Tag Archives: UK

Assembling artificial natures for new socio-technical worlds?

Making snow on indoor ski slopes, growing cherry tomatoes in western Iceland, recreating tropical rainforests in central Paris… The capacity to create and control strategically useful and productive microclimatic conditions within indoor enclosed ecologies may well be a significant key shift in human – environment relations. As the planet’s climate experts cast doubt yet again on our collective ability to urgently and appropriately respond to clear signals that global warming is happening and its deleterious effects are becoming ever more widespread1, there seems to be a somewhat paradoxical focus on fashioning artificial environments for leisure, food production and botanical display that bear little or no resemblance to either the setting in which they are developed or the original milieu from which they take their inspiration. These ‘arks’ thus constitute a new, highly selective form of urban environment in which boundaries between inside and outside come to represent nothing less than priorities and choices about the types of species, spaces and activities of humanity worth saving and those which can be discarded in an already emerging, uncertain and turbulent future.

Tracing the processes and practices through which these emerging environments are constituted is thus at once crucial, fascinating and, as is habitual in STS, worthy of close attention for understanding how inherently socio-technical worlds come to be. In this short article, I explore two brief examples of emerging enclosed ecologies which are reliant on technology deployment to create, what are claimed as, efficient conditions for the activities they sustain.

Creating new and improved nature

With climate change creating uncertainty over future land availability and agricultural productivity, there are increasing attempts to transfer the rationales and practices of precision agriculture into urban areas in a variety of ways to provide control and greater efficiency of the growing environment. AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey is, for example, using “a completely controlled environment… [to] take indoor vertical farming to a new level of precision and productivity with minimal environmental impact and virtually zero risk”.2 Taking over a former industrial building it has almost 70,000 square feet of space for growing salad greens and other plants on twelve stacked layers each eighty feet long.3 This is ‘closed loop’ aeroponic farming which provides plants with water, nutrients and oxygen by spraying a mist over their roots, thus using 70% less water than hydroponic farming (which itself uses 70% less water than normal farming), and substituting a patented and reusable artificial fabric cloth for soil: “If crops can be raised without soil and with a much reduced weight of water, you can move their beds more easily and stack them high”.4 AeroFarms balances the place specificity of being based in Newark with a desire to replicate its model to fit other urban contexts using algorithms, sensing devices, CO2 enriching and bespoke LED lighting technology that totally controls the environment it is configuring: “The technology it uses derives partly from systems designed to grow crops on the moon. The interior space is its own sealed-off world; nothing inside the vertical-farm buildings is uncontrolled… In short, each plant grows at the pinnacle of a trembling heap of tightly focused and hypersensitive data”.5 The advantages for AeroFarms are multiple: “We have optimized our patented aeroponic growing system for faster harvest cycles, predictable results, superior food safety and less environmental impact”.6 Given the high-tech process, the result is indeed a product unlike anything in ‘nature’ whereby “plants create themselves partly out of thin air”,7 and there is production of “more crops in less space while minimizing environmental damage, even if it means completely divorcing food production from the natural ecosystem” . As AeroFarms chief marketing officer argues: “Out there, in nature, we don’t have control over sunlight, rainfall, here, we are giving plants what they need to thrive”. 8

Figure 1: Precision indoor farming, Reykjavik, September 2017 (photo: Jonathan Rutherford)

Driven by the need to save land and resources and reduce pollution, such as from agricultural runoff, for future environmental planetary sustainability, but also feed a rapidly growing global urban population, many variants of this initiative – reducing the amounts needed of one or more of sun, soil and water – are seeing the light of day in cities around the world (see figure 1). And the logics, practices and techniques are becoming ever more diffuse and democratized beyond experiment and scientific expertise into the lay domestic realm. For example, having teamed up with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Ikea now sells a range of hydroponic indoor gardening technology kits complete with seeds, nutrients and LED lights. These kits are deliberately aimed at apartment dwelling citizens across the world who do not have direct access to outside gardens.9 Through these initiatives, large-scale farming previously done beyond the city is being brought or rescaled into urban areas and into the home, creating new ‘insides’ that aim to alleviate the problems of, and therefore improve on, increasingly turbulent unsustainable ‘outsides’.

Snow as infrastructure: making the perfect piste every day

Indoor ski centres are becoming ever more popular across the UK, Europe and North America as skiers of different ages and abilities seek exact, guaranteed, all year long and locationally convenient conditions in which to practice on the piste.

But the novelty and diffusion of these centres shrouds the sheer complexity of the infrastructure systems required to reproduce Alpine conditions in an urban indoors in Manchester or Hemel Hempstead. The snow has to be actually produced on a daily basis with precise physical qualities as well as in sufficient quantities, while there is a constant struggle to keep the ambient temperature at the right level (-2C during the day and -8C at night). The scale of the enterprise is astounding – this is a veritable industrial ecology of leisure with a series of inputs and circulations of material flows (water, ammonia, glycol, cooling, condensers and so on) to allow skiing to take place in a manufactured and controlled setting which transcends the climatic, seasonal and topographic limits of the immediate environment.

Much of the preparation and maintenance of the whole system is done at night, and involves a surprisingly substantial amount of actual human labour. It takes 8 people to move equipment and décor to get the machines and ploughs in. “Every night, our snow machines pump out 10 tonnes of snow to keep it fresh”.10 But the slope then has to be ‘groomed’ and the computer monitored control of the snow on the slope is backed up by somebody double checking every square meter for depth and quality. Then the snow has to rest to harden up for 7 hours before ‘use’. As the facilities manager for the Manchester centre summarises: “My primary objective is to maintain the snow conditions. It’s a very fine balancing act, but we maintain a level of 400mm of snow, and a lot of work goes into that”.11 The complex maintenance procedure was foregrounded when the facility was forced to close temporarily in February 2017 due to poor snow conditions.12

These centres resemble ‘boxes’ as their protected, controlled settings become crucial to create the precise conditions for snow making: an insulated structure, air conditioning to circulate cold air, chilled water supply, a slope with a glycol antifreeze cooling system underlay, liquid ammonia storage tank. The process resembles the natural process of snowfall (‘clouds’, ‘tiny particles’, ‘snow crystal formation’)13 but filters out extraneous elements and the unreliability of not knowing when it is going to snow. There are considerable environmental externalities to these centres which consume huge amounts of energy and other resources on a daily basis, often requiring their own electricity substations and water provision. This is a new form of closed loop industrial ecology bringing into being a synthetic leisure space which resembles the conventional outdoor activity but actually constitutes something else and new, as demonstrated by the increasing number of people who now regularly ski indoors without ever skiing outdoors. The remarkable thing about this process is that there are now a number of ski resorts in the Alps and elsewhere actually using similar systems to produce artificial snow for their slopes when there is a natural shortfall.14 The recreation of outdoors indoors is now being taken back outdoors, the simulacrum is reality.

Figure 2: Indoor ski centre with artificial snow, Manchester, March 2018 (photo: Jonathan Rutherford)

Urban anthropogenic futures?

These two brief examples demonstrate a close focus on what can be called the infrastructuralisation of new enclosed ecologies. A set of intertwined socio-technical processes underpin enclosed spaces by introducing and reinforcing logics of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control through technology. What an urban STS perspective foregrounds is how this infrastructuralisation is materially (concretely and politically) done in and across a wide range of cities to allow the work of enclosure to take place for particular productive purposes, while excluding that which is not required or is less desirable. It thus begins to uncover some of the contradictions and consequences of this development, which will demand further critical interrogation.

If this appears to be something out of space age experimentation or science fiction, then that’s because it is. The knowledge, techniques and practices of enclosure, experiment, manipulation and improvement behind these new ecologies have circulated and transmuted into the urban arena from other domains including biospheric engineering, the technoscience of space exploration and precision agriculture. In critically exploring both the hybridization of insides and outsides and technology and ecology, and the crossovers between distinct domains of expertise, knowledge production and life support, developing an understanding of these controlled environments is crucial for navigating and forging possible urban and human futures in the anthropocene.15 This area of research pushes at and looks beyond the traditional boundaries and settings of the city in order to develop new ways of understanding human-technology relations on a turbulent planet.



1 See IPCC (2018) Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/ 

2 http://aerofarms.com/

3 “The willingness of a certain kind of customer to pay a lot for salad justifies the investment, and after the greens get the business up and running its technology will be adapted for other crops, eventually feeding the world or a major fraction of it. That is the vision”, Frazier, I. (2017) “The vertical farm.” The New Yorker (9 January 2017).

4  Op.cit.

5  Op.cit.

6  See http://aerofarms.com/technology/ 

7  Frazier, op.cit.

8  Vyawahare, M. (2016) “World’s largest vertical farm grows without soil, sunlight or water in Newark.” The Guardian (14 August 2016).

9  See http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/products/indoor-gardening/

10  https://www.chillfactore.com/10th-anniversary/

11  https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/business/ever-wondered-how-snow-made-13021752 

12 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/ski/news/uk-longest-indoor-ski-slope-chill-factore-closes-due-to-poor-snow/

13 “Just like on the mountains, indoor snow is made using a cold environment, water and air… In the mountains, crystals are found in the clouds before they turn to snowflakes, these pure crystals are also what falls on The Snow Centre’s Slopes at night”: https://www.thesnowcentre.com/snowsure/news/how-snow-is-made-indoors 

14 See https://www.economist.com/news/business/21716659-some-italian-ski-resorts-now-get-complete-coverage-snow-guns-snow-making-companies

15 See Marvin, S. & Rutherford, J., 2018, ‘Controlled environments: an urban research agenda on microclimatic enclosure’, Urban Studies 55(6), 1143-1162.

Making Science Public: Opening Up Closed Spaces

What does it mean to make science more public, open or accountable? How is ‘the public’ imagined and constituted? How does this relate to challenges of legitimacy and moderation in politics and policymaking? These questions have been explored by ‘Making Science Public’, a five-year research programme (2012-2017) funded by the Leverhulme Trust and based at the University of Nottingham in collaboration with the Universities of Sheffield and Warwick. The End of Award Conference on 22 June showcased findings from across the programme’s nine projects and two doctoral studentships, and considered implications for the future. While contemporary configurations of science, politics and publics show instances of promise, imagination, and experimentation, further work is needed to (re-)build institutions, conditions and capacities for public reason(ing) and political accountability. 


The day before the UK voted in the most controversial British referendum in recent times, the researchers of the Making Science Public programme gathered from across sociology, geography, politics, ethics, and STS, with an international, multidisciplinary audience, to reflect on the relationship between science, politics and publics in the UK and beyond.

In introducing this theme, Sujatha Raman noted the unintentional significance of the conference’s timing, tagged ‘Britain’s “truthiness” moment’ by the press in acknowledgement of the prevalence of truth claims unencumbered by facts in the run-up to the referendum. The programme has focused on initiatives of open science, open policymaking, and engaged publics. So, have efforts towards making science public resulted in a greater capacity to engage with different forms of expertise? What are productive ways of holding together difference without falling apart? Raman borrowed the evocative metaphor of a sharp circle, attributed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to call attention to cultivating forms of reason that can accommodate contradictions.

Now, in the post-referendum UK and broader European landscape, these questions are all the more relevant and charged.

The day comprised four panel sessions, each with four speakers from the programme, comments from an external discussant and questions from the floor. It concluded with a lively public event.

Opening Up Scientific Agendas and Policy Practices

Have research agendas and policy practices been reframed as a result of initiatives to open them up? In Judith Tsouvalis’ case study of the UK outbreak of ash tree ‘dieback’ disease in 2012 onwards, a website for openly sharing genomic sequence data and a citizen science movement monitoring the spread of the disease did not equal ‘more democracy’. Rather, together with the British government-convened expert Task Force, they served to reproduce a culture of surveillance and control, omitting inconvenient publics (e.g. conservation organisations) that might challenge the predominant ‘biosecurity risk’ framing, and perpetuating post-political policymaking.


Figure 1: The UK government’s ‘Go Home’ van. Courtesy of Rick Findler (www.rickfindler.photoshelter.com)
Figure 1: The UK government’s ‘Go Home’ van. Courtesy of Rick Findler (www.rickfindler.photoshelter.com)


Pru Hobson-West described the emergence of a ‘transparency’ imperative in the field of animal research, pushed by three discourse coalitions (animal protection groups; the animal research community; government/research funders), justified to counter, respectively, a secretive system; misinformation/misunderstanding; mistrust in science/government. ‘Transparency’ could be the deficit model reinvented or maybe open up potential for new science-society relations. She offered a framework that might be of interest for future research on transparency in other domains.

Sarah Hartley’s projects on the governance of agricultural biotechnology at international and national levels showed promise for unsettling the status quo of public engagement as legitimisation of pre-established priorities, by enabling actors such as the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to consider the full range of public and disciplinary expertise available to them at different stages of their work.

Carol Morris and Susanne Seymour found that the UK food security research field is in theory open to contributions from social science and humanities (SSH), but narrowly conceived (economics, psychology, ‘people’ rather than subjectivities). However, SSH has the potential to re-frame such research (e.g. from security to sovereignty, and from production to waste). More attention should be paid to interdisciplinary politics.

Guided by questions from discussant Fern Wickson (GenØk – Centre for Biosafety), the subsequent discussion considered the role of RRI and engagement as tools for re-politicisation; the university as a post-political, privatised space; the need to focus on the quality of deliberations in such initiatives, and consider what publics might gain from participation; and on whose terms social scientists should and can engage with policy.

Science, Religion and the Moderation of Democratic Conflict

Is the common trope of a clash between science, democracy and religion adequate? What roles do science and religion play in moderating democratic conflicts? In Alexander Smith’s study of the Kansas ‘culture wars’ around evolution/creation in state school curricula, science has become a battleground, but this is best characterised as a debate between political activists over religion and science rather than one between religion and secularism. A normative theory of political moderation is required, entailing a commitment to pluralist political community and civility towards people with whom one disagrees.

Warren Pearce saw moderation as disciplined engagement with divided publics, a key responsibility of all academics (both natural and social scientists) in their engagements with policy makers and publics, and particularly necessary in highly polarised cases such as climate change. Brigitte Nerlich’s analysis of the relationship between concepts of (un)certainty, consensus and religious rhetoric in climate discourse suggested that as insistence on the certainty of the science increased, religious metaphors (e.g. ‘cult’, ‘dogma’, ‘preaching’, ‘prophecies’) were used to challenge mainstream science. While decision-making in the presence of uncertainty is a familiar topic, certainty and polarisation are perhaps new problems.

Vivien Lowndes reminded us of the political nature of evidence, distinguishing between data (observations about the world), information (data that has been organised/categorised) and evidence (information that has been selected in support of an argument). In the case of Pakistani Christian asylum seekers in the UK, officials assessing asylum claims and the asylum seekers themselves had different views on what constituted evidence of religious identity and religious persecution, based on different understandings of Christianity. Evidence-gathering and use involves active processes of translation, power and selection; also on the part of social scientists.

Discussion, led by observations from Robert Antonio (University of Kansas), focused on the dearth of deep normative visions in contemporary politics, and the significance of constitutional arrangements and institutional designs for agonism, respectful disagreement and dialogue.

Science, Publics and Participation

How are publics – and progress – imagined in participatory initiatives and more broadly? Roda Madziva introduced the case of the ‘Go Home’ vans (Figure 1), a 2013 UK government initiative to ‘encourage’ illegal immigrants to leave the country. Here ‘immigrants’ became a category of people excluded from ‘the public’, visible only as the target of increasingly restrictive policies which claimed to reflect public opinion. However, British publics rejected the vans’ meanings by crafting alternatives (Figure 2), and the ‘Go Home’ vans were eventually withdrawn.

Informed by her ethnographic fieldwork on activists’ understandings of responsible innovation, Stevienna de Saille suggested that those wanting to engage need not only an idea of how science works but also knowledge of (macro)economics, given that definitions of R(R)I predominantly rely on the market-based meaning of innovation, as opposed to ‘ingenuity’. This prompted an exploration of responsible stagnation and what innovation might look like in a steady state economy.

In my case study of Future Earth (a major international research initiative on global environmental change and sustainability), co-design and co-production of research were envisioned in diverse ways underpinned by different conceptualisations of the public value of research and the proper relationship between science, politics and their stakeholders. This gave rise to tensions and ambiguities, which are not necessarily problematic if Future Earth is seen as an ongoing experiment; ambiguity makes space for openness and flexibility.

Alison Mohr’s talk made a case for bringing distributive and procedural justice principles to bear on global North-centric sustainability transition frameworks.


Figure 2: Liberty’s response to the ‘Go Home’ vans. Courtesy of Liberty (www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/)
Figure 2: Liberty’s response to the ‘Go Home’ vans. Courtesy of Liberty (www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/)


Co-design of solar nano-grid technologies in rural Kenya and Bangladesh promoted opportunities for communities (women and youth, in particular) to write the script of their own socio-technical transitions and move beyond narrow, top-down energy framing to consider broader socio-economic needs.

Subsequent discussion, initiated by Alan Irwin’s (Copenhagen Business School) insightful questions, considered the role of social movements as sites of experimentation, whether ‘co-’ talk diverts from more deeply embedded power dynamics, and what responsibility we as social scientists (should) have for how ‘our’ concepts are framed and used in practice.

Science and the Public Interest

How is the public interest imagined and framed, and how might these visions be reconstructed for our times? Sujatha Raman suggested that having acknowledged the plurality of publics, new ways of thinking about the public interest might be opened up by seeing social questions as inherently material. For example, a challenge like antibiotic resistance might be understood as needing inequality and poverty to be addressed in order for pharmaceutical technologies to work.

Adam Spencer found that UK policymakers envisage a major role for science and technology in food production: in meeting both the increased global need for food and the UK’s national trade interests within the neoliberal global system. A nascent UK food sovereignty movement, originating in developing countries, instead emphasises local governance.

Paul Martin considered the role of civil society organisations in articulating an alternative vision of science/technology in the public interest, noting that their knowledge is often seen as illegitimate, despite using the methods of science. So what is their role: are they outsiders, or part of the public? Do they provide a form of accountability in acting in the name of the public interest?

John Holmwood addressed the closing down of open spaces, arguing that the UK government has misconceptualised the public interest in Higher Education as private investment in human capital, and economic growth. Researchers have been complicit in commercialisation by accepting the impact agenda, whereby publicly funded research addresses the needs of private ‘users’, including in social science big data projects. The unruly public needs to be invited back into the university.

Mark Brown (California State University) highlighted the distinction between audiences of claims in the name of the public interest and constituencies supposedly represented: to what extent do those represented accept the claims, and under what conditions are they able to assess them? The discussion considered whether the term ‘public interest’ still has any power given the multiple and emergent nature of publics, and whether civil society and richer notions of ‘the state’ might be adequate replacements.

What Kinds of Evidence Do We Need in a Democracy?

On the public panel, Charlotte Watts (Chief Scientific Adviser, UK Department for International Development) noted policymakers’ need for multidisciplinary syntheses of complex problems, but also the challenges of difference in pace between research and policymaking, and scalability of research results. James Wilsdon (University of Sheffield) suggested that while notions of experts and evidence received a battering in the context of the referendum, recent developments in the impact agenda and scientific advice show promise for the science-policy interface. However, steps should be taken to develop the support structures around ‘brokers’, broaden the disciplinary spread drawn on in policymaking, and take public knowledge seriously in these contexts.

Brian Wynne (Lancaster University) argued that to move beyond decisionism we need to focus on whether we are collectively asking the right questions: too many questions are posed with one particular policy purpose in mind. Which questions aren’t on the table? Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard University) proposed a further consideration: what sort of polity or democracy should we build to ask the right questions? The word ‘evidence’ has become colonised and now people are rebelling against this. However, denying the power of science is not the way to decolonise it; rather we need to think about the accountability of counters, modellers and the ways in which their (ac)counts affect people (not an aggregate public).

The subsequent discussion explored which capacities are needed at the science-policy interface, and the importance of understanding how and why some capacities (particularly of public reason) are not currently being built.

This point is all the more poignant in post-referendum hindsight. While questions of citizenship and community are, for many of us in the UK, currently imbued with profound sadness, we are buoyed by the support and friendship of our colleagues across Europe and beyond. We hope for the continuation of inspiring, interdisciplinary, international collaborations well into the future; not least to strengthen conditions and capacities for political accountability and public reason(ing) so that we might move forward holding together differences without falling apart.


Read more about the Making Science Public programme here: www.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic

Programme publications are listed here: www.nottingham.ac.uk/sociology/research/projects/making-science-public/research-output.aspx