C-MUS goes (even more) global with this new interview with Professor Ole B. Jensen in the Portuguese Architecture and Art Journal arqa (nov/dez. 2014) . The interview is about research in mobilities and the future with a special focus on the relationship to architecture and design. The Journal is in Portuguese (see attached document) but for the interested there is an English version inserted here:
Regarding your activity, in which way are you interested in the issue of urban mobility?
As an urbanist and scholar of mobility design I work in the cross-over between sociology and urban design with a particular focus on mobility. In general terms I am interested in the actual and concrete ‘mobile situations’ of the everyday life within the contemporary Network City. My background is in the social sciences, but for more than a decade I have researched and taught within an urban design curriculum. Here I have learned how architecture and urban design have very sensitive vocabularies to materials, form, spaces, and what I would term ‘urban livability’. On the other hand side, I have also spent the last decade contributing to the predominantly social scientific field of mobility studies sometimes termed the ‘mobility turn’. From this work I have developed theories and concepts that set us in a better position for understanding the cultural, social, and environmental repercussions of urban everyday life mobility. So I have come to see that design and architecture may have lessons for social research, as well as the other way around. In other words, that mobility research has lessons for architecture and design. I explore this particular relationship under the heading of ‘mobility design’ which I consider to be a new and emerging research area. People with a deeper interest in this may look up my latest book titled ‘Designing Mobilities’ published in 2014 at Aalborg University Press to see how this is being articulated. To support these activities I have explored and experimented with my conceptual and theoretical understanding in the Master Program of Urban Design as well as in our new Master Program of Mobility and Urban Studies, both at Aalborg University. I have also been instrumental in setting up the Centre for Mobilities and Urban Studies (C-MUS) at Aalborg University in 2008 (to which I am co-director and board member) and last year a thematic sub-group titled the ‘Mobilities Design Group’ (MDG). In the future a book, some papers, and workshops are in the pipeline as well. I have done all this in order to create the important connections between theoretical/conceptual understandings and practical/experimental design. The underpinning pragmatic philosophy is that we have to break away from the misunderstanding that theory and practice are separate entities – or belong to different worlds as it were. Rather, and this I teach both my Masters and PhD students alike, we need theoretically informed designs and design-informed theories and concepts. Or as that old proverb goes; ‘there is nothing as practical as a good theory’!
In the context of the transformations of the global process of modernisation, how contemporary cities have been responding to the new forms of mobility and accessibility?
The contemporary city faces immense challenges. Some are explainable to large scale ecological challenges indeed, such as global warming, others to geopolitical questions of regional conflicts and power plays. However, common to all these are that they are played out in real life within the urban spaces and network city infrastructures. So rather than separating ‘the global’ and ‘the local’ as two separate realms we need to understand the complex and multi-scalar connectivity taking places in our cities. Here we may start to think of places and cities as relationally interdependent. This means that cities, regions, neighborhoods, and even buildings are only what they are as a function of the connectivity and dis-connectivity of flows passing to them (or bypassing them). Regardless if we think of energy, waste, transport, digital communication, or mobile everyday practices it is the mobility/immobility that explains the way our built environment and cities functions. Moreover cities are governed and controlled by multiple agencies and are never homogeneous entities (even though we tend to talk of ‘the city’ as a well-defined subject). Rather, multiple stakeholders and interests meet and mingle in the contemporary Network City. The key to understanding how to deal with the urban challenges of the 21st Century lies in understanding the Network City as a complex assemblage of human agencies, powers and interests as well as technologies, infrastructures and complex socio-technical systems. At the heart of this all lies the question of mobility/immobility. This is so regardless if we are looking at ‘switched-off territories’ within the city or particular social group’s abilities and disabilities. My claim is furthermore, that the field of ‘mobilities design’ is where it all manifests itself as ‘situational mobility’.
In the ambit of the changes in urban experience and mobility practices, what is the role of the architect and urbanist in the configuration of the future city?
I believe the role of the urbanist and architect to be fundamental for the challenges ahead. As I started out saying, the first hurdle to overcome it to get architects and urban designers to relate and engage with mobility researchers. Here lies a great responsibility for architecture, planning and urban design schools and I think we have taken this very serious at Aalborg University with our developments of curricula that consciously work across disciplines. The architects and urban designers of tomorrow will need to have much wider outlook and interest into other fields of practice as well as academic disciplines. The key credo of the ‘mobility turn’ is that mobility is ‘much more than movement from A to B’. Within the realm of ‘transport’ the instrumental movements of people, goods, and materials are the key, but the ‘mobility turn’ expands this agenda and looks into the cultural and social implications of a world on the move. We focus on the ‘more than’ in the A to B understanding you might say. We ask questions like; what will it mean to our understanding of our Selves, our social others, and the built environment that we are either constantly on the move, or conversely stuck in immobility within a world in flux? From my many years of working with architects and urban designers in design studios, with design experiments but also in research I think this particular group has some astonishing potentials. The spatial and material sensitivity and vocabulary established within the architecture and urban design disciplines are their main assets, and this is also the key to engaging with the future challenges and transition requirements that our cities are facing. But, importantly, the architects and urban designers need also to expand their conceptual and theoretical horizons by paying interest to the work coming out of mobility research. Personally I often say to my architect and design colleagues, that they are very eloquent in finding ‘potentials’ but less to in identifying ‘problems’. This, however, is almost reverse when it comes to the social sciences who are eminent in identifying ‘problems’ but consequentially also less able to spot ‘potentials’. I think this lye in the ‘DNA’ of the respective disciplines to either focus on ‘problems’ or ‘potentials’. So the role of the future architect and urban designer dealing with mobility challenges depends on learning the ‘language’ and framework of what I term ‘Critical Mobilities Thinking’. By this I mean a theoretically informed and design sensitive understanding of mobility as something that both hold ‘potentials’ and ‘problems’. This is why we have to understand than much more than moving people from A to B takes place when we engage in everyday life mobility. We become who we are, and we build relationships and culture as we either move through our cityscapes or are prevented here from. I would invite architects and urban designers of the future city and its mobility systems, to engage in a cross-disciplinary dialogue around ‘mobilities design’ as one way of creating a platform for action and reorientation of their role. This is very important work and needs to be facilitated in a collaborative effort between architectural and urban design curriculums, urban research institutions, government bodies and planning institutes, and last but not least, by the private architectural companies and engineering consultancy firms. By all means there is great work lying ahead and it not the least bit too early to start collaborating!