Thursday, 1 May 2014

Urban energy transitions

Jonathan Rutherford, LATTS (Ecole des Ponts ParisTech)

As we all go busily about our daily lives, only very rarely do most of us consciously think about or visualize the flows, networks, uses and implications of energy underpinning our very existence and the functioning of the cities in which most of us live and work. This backgrounding or taken-for-grantedness is reflected in the urban studies literature where a sustained focus on energy has been, with a few notable exceptions, conspicuous by its near absence.

A recent Special Issue of Urban Studies on ‘Urban energy transitions: places, processes and politics of socio-technical change’ contributes to thinking through the complex, diverse, always emerging and situated relations between energy and cities at a time when these are (re)appearing on political and policy agendas for a host of reasons. Security of energy resources and supply lines, climate change, affordability and accessibility, and governance and management of utilities are some of the ‘big’ stakes and issues through which energy systems are being rethought and reconfigured across North and South, implicitly or explicitly in relation to built environments and urban lives and lifestyles. But, in contrast to much of the normative policy agenda, taken as a whole, the Special Issue does not reduce the urban to a specific location, context, administrative level or actor, and nor does it view the urban as a readily available instrument or tool through which transitions of energy systems (on ‘other’ scales) can be easily deployed. Instead, we study an urban which is a constitutive and inseparable component (or set of intersecting components) of very diverse processes and practices of energy transition across North and South. By reflecting on the urban materialities, imaginaries, controversies and politics through which energy systems do and can change, and thus on what is, but also what might be, a specifically urban socio-technical transition, from Cape Town to London and Amman to Freiburg, we open up theory and practice to actualities and possibilities of urban energy relations which are other than black-boxed, bounded, pre-set and confiscated by governmental actors or transnational utility companies.

In the introductory essay, and prompted by the excellent contributions to the Special Issue, we suggest five potential, interconnected areas of reflection (riffs may be a better description) on urban energy transitions around materiality, relationality, socio-technical change, temporality and politics. There are undoubtedly (and hopefully) other ways in, but already these five together seem to us to begin to sketch out a framework for furthering critical urban energy research and analysis, and in the process both help to recover the notion of ‘energy transition’ (from its increasingly instrumentalised and univocal use in policy circles) through an explicitly urban lens, and to rethink the urban through a focus on socio-technical change.

To this end, the Special Issue does not separate out ‘the social’ and ‘the technical’ but speaks across these categories/binaries/boundaries to seek out and uncover how the urban is constantly produced and reproduced by assemblages of diverse actors, infrastructures, systems and metabolic circulations (of energy, but also its associated money, expertise, best practice models, social norms, etc) which all make an active difference to the nature, possibilities and (still uneven) outcomes of change and transformation. The papers show how various socio-technical components of energy systems become politicised in different ways and at different times, whether it be tariffs, heating plants, air conditioning, ‘green’ objectives or demand-side management. Energy is not an anodyne urban artifact – its own material make-up and physical properties do, for example, play a role in shaping how its flows connect and disconnect differently and unevenly as they pass through the urban fabric and become integrated into the practices, routines, cultures and affects of urban lives. Crucially, these urban energy flows and relations now crisscross the planet, incorporating ever more distant and diverse landscapes, localities and natures into the energetic functioning and reproduction of particular cities, often with stark consequences, as, for example, the photo of the tar sands landscape of Alberta on the front cover of Neil Brenner’s (2014) new edited collection powerfully implies.

Fruitful next steps require thinking about what might be a potentially progressive and inclusive political ecology of urban energy transition. This cannot neglect (analysis of) urban governmental actors and their very contrasting mandates and responsibilities around energy. At a time when more than a thousand European cities are pushing for more stringent energy efficiency and renewable energy objectives than those adopted by the European Commission (Energy Cities website, 18 February 2014), metropolitan governments in a range of cities across the South struggle to position themselves and create room for policy maneuver in energy systems dominated by powerful national actors (see Jaglin and Verdeil 2013). So there is clearly still much to be gained from study of local policy conflicts and the role of cities in ‘multi-level’ negotiations and struggles over resources and flows. But, at the same time, critical work on urban energy transitions might also continue to open up (to) questions of agency, subjectivity, knowledge and power, and their networked constitution and reproduction, thus enrolling a whole realm of local and not so local, formal and informal, human and more-than-human actors and perspectives, as well as a myriad array of material and imagined sites of displacement, disruption and deviation of given pathways of socio-technical change. Through this kind of approach, critical analysis envisioning energy as at once a hybrid and political object and flow, infrastructure and demand, collective convention and site of contestation can surely contribute to advancing urban theory and practice more generally.


Brenner, N. (ed.) (2014) Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization, Berlin, Jovis Verlag.

Energy Cities website, (18 February 2014)

Jaglin, S. and Verdeil, E. (2013) √Čnergie et villes des pays √©mergents: des transitions en question. Introduction, Flux 93-94, pp. 7-18.