AUC at the 8th International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS), Macau

Mike Douglass, AUC Cluster Leader, and Kong Chong Ho, Vice Dean of Research at FASS, organized a panel at the 24-27 June 2013 ICAS 8 conference in Macau. The theme of the panel was “Localizing Cosmopolis in a Global Age: The City at the Grass Roots in East & Southeast Asia.”  Papers presented drew from research in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, Manila, Surabaya, Hanoi, and Singapore.

The ICAS organization interviewed Mike Douglass to gain an understanding of how his presentation on “From Globopolis to Cosmopolis – Remaking the City from the Grassroots” provided an overview of the panel.

Here is the brief interview:

The topic of urban transition is a significant one considering mass urbanization is increasingly both a regional and worldwide trend. What does your panel aim to discuss?

Our panel focuses on theories and experiences in accommodating the increasing social and cultural diversity accompanying Asia’s urban transition. Its concerns are about how people are able to confront marginalization, exclusion, and inequality through grassroots mobilizations and the production of alternative urban spaces.

You use a couple of interesting terms to describe cities. What does the word “Globopolis” mean?

Globopolis is a term that I put forth to characterize the cities emerging in Asia over the past 20-30 years.  Although variations are significant, they have commonalities that concern us: high and rising inequality, privatization public spaces and corporatization of public institutions, and diminishing opportunities for associational and public life. These cities are being drawn into an ideological shift from the idea of the city as a theatre of social life to a city as a hyper-competitive engine of economic growth and generator of wealth for a creative class. They increasingly depend on migrant and temporary workers who form a flexibly disposable labor force. The results are the elimination of the vernacular city of neighborhoods and communities produced with and by residents in favor of a city of the world’s tallest buildings, mega-global business hubs, vast gated housing enclaves, shopping malls, chain stores and repetitive franchise logos, and the simulacra of city marketing that has little to do with local histories. This is Globopolis. We see it emerging even in the poorest and most remote places in Asia today.

And “Cosmopolis”?

Cosmopolis is used as a term to distinguish the emergent Globopolis from the possibility of a city region, a Cosmopolis, that values diversity, accommodates the stranger on an equal footing with citizens, and has a plenitude of spaces where people can engage in associational life. It is a public city that is sustained through institutions and spaces for participatory decisionmaking, including peaceful contestations. Cosmopolitan cities are those in which people of all walks of life can assert their differences and negotiate them with others and in relation to government and private economic interests. Its culture accepts an idea of inclusion that goes beyond citizenship defined by the nation-state by extending the right to the city to everyone who comes to it. These defining characteristics might be idealistic, we know, but then we can say that Globopolis is a utopian fantasy that is founded on deeply flawed assumptions about its own viability as well as about human flourishing.

You focus on experiences from cities East and Southeast Asia in particular. Why so?

If you mean why not include all of Asia, we have no overarching reason other than the happenstance that our panelists have a long history of collaboration together in these parts of Asia. If you mean why would we focus on Asia more generally, a principal reason would be the context of the urban transition taking place across Asia that is exceptionally compressed in time and is occurring at a particular historical moment of globalization that differentiates it from earlier urban transitions in other world regions in Europe and Latin America as well as in contemporary Africa and the Middle East.  The transition in Asia entails a thorough remaking of cities and social relations in them. However, we are aware of the limitations of differentiating experiences at such a high regional scale. Variations in Asia are substantial, and cities in Asia do share commonalities with cities in other parts of the world. The important point is that we give attention to contextualizing the larger theme of our panel on diversity.

What elements are necessary to achieve more socially just cities?

Social justice is an on-going process, not just an end that can be achieved once and for all.  As such, we need to create openings in institutional and space-forming processes to allow for and peacefully negotiate among contesting voices and their claims about what constitutes social justice.  In summary form, this means that the city must be constituted as a polis of public discourse and decisionmaking over the production and uses of urban space. Such a city will depend on fostering an urban culture of inclusion and accommodation of differences that would hold the conviviality of associational life to be intrinsic to the idea of the good city.

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