Tools for a Speculative Imperialism

(Appearing in ED no 2: Architecture of Disaster, May 2018—Thanks to Nicholas Korody and Joanna Kloppenburg!)

Shortly before his death in 2006, Reinhart Koselleck authored a lengthy essay on the history of the concept of “crisis.” For him, the urgency of writing this piece emerged from a deeper cultural skepticism of liberalism and its blurring of the political and existential with the everyday. Crisis, for Koselleck, was, in its changing uses, a crucial conceptual lens through which to chart this. According to him, the late twentieth century had seen the concept develop myriad new sensibilities in its ever-widening use. Koselleck saw this as not just a matter of imprecision or intellectual vacuity, but rather as a symptom of a much broader historical crisis whose dimensions had yet to be identified.

“The concept of crisis, which once had the power to pose unavoidable, harsh and non-negotiable alternatives,” he writes, “has been transformed to fit the uncertainties of whatever might be favored at a given moment.” This signaled a kind of cultural endpoint in which the political capacity of crisis had become the object of an increasingly cynical, atomized opportunism. Crisis was, for Koselleck, a “structural signature of modernity,” that had, by the early twenty-first century, become a “whatever” signifier—and, in that, his observation constitutes an early sign of an emerging political topography in which crisis plays an increasingly definitive role.

Today, one of the key features distinguishing contemporary society from its modern predecessors is the ontological and epistemological centrality that the notion of crisis occupies. Once understood as an ever-present possibility that modern governance, science, and society sought to prevent through institutional knowledge and technologies, today crisis has come to occupy not only the center of gravity in the world—exerting itself across all spheres of life—but also presents itself as the very conditions in which life is given visibility. Crisis is both the origin and horizon of contemporary knowledge. Displaced from the realm of exception, it is simultaneously a determinant factor, form of analysis, and organizing principle for contemporary modes of existence.

This shift manifests in the realm of architecture, urban design, planning, and landscape. Like with many other practices and discourses, crisis in these fields is most often instrumentalized as a productive binary of risk/resilience—a kind of epistemological framework that both articulates problems and casts the outlines for their solutions. Over the past decade, a growing network of spatial practices partnered with global governance bodies, municipal initiatives, NGOs, and large scale real estate development has been building a mode of development around the notion of “resilience.” Resilience, in this context, is the capacity for a city to “survive, adapt, and grow” in the face of any major shock.[1]

One of the key players in this is the multinational firm Arup. Together with the Rockefeller Foundation, and building off of a network of related projects, they created the “City Resilience Index” (CRI) in 2015—a toolkit described as an open platform for self-assessment of cities.[2]Its aim is to both measure the degree of vulnerability of a city and to outline a set of possible interventions in order to increase its overall resilience. As a platform, it is meant to be accessible to any city and to operate across scales, providing a universally applicable framework for appraising the built environment. Aligning itself with an emerging global governance discourse on resilience, CRI organizes its metrics in a circular matrix divided into four broad “dimensions”: Health and Well-Being, Economy and Society, Infrastructure and Environment, and Leadership and Strategy.[3]These are further subdivided into twelve “goals,” which are then measured by fifty-two “indicators” that chart out both quantitative and qualitative valuations of a city’s resilience.

Arup City-Resilience-Framework
City Resilience Index, Arup and Rockefeller Foundation, 2015

As its circular form suggests, in addition to detailing the “strengths and weaknesses” of a given city, the CRI provides a holistic framework in which certain causal relations across the various indicators can be identified. Because it is universally applicable, its measurements are explicitly relative, based on a generic scale of 1-5 (“very poor” to “excellent”), meaning that its output is more a statement of confidence than an exact value. But precisely because of this, the CRI does more than measure resilience; in operating across multiple temporalities, it works at once as a recursive diagnostic tool and as a framework for development—both an assessment of the present and a project for the future. Its explicit rejection of absolute, standardized metrics emphasizes the relational effects between the various indicators and “goals” while also opening itself up to more speculative capacities in evaluating scenarios of urban design and policy reform.

Yet the CRI’s relative differences work in the opposite sense as well, making visible sites of vulnerability, which, because of its nested, relational structure, immediately present themselves as existential threats for the system as a whole. Here, the binary of risk/resilience embeds itself in the very logic of the CRI framework, universally distributing fifty-two possible ways in which cities face existential crisis. As Arup states, “Urban populations are facing increasing challenges from numerous natural and man-made pressures such as rapid urbanisation, climate change, terrorism and increased risks from natural hazards. Cities must learn […] how to build resilience in an uncertain world.”[4]

Arup CRI explainer diagram
City Resilience Index,Arup and Rockefeller Foundation, 2015

The CRI model is built on a previous tool created by Arup in 2000 for measuring sustainability. The “Sustainable Project Appraisal Routine” (SPeAR) is a simpler tool used to assist in decision-making on a range of projects based on a single array of indicators organized into four areas of concern for sustainable development—economy, society, environment, and natural resources. Like the CRI, the indicators provide a means to assess a given site or project and to establish key interrelations between them, using a similarly relative scale of measurement, from “worst case” to “optimum.” As a discursive tool, SPeAR’s broader framework drew its inspiration from the 1987 United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development publication, Our Common Future, and its technical parameters come in part from the UK Sustainable Development Indicators, as well as the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM).[5]As with the CRI, the vagueness of SPeAR’s measurements is a function of its use as a speculative tool of scenario planning. Following the 2006 publication of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, SPeAR became more explicitly used as a persuasive tool for urban development in Arup’s recently opened Urban Design office with its expanding portfolio of “eco-cities.” As such, the SPeAR model effectively translates the ambitions of a global governance-administered “green capitalism” into a tool for the increasing global demand for large-scale real estate development.

Arup spear
SPeAR Diagram, Arup Urban Design, 2007

While both the SPeAR and the CRI are reflexive tools for assessment, a crucial difference between the two is how each locates a particular temporality in regards to the crisis it aims to address. In the case of the SPeAR model, its role is clearly preventive: it works as a framework to improve upon “business-as-usual” practices of urban design by demonstrating how the ecological footprint of a given scenario can be lowered and energy use mitigated. More broadly, it provides its metrics as a response to an indefinite promise of an invisible condition measured in parts-per-million—a crisis yet to come. The urbanism it calls forth follows a techno-modernist, cause-and-effect strategy, whose calculated effects have the insidious task of demonstrating the non-arrival of climate change—an urbanism which casts itself not as the template of a radical new future, but one which appears instead as a greener version of the present.[6]Sustainable design, while still universally embraced as a rhetorical touchstone, lacks the urgency that we see today in the resilience turn.

Unfortunately, the world surpassed Peak Sustainability in 2005 when the big gamble of staving off climate change with lackluster campaigns of better-than-business-as-usual development was confronted with the very visible effects of climate change. First with Hurricane Katrina, and later with Sandy, record flooding in Europe nearly every year from 2009 onward, disappearing polar ice and island nations, record temperature rises—all set against a tumultuous backdrop of the 2008 debt crisis, the sprawling “War on Terror” and its unending consequences worldwide—the increasingly palpable effects of climate change ushered in a fundamental shift in our understanding of crisis.[7]No longer could “sustainable development,” green capitalism, and the entire world of neo-Malthusian cybernetics—and the “limits to growth” that it built its assumptions on—enjoy consensual self-evidence.[8]No longer could crisis remain a possibility to be technocratically averted—a “known unknown” preventively excluded from life. If the present itself seemed to be a state of perpetual irruptions of existential crises whose character and impact appeared increasingly unpredictable, what was at stake was now survival itself. Design and development could only conform to this condition by taking an aggressively pre-emptiveposture. Enter the world of “resilience urbanism.”

The difference between sustainable and resilient urbanism approximates to the distinction C.S. Holling makes in his seminal essay from 1973, “Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems.” Resilience, he argues, shifts attention from equilibrium to “conditions of persistence.” According to Holling, stability and resilience within an ecological system are not only divergent indicators, but also often contradict one another. A system with the capacity to absorb shock, quickly returning to equilibrium, may actually be more susceptible to long-term collapse than one whose population swings violently between near collapse and sudden dominance in the face of a given event. What resilience measures, thus, is not how quickly a population can return to equilibrium after a shock, but rather “the persistence of relationships within a system and […] the ability of these systems to absorb changes of state variables, driving variables and parameters and still persist.”[9]

Following Holling’s own transposition of resilience from ecology to economics, we might venture a similar metaphorical leap in asking how such a resilient governance might work.[10]If resilience shifts focus from stability, measured in population count, to the stability of relations between population and state variables in the face of a shock, then how might a resilient city-governance complex be made robust? Which factors must adapt for this? And, to paraphrase Michel Foucault, which forms of life will such a governance make live, and which will it let die?[11]

As David Chandler writes, decision-making in resilient governance does not precede policy implementation but rather becomes “a continual process of self-reflection upon already existing policy entanglements.”[12]No longer something to exclude, crisis—or failure, as Chandler argues—is incorporated into governmental practice as a means to improve overall knowledge and policy-making for the future. The CRI’s emphasis on governance crucially diverges from the SPeAR model. As a part of its governance mandate, the CRI recommends that cities incorporate systems of “comprehensive monitoring,” providing continuous data on both the city and any hazards it faces. Indeed, the reflexive nature that, in the SPeAR model, remained passive gains urgency in the CRI, which itself serves as the framework in which a program of comprehensive monitoring can be organized. Data collection, ubiquitous monitoring, and “situation analysis” constitute a “reflective” practice of resilient urban governance, which the CRI makes explicit.[13][14]

Yet this is not simply a matter of introducing an “algorithmic mode of governmentality.”[15] Indeed, what is at stake in the ability to authoritatively map the fine grain of risk is how an emerging mode of governance can shore up an emerging mode of large scale development. Mapping risk has become a crucial component in organizing governance around failure, while also offering itself as the ubiquitous precondition for a correlative practice of pre-emptive urbanism—one which incorporates the experience of disaster and the concreteness of past events into a prescriptive tool for speculative development. The “reflective” quality of the CRI is precisely its capacity to exploit the risk/resilience binary, pitting localizable existential crisis as the impetus for urban design, while effectively mobilizing disaster-risk governance in the service of capitalist development.

The imperialist overtones that this may carry can be explored further if we pair the granular functionality of the CRI with the clearly global scope of a related project, MIT’s Urban Risk Lab (URL). Founded by Miho Mazereeuw, like many resilience projects, the URL’s team is drawn from many disciplines and it works with a broad group of partners including, among others, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Lincoln Laboratory, the World Bank, FEMA, and USAID. As an academic center, the URL is able to work proactively between research and design (which they call “action research”) as a way to “embed risk reduction and preparedness into the design of cities and regions to increase the resilience of local communities.”[16]

MIT Urban Risk Lab homepage Global Hazard Map.png
Risk and event, undifferentiated: Homepage image for the MIT Urban Risk Lab website, 2017

The URL’s website is fronted by a striking image: a world map of risk. Its title, “Understanding global hazards,” displays risk through intensities of lines, points, zones, and fields that heighten and dissipate across the topographical and bathymetric textures of the world. By collapsing all of these disparate bits of information—“[i]nterrelations of tectonic plates and earthquake zones, watersheds and flood occurrences, hurricanes and cyclones, urban and rural areas”—into a single map, it also collapses a number of crucial ontological and epistemological distinctions as well as temporalities into an undifferentiated whole: geological information, event histories, zones of potential risk, sites of human settlement. Risk becomes visible as a totality. Yet, if this map is an accurate depiction of global risk, it is difficult to understand the ontological nature of “risk” that it attempts to capture as either a condition related to geological specificities of a site or as a probability based on past events (or both). More troubling, perhaps, is the conflation of urban density with risk as a self-evident truth, suggesting a quasi-Malthusian logic at work: as the group suggests in a related project, “Cities are densifying at an unprecedented rate, exposing them to greater disaster risk.”[17]Secondly, it is impossible to historicize this map in a way that may give it some kind of social or political purchase in the human imaginary. Rather, this image appears as a statement of projected truths that speaks without the burden of historical time. The urgency that it opens—the “risk” and “hazard” that can be pinpointed across the surface of the planet—is immediately recaptured by the same techno-scientific expertise that produced it in the first place, suggesting that the only counter map that it might produce would answer to the locally-deployable technologies and techniques of risk neutralization and crisis management. Unsurprisingly, this map, as it turns out, is precisely this: a backdrop to indicate the locations of the URL’s ongoing projects. In this way, the URL has been able to construct a paradigm of knowledge-practice that captures risk in its overlaid GIS data, translating a non-specific form of knowledge into an affective, localized site for which “pre-emptive design” can find its conditions of possibility.[18]

In a world understood through crisis, what matters most—what becomes the political stakes in the game—is who has the monopoly on defining vulnerability. As the other side of resilience, Arup’s CRI constitutes a tool to distribute vulnerability across vast scales. Such a task, made explicitly universal, can only be done if vulnerability is reduced to an interchangeable, technocratic set of metrics speculatively projected onto vast populations of urban inhabitants, using frameworks ratified by global governance structures—one that colonizes any collective imaginary of alternative futures.[19]As Judith Butler has argued, such a discourse on vulnerability discounts the political agency of those deemed vulnerable, thus inviting instead a paternalistic relation of care, provision, and governance.[20]Resilience urbanism reflexively offers itself as a kind of “pre-emptive” care. Yet like many terms “deployed” in design discourse, the very notion of pre-emption brings with it a history of militarized imperialism, expansionism, and occupation. It feels odd that the increasingly popular use of the notion of “pre-emptive design” does not tend to account for the fact that pre-emption is associated first and foremost with war, and that the discredited imperialist involvement of the US and others in Iraq does not bring pause to those who would otherwise use this term to denote an unproblematic mode of humanitarian intervention.[21]Like so many forms of modern imperialism, the distribution of vulnerability has often accompanied the violence of dispossession and the subsequent imposition of patriarchal modes of sovereign rule.[22]Is it possible, then, that the growing entanglement of global and municipal governance with global urban development—signaled in Arup’s and the URL’s work—constitutes one part of an emerging, speculative imperialism in the age of “natural” violence?[23]

[1]Rockefeller Foundation, ‘100 Resilient Cities,’

[2]Rebuild by Design, 100 Resilient Cities, and Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network. See CRI, p. 3.

[3]Resilience has been broadly adopted as a framework by many development-related UN agencies including UNDP and UN-Habitat and the UNISDR’s ‘Making Cities Resilient’ campaign, and has become a key term for policy making in other global actors such as the World Bank and the IMF. See also the the work of The Stockholm Resilience Center:

[4]Arup, 2015, City Resilience Index: Understanding and Measuring City Resilience (CRI), p. 7

[5]See Arup’s SPeAR webpage:

[6]Adams, R. E., 2010, Longing for a Greener Present, Radical Philosophy, no. 163 (Sept/Oct 2010).

[7]Melinda Cooper, for example, points to Hurricane Katrina as a turning point in our understanding of climate change as it relates to US imperial power. See Cooper, M., 2010, ‘Turbulent Worlds: Financial Markets and Environmental Crisis,’ Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2-3), p. 169.

[8]Here, I am referring to the nexus of cybernetics, systems theory, global governance frameworks (as well as its relation to US counterinsurgency programs) and their application to questions raised in the parallel discourses around environmentalism that blossomed in institutions from the 1950’s onward. The work of Jay W. Forrester and his “systems dynamics” figures prominently here, as does that of the so-called “Club of Rome” as well as MIT’s Architecture Machine Group, led by Nicholas Negroponte. Within this line of thought, the specter of Malthus provided a recurring backdrop, imagining that the questions of environmental crisis could be reduced to relating (cybernetically) world population to available resources. On the history of this, and its relation to architecture, see Felicity D. Scott’s extraordinary account: Scott, F.D., 2016, Outlaw Territories: Environments of Insecurity/Architectures of Counterinsurgency, New York City, Zone Books.

[9]Holling, C.S., 1973 ‘Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems,’ Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 4 (1973), p. 17.

[10]Holling, Buzz, Resilience dynamics, Stockholm: Stockholm Resilience Centre, University

of Stockholm; 2008 Nov 5. 29 mins, 14 secs.

[11]Foucault’s well-known adage speaks to a historical shift in Western power from sovereign, disciplinary power, which “took life and let live” to biopower’s mandate of “making live and letting die.” See Foucault, M., 2003, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, New York, Picador, p. 247. In relation to resilience, see Wakefield, S. & Braun, B. (Forthcoming) “Oystertecture: infrastructure, profanation and the sacred figure of the human,” Hetherington, K. Infrastructure, Environment, and Life in the Anthropocene. Durham, Duke University Press.

[12]Chandler, D., 2014, ‘Beyond neoliberalism: resilience, the new art of governing complexity,’ Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses, 2:1, p. 57, DOI: 10.1080/21693293.2013.878544.

[13]A term used to describe the proposed monitoring of New York City inhabitants by the West8/WXY team in their project “Blue Dunes,” part of New York City’s ongoing  “ Rebuild by Design” initiative. See Adams, R.E., 2014, “Notes from the Resilient City,” in Logno. 32, Summer 2014, p. 129.

[14]CRI, pp. 15, 24, 25.

[15]See, for example, Antoinette Rouvroy’s work on this notion. A good overview of this is in Rouvroy, A., and Steigler, B., 2016, “The Digital Regime of Truth: From the Algorthmic Governmentality to a New Rule of Law,” in La Deleuziana: Online Journal of Philosophy, no. 3, trans. Nony, A., and B. Dillet.



[18]Pre-emptive Design: Disaster and Urban Development along the Pacific Ring of Fireis the title of Mazereeuw’s forthcoming book.

[19]Bracke, S., “Bouncing Back: Vulnerability and Resistance in Times of Resilience,” in 2016, Vulnerability in Resistance, Butler, J, Z. Gambetti and L. Sabsay, eds., Duke University Press: Durham,  p. 70.

[20]See Buter, J., 2016, “Rethinking Vulnerability in Resistance,” in 2016, Vulnerability in Resistance, Butler, J., Z. Gambetti and L. Sabsay, eds., Duke University Press: Durham, pp. 12-27.

[21]See for example the 2015 issue of the Journal of Landscape Architecture, edited by Kelly Shannon, (volume 10, issue 1), whose focus is on “Preemptive Design Opportunities to Mitigate Disasters.”

[22]See for example Li, T.M., 2007, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practice of Politics, Duke University Press: Durham.

[23]Here, I draw on Melinda Cooper’s valuable contributions in the parallel realm of environmental derivatives, debt and imperialism in the age of climate change. See op. cit. Cooper, M., 2010, ‘Turbulent Worlds: Financial Markets and Environmental Crisis.’

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