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About Urban Beyond Measure

Demographers recently reported that half the world’s population now lives in cities, with most urban growth taking place in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Social scientists have also noted that the pattern and scale of new cities, in what is often referred to as the Global South, are substantially different from urban growth in twentieth-century Europe and North America. Even when formally planned, this urbanization inadvertently produces a range of unanticipated social forms and phenomena beyond the state’s capacity to account, audit and survey. Such cities - Mumbai, Johannesburg, Mexico City, Cairo or Jakarta, to mention a few - are often described as fragmented entities without strong formal institutions, characterized by opacity, unaccountability, volatility and unsustainability. This conceptual frame, however, grinds against many readily observable efforts and initiatives within these vast city-scapes to record, monitor, improve and understand them, and to hold others accountable.

Urban Beyond Measure is an initiative at Stanford that aims to focus critical attention on the many ways of knowing, gauging, divining, imagining, and accounting for the social reality that operates within cities.  It supports interdisciplinary dialogue, scholarship and research that investigate how diverse and intersecting urban systems of knowledge, accounting, governance and social responsibility work in practice. This can include mapping people and their movements in urban space, measuring economic value and reckoning property rights, delivering services like electricity and water, extending credit, providing physical security, and dispensing justice and retribution of various kinds.  This initiative was launched by Thomas Blom Hansen, James Ferguson, and Sylvia Yanagisako of the Department of Anthropology in 2012.  In 2012-13, we ran a successful year-long interdisciplinary workshop entitled “Cities Unbound” with funding from the Stanford Humanities Center. We also received funding from Ann Arvin, Dean of Research, to build interdisciplinary conversations about urbanization and urban issues at Stanford.  In Fall of 2013, in collaboration with the Stanford Center at Peking University, we organized an interdisciplinary conference on Comparative Urbanization that brought Chinese social scientists in conversation with Stanford faculty in Sociology, Political Science, and Anthropology.

In 2013, the Stanford Global Studies Division (SGS) (formerly ICA) agreed to support our initiative as a part of its overall mission of strengthening international and inter-regional conversations and research at Stanford.  Together we were able to provide limited seed funding to six small projects (research initiatives and workshops) proposed by Stanford faculty in departments including Political Science, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Sociology, History, Environmental Earth Systems Science, and Drama. Their projects range from developing a socio-political map of Cairo, to understanding water security in Amman, Jordan, to design and sustainability in urban China and the U.S.  Five Stanford junior faculty were among those awarded seed grants.

Our plan for the next two academic years (2014-2016) is to scale up our effort by convening three international workshops that will bring leading scholars of contemporary megacities together with faculty from a diverse array of Stanford departments, interdisciplinary programs and research institutes, including the Woods Institute for the Environment, the Program in Urban Studies, the Program in Science, Technology and Society, the Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Political Economics program at the Graduate School of Business. Our goal is to provide Stanford junior and senior scholars who are studying emergent urban forms the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary conversations with scholars of governance, social organization and accountability in order to incite novel theorizations of cities that are both more global and more empirically grounded than is presently the case.