Commentary News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies

Tactical Symbiotics: Design interventions among spiders, pollinators, and phobias

Designer Martín Ávila reports on his project Tactical SymbioticsIt suggests designs and uses speculative philosophy to investigates human/non-human relations to explore alternative approaches to ecological complexity and ecological crises. He will visit his co-worker Henrik Ernstson on an upcoming trip to Cape Town in December.

Move beyond the comfort zone: three speculative designs

A house spider.


During 2014 I have worked in Argentina and developed three sub-projects called Doomestics, Dispersal Machines, and Spices/Species. These projects  are organized around questions such as: What if individual households would become parts of a decentred industry that capitalises on humans’ negative emotions to certain animals? What if agricultural machines would maintain the diversity of local ecosystems, helping birds and insects pollinate and fertilize, while producing food for humans? What if we could develop affection for insects and parasitoids that participate in the lifecycles of domestic plants? The projects are design-driven and uses speculative philosophy to make explicit alternative versions of the present or near future. By focusing on relations between humans and natural-artificial systems, the projects strives to de-centre anthropocentric viewpoints to become a platform from which to provoke a possibility to reimagine everyday life.

Doomestics work with the tension established by the ecological need (if we are to maintain biological diversity) to cohabit with beings that are perceived as dangerous, undesirable or disgusting. Among them, spiders, scorpions and bats, to name a few. The project stages a series of products that make these beings visible and integrate them in different ways to everyday urban life. Alternatively, projects conceive them as “products”, for example by creating the possibility to value them as “biological pest controls” or through their potential to become products and by-products of different industries (as in sanitation, food, or material development industries), while exposing our fear, our phobias and our tendency to reject them.

A kit to make a spider house
Spiders’ domestication kit.
Dispersal models.

Dispersal Machines proposes interventions in agricultural systems that most humans have no direct relationship to. This include machines working in the countryside and semi-urban areas, affecting vast ecosystems but invisible to the urban dweller. The project will conceive machines that complement, supplement and/or maintain the activities of beings that participate in different natural processes such as the dispersion of seeds or pollen, or the secretion of nutrients to the soil.

Spices/Species addresses an intimate level of human relationship with nonhuman beings. This concerns plants eaten as food or used for medicinal purposes and the ecosystem functions they perform through forms of symbioses with, for example, insects and parasitoids.

The projects sketch and engage a diversity of responses that range from the intimate, to completely detached human-nonhuman relations. They still have in common that they affect the diversity of, and our relationship to, urban and agro-ecosystems. By confronting us with alternative realities—and alternative emotions, feelings and shivers—the project aims to open up new, and perhaps surprising ethical and moral dimensions to revalue and re-evaluate our present relations with non-humans. Although still early in the project, this may lead to “product-services systems“ based on the biological role of insects or arthropods in sanitation, or an affective ecology akin to those we have with domestic pets.

Response to ecological crisis: tactical symbiotics vs. ecosystem services?

The three projects form the base for the wider project Tactical Symbiotics. This means to search for tactics that through cooperation and/or togetherness with non-humans reinforce the interdependence between cultural and biological variation and diversity. In my discussions with Henrik Ernstson, we try to use ‘tactical symbiotics’ to investigate and propose something beyond the now oft-repeated mainstream responses to our planetary ecological crisis, which often sort under terms like “ecosystem services” or “natural resources”. These responses seems to squarely originate from within an anthropocentric viewpoint and they put distance between the human and non-human, so as to calculate this relation as a grand total, often expressed in numbers. These responses to our grave ecological conditions could  be viewed as akin to what Michel Foucault referred to as a strategy, as part of a general and generalisable ‘answer’. In relation, we find inspiration in how Michel De Certeau spoke of tactics as practices that evade strategies of power. Or even how tactics can find autonomy through the terrain of power: “The space of a tactic is the space of the other” (de Certeau, 1984: 37). A tactic moves close to the other, and finds surprising responses or ‘answers’.


Tactical Symbiotics consequently takes complexity very seriously, but tries to approach it and get to know it through a different register than the accountable and strategic. The project uses design, biological/ecological science and speculative philosophy and it strives to move beyond contemporary ‘answers’ or ‘solutions’.

While being very practical in its execution and exploration, the project also searches for an ethical, political and perhaps more discomforting position from where to understand our contemporary situation and ecological crises.

Institutionally, and as part of the project’s own tactic, it travels from a design school in Sweden, to a biological science centre in Argentina, to an urban research institute in South Africa. Tactical Symbiotics explores complexity from a different origin to search a different response to our ecological crisis.

During the month of December, Dr. Martín Ávila will visit Cape Town to work together with Henrik Ernstson at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. His project contributes to the project Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies. A longer trip is planned for late 2015 to develop the project further.

Tactical Symbiotics is part of Dr. Ávila’s postdoc research project as a three year grant by the Swedish Research Council. The project is a North-South interdisciplinary collaboration that relates Konstfack (the School of Arts, Crafts, and Design in Stockholm) with the Multidisciplinary Institute of Vegetal Biology of Córdoba, Argentina, and Henrik Ernstson’s project at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, South Africa. Read more at Martín Ávila’s webpage.

Drying cockroaches.
Crushing dried cockroaches for analysis.
Scorpion in UV light.

PostDoc Position in “Urban Infrastructures in Transition: The Case of African Cities”

Jochen Monstadt invites applicants to a great PostDoc opportunity at Darmstadt University of Technology at their Graduate Program on “Urban Infrastructures in Transition: The Case of African Cities”. Deadline: July 27, 2014.

New Graduate Program at Darmstadt University of Technology

The Graduate School for Urban Studies (URBANgrad) at Darmstadt University of Technology is currently setting up a new graduate program on urban and infrastructural change in East Africa. This interdisciplinary program is funded by the Hans Böckler Foundation and includes the following academic subjects: Spatial and Infrastructure Planning, Urban Development and Design, History of Technology, and Economic Geography and Global Studies. Within this program we are currently inviting applications for a full-time 3 year PostDoctoral position.

Postdoctoral Position (full-time, 3 years) on African Urban Infrastructures in Transition

The position is planned to begin in October, 2014 in the field of urban and infrastructure planning. The program “Urban Infrastructures in Transition” focuses on developments in the East-African cities of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. In particular, it highlights the history of and the current challenges posed by urban infrastructures—the supply and use of water, energy, sewerage, telecommunication, and transportation services. Within its framework, researchers critically investigate the tensions between, on the one hand, internationally circulating technological ideals and models in the planning, design and construction of cities (especially those of the networked city) and, on the other hand, local processes of appropriation and modification.


We invite applications from candidates with a completed doctorate in urban/regional planning, geography, political science or a related field of study with excellent academic records, research experience in cities of the Global South and a strong interest for African cities, and who are socially and politically engaged (e.g., in NGOs, university bodies or labor unions). Your previous research activities and your publication record reflect your strong interest and extensive knowledge in the fields of urban studies, urban governance and planning and your strong methodological skills in empirical social research. Knowledge in the fields of social studies of technology and/or postcolonial (urban) studies is desirable for this position. You will be expected to conduct critical research on the urban planning and governance of infrastructure in both cities, publish internationally, and teach within our Ph.D. program, to advise the Ph.D. candidates, to participate in and coordinate the academic activities of the program and to expand and deepen our network with partners from academia, planning practice and labor unions.


We offer an excellent research environment in a motivated, international team at a leading academic institution as well as the possibility for exchange in national and international networks. We encourage you to actively participate at the Darmstadt Research Centre for Urban Studies, the Frankfurt Center for Interdisciplinary African Studies and the networks of the Hans-Böckler Foundation. We offer salary according to the German public service pay scale depending on qualification and experience. Salaries range between 46,000 and 58,000 Euros per year (TV-TU Darmstadt E14). For more information, please refer to:, or contact the program director Jochen Monstadt +49-6151 16 2248;


The TU Darmstadt has an affirmative action program to promote equity in the employment of women, members of underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities. Interested candidates are asked to send their application (in English or German) as an email attachment directly to the following address: Please include (1) a letter of motivation, (2) your CV including information on your political engagement, e.g. in NGOs, labor unions or university bodies, (3.) a 5-8-page first sketch describing your postdoc research project and how it might contribute to our general research program, (4.) transcripts, and (5.) two short samples of recent publications (article and/or dissertation chapter); please merge the documents into one single pdf-file, max. 6 MB. The deadline is July 27, 2014. The job interviews will take place between August, 1-6.


We look forward to receiving your application!

For more discussions, see Commentaries section at SUPE:


If you join our Google Groups “Situated Urban Political Ecologies (SUPE)” you would have received Jochen’s email directly. Please email Henrik, Jon or Mary to join the SUPE google group email list. 


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Its time to pay the climate debt: Financing a low carbon urban Africa

 Jonathan Silver argues that carbon financing for cities is flawed and is failing to support urban Africa in addressing climate change and development imperatives.


At the recent ICLEI Local Climate Solutions conference in Dar es Salaam the Vice President of Tanzania, Mohamed Gharib Bilal addressed the assembled participants at the opening plenary. He argued that the global response to climate change must be fair, reflecting common but differentiated responsibilities that would put the emphasis on industrialised countries to finance a low carbon urban future and support the decoupling of growth from carbon and wider resource intensity in African cities. Yet these commonly held views on the continent and beyond seem to be having little effect on the slow, painful process of financing low carbon infrastructures and a green economy in Africa. As speakers at the conference and a burgeoning body of research are pointing out African cities are on the frontline of climate change dynamics, have contributed little to historic Green House Gas emissions and face multiple infrastructural pressures across an urbanizing region. This climate change driven, energy, resource and development crisis is not some imagined future but rather taking place in the here and now. Reflecting on these relationships between climate change, low carbon imperatives and infrastructure geographies from across urban Africa generates a critical question: Where is the financing coming from to transform energy systems that respond to low carbon and developmental objectives and fund the plethora of strategies and plans proposed over the last decade?

The prognosis is not an optimistic one. The failure of historic polluters to offer the necessary finance, technology transfer and solidarity highlighted by the Tanzanian Vice President as crucial to a low carbon, resource efficient urban future is achingly visible. The options out there now for African cities are limited, full of contradictions and characterised by the dominance of carbon markets. Speakers at the ICLEI conference sought to help city policy makers navigate the Byzantine nature of market based carbon financing, used (rare) case studies of success stories for the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and sought to draw some hope from a thoroughly discredited financing system. Yet these voices seem to be a minority as a growing consensus rejects the market rationalities embedded in carbon financing with a coalition of activists, academics and policy makers highlighting what seems like an endless number of problematics with financing mechanisms such as the CDM.

These critiques of carbon financing cover a series of issues from the privatisation of the air and the atmospheric commons through to the non-linearity of climate change. The almost perverse notion that polluters are being rewarded under these market conditions, together with widespread examples of fraudulent behavior seems to reflect the wider flawed logic of relying on the market and corporations to address socio-environmental conditions. Work by researchers in cities such as Durban show that in cities that have carbon market financed projects they are often orientated around mega-sized waste to energy technologies that are having devastating social and ecological consequences for local communities. Price fluctuations, speculative behaviors and the post-2008 crash of the carbon price have illustrated that these mechanisms are even failing on their own (market) logics and terms, reflecting the wider contradictions of global financial markets, derivatives and such like. Beyond these extensive general critiques there are some very real distribution inequalities to the current financing across carbon markets that suggest even if these wider flaws didn’t exist then this form of financing would marginalize African cities in these global flows of infrastructure investment. Taking the Clean Development Mechanism as an example we can see that the vast majority of financing has both a regional and a non-urban bias that leaves urban Africa on the margins.

Graph showing geographic location of CDM projects
Graph showing total proportion of urban based CDM projects


So whilst African cities have been promised the fruits of the carbon markets in reality such projects make a tiny and insignificant part of infrastructure investment through the CDM. There are various discourses emerging from organisations such as the Cities Alliance and the World Bank that seek to ‘get cities prepared to attract carbon finance’ yet previous experience would suggest that such preparations are likely to include energy sector liberalisation, policy reform and cause future difficulties for African cities to address climate change, poverty and other imperatives.

These series of problems, flawed logics and failures characterising carbon financing are not going to address the energy, climate change and development challenges facing urban Africa. So where does this critique of carbon markets and current financing landscapes leave cities in terms of financing low carbon, resource efficient urban futures? As the Vice President of Tanzania, concluding his address to the conference made clear, industrial countries must pay and there must be an equitable and fair way to finance the transformation of infrastructures across urban Africa. This is financing based on the idea of climate debt, of paying for the historical pollution of the atmosphere and offering an alternative to the failed logics of markets in addressing these global inequalities that continue to characterise relationships between the continent and the North.

The need for municipalities across urban Africa to instigate significant investment programs becomes ever more important to address climate change, low carbon imperatives and the multiple development challenges facing these spaces of poverty and inequality. Yet as the ICLEI conference illustrated yet again there seems little in the way of alternatives to the limited, compromised and hopelessly flawed carbon financing mechanisms as countries of the North fail to undertake their historic responsibilities. Its time to pay the climate debt and support African cities to undertake different trajectories from the resource intense urban systems of the North. Many of these cities have yet to construct the required infrastructure systems they will need over the next century providing a limited window of opportunity to build a low carbon, resource efficient and fair urban future. The time for the global North to finance these transformations is now.