The role of scientific expertise in the drive for ‘smart urbanism’ in the Edinburgh City region
Edinburgh Future Institute building and garden

By Nicolas Zehner

Who has the power to (re)organise urban life? How are urban planning agents developing expectations about futures? What role does scientific expertise play in shaping imaginaries of the datafied city? Meta processes such as climate change and digitisation lead to a redefinition of the relationship between science and politics. The increasing demand for both policy-relevant work and scientific supply of future-oriented knowledge demonstrates that the politics and science of the future are closely intertwined (Wenger et al., 2020). One domain that appears particularly influenced by the increasing entanglement of science and politics is urban-regional innovation. One example of this is the Edinburgh and South-East Scotland City Region Deal (CRD). The latter represents a £1.3bn investment by the Scottish and UK governments and local partners over the next fifteen years, which is designed to accelerate inclusive growth through the funding of infrastructure, skills and data-driven innovation.

In a recent talk for SKAPE, I engaged with the CRD by tracing the rise of higher education as a powerful urban-regional stakeholder. Officially signed in August 2018, the CRD presents a unique case study for at least two reasons: First, it constitutes the first higher education driven city region deal in the UK. Second, it aligns a cluster of extremely powerful actors – political leaders, higher education officials, tech entrepreneurs – around one specific “sociotechnical imaginary” – establishing the city region as the ‘Data Capital of Europe’. The latter constitutes, what Jasanoff and Kim (2015) call a “collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed vision of a desirable future […]” (4).

Building on 50 in-depth elite interviews, document analysis and digital ethnography, I argue that future-making in the Edinburgh city region is characterised by an unequal distribution of projective agency and driven by an epistemic community at the intersection of science and politics. Projective agency denotes “the imaginative generation by actors of possible future trajectories of action, in which received structures of thought and action may be creatively reconfigured in relation to actors’ hopes, fears, and desires for the future” (Emirbayer and Mische, 1998: 971). I think there are two empirical findings that deserve special attention. First, the production of the ‘Data Capital of Europe’ imaginary was driven by the University of Edinburgh from the start. Second, higher education officials act as translation agents, thereby defining and structuring urban-regional power relationships.

Originally put forward in an internal university audit in 2014, the notion of the ‘Data Capital of Europe’ first officially appeared in a Science and Innovation Audit (SIA) report in 2017 by a local consortium of higher education officials and council managers, who identified data-driven innovation as key driver of economic growth in the Edinburgh city region. Building on the Shakespeare Review, which concluded that a second wave of economic and societal value will be generated by the capacity to process and learn from data, the consortium envisioned the Edinburgh city region to become “a global destination of choice by 2025 for organisations powering services through the application of data science” (BEIS, 2017: 65). The findings of the SIA subsequently formed the basis for the emergence of the DDI Programme[1], which forms the backbone of the CRD.

One element that seems particularly relevant in the construction of this specific urban sociotechnical imaginary is the multi-scalar nature of placed-based innovation strategies. Unlike city authorities, universities do not operate within bounded territories. Consequently, their spatial

interests might not necessarily be local. While universities certainly play a part in innovation, it is less clear how they contribute to urban-regional innovation (e.g., Power and Malmberg, 2008). In other words, innovations in artificial intelligence might change the world but unless these innovations permeate regional industries, they will not affect the lives of local residents. Therefore, it seems crucial to critically examine the nature and limits of innovation strategies put forward by global higher education institutions such as Edinburgh University.

A second key empirical finding refers to the role of higher education officials mediating the science-policy intersection. The CRD and its ambition to establish the city region as the ‘Data Capital of Europe’ was driven by the so-called ‘Gang of Four’, a group of four senior university officials responsible for creating, dispersing and stabilising this particular imaginary of innovation. Translating between various communities – governments, regional tech ecosystem, civil society – they structured power relationships by defining the nature urban-regional problems, assigning roles to actors and moving specific imaginaries from one organisational context to another. Importantly, they engaged in “boundary work” (Gieryn, 1999) by drawing and redrawing boundaries between science and non-science. One example includes the depolitisation of higher education’s role in urban-regional development by claiming that science is merely providing evidence-based research, which politics then transforms into policy.

In studying the production of the ‘Data Capital of Europe’ imaginary, however, it becomes clear that the city deal unfolded in a much more unbounded, fluid and transdisciplinary fashion. The relationship between scientific expertise and political accountability appears to be characterised by a lack of both democratic input and promissory legitimacy (Scharpf, 1970; Beckert, 2019). The latter refers to “the legitimacy that political authority gains from the credibility of promises with regard to future outcomes that political (or economic) leaders make when justifying decisions” (1). Furthermore, while the notion of data-driven innovation has successfully captured key decision makers’ imagination, it is less clear how “the woman in the street” can actually benefit from it. Furthermore, local communities were not involved in future-imagining practices. There was no room for early public consideration of alternatives to the chosen pathway of urban-regional development. One NGO director put it bluntly by saying that the CRD “is like a spaceship that landed”.

This apparent lack of access to future-imagining practices and the strong decision-making power by non-elected officials call for a “better mapping of the predictive terrain of politics” (Jasanoff, 2020: 41). It is paramount to acknowledge that the sites and objects of politics are no longer simply those of formal state institutions but also lie in the hands of increasingly important players such as higher education that fall outside the bounds of meaningful political control. Consequently, urban-regional innovation must be conceptualised as a political category and more strongly subjected to normative standards such as transparency and accountability.

About the author

Nicolas Zehner is a third-year PhD candidate in sociology at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, exploring the emergence of smart urban visions in the Edinburgh city region. His wider research interests include the examination of imagination as a key driver of politico-economic action.

[1] For more information, see: