A heterotopia of constitutional innovation The formation of a new research group and a hub for interdisciplinary research at the intersection of law, technology, and society

by Nikolaus Poechhacker & Iris Eisenberger

Graz has a new heterotopia: the Constitutional Innovation Hub Graz (CIHG). Funded by the Faculty of Law of the University of Graz, the CIHG is a flexible platform to work on and think about the entanglements of law, technology, and society. We will present this platform in this short text using the concept of heterotopias. The CIHG consists of (currently) four different research areas: Co-Creative Tech Regulation, Critical Legal Tech, Innovative Constitutionalism, and Participative Legal Innovation. Through these research areas, we aim to bring together different scholars, disciplines, and perspectives, and also invite different formats of thinking, reflecting, and engaging with socio-legal topics with and around new technologies and innovation.

Graz has a new heterotopia. And we are building it. But let us start at the beginning: in 2020, Professor Iris Eisenberger became the new head of the Innovation Law Team at the University of Graz. Influenced by the experiences of her former professorship at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, she started to assemble a small but diverse group of scholars coming from law, sociology, science communication, criminology, environmental science, and engineering. The research group at the Institute of Public Law and Political Science (Faculty of Law) has now grown to 16 members and conducts international and interdisciplinary research focusing on technology law, public economic law, and the protection of fundamental and human rights. These studies are complemented (and sometimes irritated) by perspectives and arguments from classical sociology, engineering or philosophy. A key part of the new professorship is the Constitutional Innovation Hub Graz (CIHG), supported and funded by the Faculty of Law of the University of Graz. In this text, we seek to introduce the CIHG.

However, communicating the idea of a place like the CIHG is no easy task. Accordingly, we use the concept of heterotopia to describe the CIHG and its purpose. Michel Foucault[1] described heterotopias as places in a society that are different, that are ‘quite other sites’, unbound from the rules of normalized space. In these spaces all other places are represented, contested, and inverted. They are very abstract and very real at the same time – and they are defined by their relations with the normality from which they deviate. One could say that heterotopias are places to be differently, to act differently, and to think differently. During 2020, where the whole world felt like a heterotopia, we aimed to build a special and deliberate one. A place for thinking about the manifold relations and entanglements of law, technology, and society.

As Foucault laid out in the first principle of heterotopias, every society creates heterotopias to enable practices that are supposed to take place ‘elsewhere’. We conceptualize the CIHG as a site that enables and fosters projects, research, and relationships at the intersection of law, society, and technology that are differently institutionalized. While the CIHG seeks to enable work outside classical structures, its existence simultaneously depends on those structures. Being part of Iris Eisenberger’s professorship, the CIHG is institutionally and financially founded on structures and resources provided by the University of Graz. In this special position, the CIHG complements and extends the classical academic institution as an experimental (non-)place, in which one can develop new perspectives on law, technology and society.

The second principle of Foucault’s heterotopias defines them as places with a specific function. The hub’s current function is realized through different research areas, each of which has specific goals and mimics and reaches beyond classical legal studies. To varying degrees, the work within the research groups is classically academic, theoretical, practical, activist, or artistic, but always experimental. However, the areas are not set in stone. They are fluid, enabling the CIHG to adapt to new topics that are yet to emerge. Currently, the hub covers four different research areas:

Co-Creative Tech Regulation, led by Sebastian Scholz and Thomas Buocz, analyses and compares a range of different legal instruments used to facilitate real-world testing of new technologies. Experimental clauses and regulatory sandboxes can for example be useful instruments of tech regulation, provided their use complies with the rule of law, the distribution of legislative competence, and affected fundamental rights. In this context, co-creation is a way to innovate not only technology but also the legal instruments that apply to it.

Critical Legal Tech, led by Nikolaus Poechhacker, investigates how the legal system and its inner logic are changed through what is known as legal tech. Here we explore how new technologies are changing the mechanisms of knowing, decoding, and legitimizing within the legal domain. Critically investigating these new technologies is as important as the technological shift itself. The applied technologies are not neutral, but convey specific visions of the law and society they address. This is especially important as the material and technological ways of making law (Latour, 2009) are becoming co-constitutive of the legal system itself (Jasanoff, 2011).

Innovative Constitutionalism, led by Professor Iris Eisenberger, addresses both the framework that the constitution provides for (technological) innovations, as well as the effect of (technological) innovations on the constitution itself. Innovative Constitutionalism highlights “that science and technology are tied to the state and its citizens in relationships that are properly characterized as constitutional” (Hurlbut et al., 2020: 982). Researching the constitution and (technological) innovation as co-constitutive reflects the democratic role of innovation in our contemporary societies.

Participative Legal Innovation, led by Annemarie Hofer, aims to change the one-sided communication of law, to foster participation in legal decision-making and to investigate how society experiences regulations regarding innovative technologies. Focusing on a bottom-up approach towards innovative collaborative regulation and design of technology, we want to provide the public with a more accessible view of the legal process by making it more approachable and understandable.

The third principle of heterotopias is especially important to the CIHG. Foucault painted heterotopias as places that relate and connect different spaces, even potentially incompatible ones, in a single site. The CIHG tries to do exactly that: go beyond institutional, geographical, and disciplinary boundaries by bringing together researchers, practitioners, artists, and activists from within and outside academia, with different backgrounds, different nationalities and different personalities. We put this concept to the test through our Design Sprint last autumn, where we brought together law students and designers to imagine problems and solutions alike for data protection in interdisciplinary projects. Although the pandemic situation made it quite a challenge to host this event, the participants succeeded in imagining data protection in innovative and sometimes even subversive ways.

Figure 1 Development of an alternative customer card in retail, visualizing data usage. Design Sprint 2020

Although still in the fledgling stage, the CIHG already connects scholars from different places and disciplines, ranging from law, sociology, science communication, computer science, criminology, environmental science and engineering. It connects, complements, but also inverts many different places and will (hopefully) constitute its very own transnational and transdisciplinary order. An order that is not static but has to be achieved always anew – and is therefore fluid and creative.

Which brings us to the fourth principle: heterotopias are also linked to temporal regimes. Foucault describes two different modes. The archive, in which time is accumulated, and the festival, a fluid and singular event that is always precarious. The CIHG is not a museum or an archive. Its aim is not to preserve time, but to provide opportunities to follow different time regimes in events or ephemeral interventions. Apart from classic research projects, the CIHG hosts talks, workshops, and installations. We also have a newsletter, which surely mirrors a more conventional academic habitus and time regime. However, since the CIHG is a fluid construct, these temporal flashlights are also bottom-up initiatives that everyone involved can host under the roof of the CIHG. Even, or especially, in a heterotopia, the projects form the core of what we do.

One example of our current projects is DIGrenz, where we focus on the question of how digitization changes asylum procedures. We examine issues and challenges from a (socio-)legal perspective, including fundamental human rights, data protection rights, and digital infrastructures. Another key project is Responsible Robotics (RR-AI), a cooperation with the Technical University of Munich. The project empirically studies the social, ethical and legal dimensions of a service robot named GARMI and a smart arm exo-prosthesis – both novel AI-based technologies. These are only two examples of current projects at the CIHG.

The fifth principle of heterotopias revolves around the actants involved in CIHG. According to Foucault’s definition, heterotopias are characterized by an interplay of opening and closing, inclusion and exclusion. The CIHG is imagined as a space with different forms of inclusion: you can drop by at our events or informally come to discuss, exchange ideas and have a drink at our Open Space Cafés, where we invite people from in- and outside academia to think and discuss with us. Or you can become more involved as an associated researcher in common projects, or as a fellow through our in-development fellowship program.

With the sixth principle, Foucault argues that every heterotopia is placed between two poles: illusion and concreteness. A heterotopia can create an illusion to deconstruct related real places as illusions themselves, or create a real space to compensate for a missing function in society. Locating the CIHG in this spectrum is not an easy task. As we imagine the CIHG right now, the space is about deconstructing and reconstructing imaginaries about law, technology and society as much as it is a concrete space to assemble people interested in related topics and projects. Thus, through the doing and making that takes place in the CIHG, it accommodates illusions while also performing a very real function.

Here we leave the structuralist thinking of Foucault. We turn to phenomenology and materialist notions into a world where illusions and concreteness are not opposing poles. As Mol (2002) has shown, the ontology of the world is not a given, but is enacted in practices, in the doings and makings of actors involved in the situation. The CIHG is an illusion and a manifest space at the same time. Accommodating very different practices and perspectives leaves space for parallel enactments of the CIHG. The hub does not exist as one entity, as one heterotopia, but as multiple instances of a different place. And such a place can accommodate rather different illusions that are also very real – if we realize them.



Hurlbut, J. B., Jasanoff, S., & Saha, K. (2020). Constitutionalism at the Nexus of Life and Law. Science, Technology, & Human Values 45(6): 979–1000.

Jasanoff, S. (2011). Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Knight, K. T. (2017). Placeless places: Resolving the paradox of Foucault’s heterotopia. Textual Practice 31(1): 141–158

Latour, B. (2009). The Making of Law: An Ethnography of the Conseil d’Etat. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity.

Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham; London: Duke University Press.

Foucault M. (n.d.). Of Other Spaces (1967), Heterotopias. Translated by Jay Miskowiec from Foucualt (1984). Des Espace Autres. Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5: 46-49. Retrieved 19 May 2021, from https://foucault.info/documents/heterotopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en/


[1] As with many concepts, Foucault never gave a single definition of the concept, but used it more as a fluid thinking device (Knight, 2017). However, the definition used in this short text is based on the translated version of the text ‘Des Espace Autres’ provided by the Foucault Archive (Of Other Spaces (1967), Heterotopias., n.d.).