledge practices — the child, the homeless person, the neighborhood grandmothers.

While none of them is an urban expert, each has specific knowledge about their site. All of this in turn might activate additional elements of both knowledge practices and technological practices, generate more engagement by city residents, more cross-neighborhood comparisons, scale up to city level but from the ground up, lead to exchanges and collaborations, and on to a fully mobilized neighborhood and city culture.

Saskia Sassen (www.saskiasassen.com) is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University (http://cgt.columbia.edu/). She is the author of several books. Her forthcoming book is Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Harvard University Press 2014). She has received diverse awards, from multiple doctor honoris causa to being chosen as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy and receiving the 2013 winner of the Principe de Asturias Prize for the Social Sciences.



3 responses to “OSU//The Interviews//Saskia Sassen

  1. Pingback: [Open Source Urbanism] OSU//The Interviews//Sas...

  2. Pilar olave November 11, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    I like your ideas,and go on working as you know.

  3. Pingback: Second Anniversary! | Open Source Urbanism

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