27 July, 2018

Autonomy and Universality – Some notes on the liaison between university and society

The German philosopher and cultural theorist Jürgen Mittelstraß has become quite famous for his works on the sociology and science of knowledge. In fact, his metaphor of the ‘houses of knowledge’, once used as the title of an edited volume on selected writings (1), might well have provided some inspiration in the naming of the University of Luxembourg’s main building, the Maison du Savoir. Mittelstraß, an academic who is particularly interested in the constitution, generation, and dissemination of scientific knowledge, is also a frequent writer about the role of the university in today’s society. This was also the case with an essay published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) on 23rdJuly 2018, in which the relationship between university and its society was emphasised again.(2)

Snap shot of the FAZ, July 23, 2018

In this essay, Mittelstraß reflected upon the role of the university in a society that can be largely understood as a society of knowledge (German: “Wissensgesellschaft”), based on a scientific and technological rationale. The author signified this type of society as a ‘Leonardo’ world (of course named after Leonardo da Vinci) – a world that is artificial and increasingly constituted by science and technology. In this particular context, research that brings about science and technology can no longer be approached and understood as something entirely separate from society; rather, that science and technology fundamentally shape the latter. This is a well-established viewpoint, of course. Effectively, this point illustrates not only the strong interdependencies between the two, but also points at the societal responsibilities which the system of knowledge creation has.

The main question that Mittelstaß addressed was whether or not there is still any idea of what a university could be about, which pays justice to both: the part that generates knowledge and the rest of society in which it is embedded. While it seems increasingly popular to assume that borders between research and practice, science and society / policy are about to vanish (and this would be good), in his essay Mittelstraß looks back at emerging normative imperatives, as a consequence of the scientification of society and, in parallel, a sort of secularisation of science. These imperatives were, according to the author: a politisation in the wake of the post-1967/68 events; a didactification of science in the 1970s and afterwards; the rather economistic claims for usability and transfer of scientific knowledge that gained momentum in the 1990s/2000s and prevail today; and most recently, the demand that the university promote and support sustainable development (or transformative research). There is also no doubt that the author is well aware of the fact that the sciences are not only part of any solution, but have also produced a number of problems. However, Mittelstraß is extremely sceptical of this latest development – not because he would be against sustainability as a guideline for societal development, but because, for him, this can only be understood as an outcome of forces – both internal and external to the university – that seek to determine the kinds of knowledge that a university ought to produce, of which he is quite critical. 

Mittelstraß sees, indeed, that the university ought to acknowledge, and pro-actively deal with, societal challenges. Being insensitive of these challenges would lead to the loss of any university’s credibility. However, the more that the university is subject to imperatives defined from outside (for whatever good or bad reason), the more that one of the two fundamental constituencies of the university is undermined: autonomy. Autonomy, understood as the ability of the university to steer its own ways of research and teaching, build and develop its own systems of organisation, practice a reflected set of measures for quality control, and remain politically independence. Funding bodies are increasingly claiming for ‘returns on investment’, which probably illustrates the dilemma of the modern university’s loss of autonomy most succinctly. Beyond these structural and political dimensions, Mittelstraß’ main argument is actually that it is precisely the traditional distinctions between fundamental, applied and usable knowledge generation are no longer valid. They were followed by a multitude of different forms of knowledge creation, a continuum of research forms, paradigms and habits all of which emerged as a complex phenomenon within the sciences and academia. This development within the sciences occurred as structurally or theoretically independent from societal ‘demand’ and would have to be, so his main contention, left over to the sciences’ own responsibility.

The second major issue that Mittelstraß emphasised, which is closely linked to the idea of autonomy, is universality. Universality is considered a key and fundamental characteristic of the idea of the university. Apart from the overarching tendency of specialisation, scientific knowledge would still grow best on the grounds of a field that is tilled by many. Important scientific developments would most probably require the collaboration of various disciplines and sub-disciplinary fields, which can also be read as a plea for fields such as the humanities or social sciences. Of course, boundaries between these fields need to be overcome, in order to allow new scientific knowledge to emerge. According to Mittelstraß, the commitment of the university must be to provide the highest possible degree of universality and a flexible relation between disciplinarity and trans-disciplinarity – making the university theinstitutional place for these different forms of knowledge generation to evolve and intersect. These properties of the university are passionately defended by the author against any form of political steering and determination, and the most recent case of such determination mentioned by him included the idea of the Great Transformation. Despite the popularity of such umbrella concepts for societal change (and the good reasons that are underlying the call for change), the author reserves the authority and significance of knowledge generation in the first place to the university, not to political discourses.

Why refer to Jürgen Mittelstraß here, also given that his position might be considered critical of sustainability and the potential transformative role of the university? It is simply because his reflection upon the autonomy and universality of academic institutions is relevant to ongoing debates (or better, developments) at the University of Luxembourg (UL) as well. These developments are certainly not unique to the UL, as they unfold against the background of comparable events in a range of European countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands or the UK.(3) However, as is the case of our young university in a small country, proximity to the political realm is much higher here, and related changes have obviously occurred much faster than anywhere else.(4) It is rather likely that changes can reach a critical state that challenges both the university’s autonomy and universality. Even the (small) debate about the Grand Duchy’s new university law, revealed by the National Chamber in June 2018, has not necessarily changed the picture. There are at least two reasons for this. Firstly, a university’s autonomy not only depends on external relationships, most importantly the conditions under which funding is ensured, but its autonomy also reflects the rules and regulations of its internal constitution and management. In this respect, an important question remains about the framework conditions under which the UL and its subunits will be able to exist in the future as sovereign academic bodies that can decide independently on their work, research foci and the like – certainly assuming that they are part of a bigger picture of the institution as a whole and refrain from behaving irrespective of it. Secondly, it looks as if ‘expectation management’ is the new approach rising in the political realm concerning what the UL is researching and teaching, and in how far the government’s major political focus areas (which are not necessarily equivalent to the country’s needs) should be respected in the university’s future research and teaching activities.

There are no short and easy answers out of these dilemmas mentioned here. For sure, one can well imagine that past claims for transparency and collaborative practice in the internal organisation of the UL will come to fruition in the foreseeable future. One needs to be optimistic in this respect. The same applies to disciplinary variety, which is usually subject to internal decision-making of academia. Given my background in the humanities and social sciences in general, and geography and planning in particular, it is rather unfortunate that the imperative of competitiveness by specialisation and the related definition of target areas (lighthouses, clusters, priorities) have become hegemonic in higher education policy recently, in the Grand Duchy as elsewhere. The implementation of such principles – which were, in fact, derived from economics and business management – has created disciplinary monotony, rather than originality. And, sufficient proof is still lacking that the outcomes of these strategies will generate more preeminent science than other paradigms, methods and disciplinary practices. This of course needs critical reflection.

As regards the external relationships that an academic institution is embedded in, most relevant could be the fostering of collective learning processes between scientists and practitioners that emphasise the particularities and peculiarities under which the work of either side is organised and practiced – which would be for the mutual benefit of all participants. This could include a more detailed exploration of the interface between science and practice, or science and policy, which might also reveal more about the kinds of framework conditions something called ‘impact’ could be achieved, which is always so elegantly spoken about but only ever loosely defined.(5) Such learning processes would require interest in, if not curiosity of, the others’ life-worlds and practices. In the case of the UL, this might also contribute to ensuring what Jürgen Mittelstraß noted as the fundamentals of scientific work in the first place: autonomy and universality.

Markus Hesse


1) Jürgen Mittelstraß (1998), Häuser des Wissens. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

2) Jürgen Mittelstraß (2018), Die Wissenschaft und ihre Gesellschaft. F.A.Z. issue no. 168, 23.07.2018, p. 6.

3) Stefano Collini (2012), What are Universities for?London: Penguin; Stefano Collini (2017): Speaking of Universities. London: Verso.

4) Markus Hesse (2017), Widersprüchlich, ungeduldig, selbstbezogen? Anmerkungen zum Verhältnis Luxemburgs zu seiner Universität. forum376, p. 14-16.

5) Andrew Harding (2014), What is the difference between an impact and an outcome? Impact is the longer term effect of an outcome.Retrieved from the Web on 24 July 2018, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/10/27/impact-vs-outcome-harding/

11 July, 2018

Critical Mass Luxembourg

Over a lunch discussion today, it came to light that not everyone knows what a Critical Mass demo is. Well, there is a chance to find out because, in Luxembourg,

Critical Mass cyclist demos have been around since the early 90's and first began in the hilly city of San Francisco. Since then it has spread to over 300 cities world wide, becoming an effective means of generating awareness of urban mobility issues. Traditionally, cyclists meet on the last Friday of the month at 6 pm, and then just cycle about together. They are usually peaceful and family friendly events.  Sometimes even the police on bicycles join in. ....but uh... Not always: It is wise to know your legal rights, and the rules of the road (and teach these to minors). But there's not much to it, and can be a surprising means to discover what a car-free city could look and sound (!) like.

A simple search for Critical Mass cycle demos on google scholar will reveal plenty of documentation. There is also a tonne of footage of Critical Masses over the years in different cities, available on youtube. Here is a small sampling: New York in 2016, Toronto in 2010London in 2015, Hamburg 2018.

10 July, 2018

Thank you, Trent!

Thank you to Trent Carr (my brother and guitarist of the Canadian post-grunge band, the Headstones) for always being ready to deal with photoshop issues for this blog at at the drop of the hat, at lightening speed, and for free (!).

With eleven albums (two gold and one platinum), @theheadstones are listed as one of Canada's top 100 bands of all time.  After an 8-year break, they came back full swing with several crowd-funded studio albums. And, last fall they completed a sold-out cross-Canada tour. I must say, it's always shocking to me to return to Canada and see audiences of 5000+ in the mosh pit, trails of groupies, and regular radio play.

Check them out on youtube.  
Buy their records at iTunes and some swag at their website

Trent is also a photographer and painter.  He even has some paintings of Luxembourg!

02 July, 2018

Combien ça coûte? – Some concluding notes on land, money, property & profit (Part II)

In Part I of this entry on the interrelated news items addressing the Luxembourg real estate market last month, four different vignettes were presented that indicated the extent to which urban development in the capital city is more and more driven by external if not global actors, money, and interests. The news items were a response of sorts to that phenomenon and in their entirety, they illustrated how land is becoming a key commodity across development circuits. In conclusion, the overarching question now is: What do these different narratives tell us about Luxembourg and the Greater Region? Or, breaking the question down further still: 1) What sort of city are we dealing with here? 2) What are the local implications of global urbanisation processes? 3) How does or should policy and planning deal with the related challenges?

1 Firstly, one of the fundamental consequences of reflecting on these issues is that one has to accept the fact that the character of the capital city is something utterly specific: This is not a usual city! A place that administers billions of Euros is hardly an ordinary city. It is hardly just another place housing circa 140,000 people networked in a local sphere of mutual interdependences, the so-called Agglo-Lux. Its political role as the capital of a small country, which is globally connected and regionally situated close to borders, renders it more of a proto-type “city-state formation”. It has more in common with the small, but rapidly growing, desert capitals such as Doha, Qatar, or Dubai, UAE, than it does to neighbouring cities of comparable size such as Metz, France, or Trier, Germany. In terms of governance, this city-state formation was lucky enough to make the “most of smallness”(1), by offering a variety of innovation policies, a business-friendly climate and short distances to decision-makers. Here, making a fortune out of smallness means pursuing economic niche strategies that can be set in place primarily thanks to political sovereignty.

The secret to the success of such places is the consequence of multiple factors. Among these, historical path dependence and path creativity play a role, but so does the successful insertion into services value chains, particularly the attraction of financial industries, and increasingly digital processes, products and infrastructures. These assets are not necessarily developed based on the principle of agglomeration, but it looks as if relationality is key to the ability of smaller places to get on the radar of global players and money flows.(2) Relationality means that powerful actors at state and local levels – both entrepreneurs and the agents of the entrepreneurial state – are able to connect to the rest of the world, attract investments, and trigger subsequent paths of development. These might sometimes be difficult to plan for: They initially happened more or less accidentally. However, they were then understood as an opportunities whose potentials were later fostered. Thus, they contributed to the making of a small hotspot in big global business.

It seems contradictory that cities can be small but global. However, some of these small places, as the ones named above, have developed rather rapidly, revealing an astonishing pace of, and openness to, change. This is the more general, not Luxembourg-specific, dimension of the issue. Of course, globalization provided a major pre-condition for globalized city-state formations to emerge. However, things have changed recently, particularly since Trump and Brexit. For some reason, open markets and globalization politics and rhetoric are increasingly questioned. The imperative of globalization seems less powerful than it once was, for good or bad reason. Also, the asymmetries between urban size and function (or power) as deployed by these smaller cities are more than obvious. So there is good reason to overcome the rhetoric of global cities that consistently addresses the usual-suspects, and focus more on highly specialized minor capitals such as financial market places, tax havens, logistics hubs, and the like. The related dynamics create places that are different from our usual imagination of what a city tends to be. They are extraordinary in certain ways – even though Peter J. Taylor once stated that judging from his perspective, all cities are somehow extraordinary.(3) The least that one could say is that many of these places are truly exceptional. Or, can you find any other city where almost every corner is reachable by bike, while at the same time, globalization provides a local airport that offers seven or eight regular flights to London, UK, per workday? Not very many, probably. It’s time to seriously acknowledge these specificities of the place, before getting closer to ‘solutions’.

2 Secondly, if we understand the globally embedded capital city as a relational construct, thus going beyond usual stereotypes of urban places and their spatial fixes (urban design, public space, ‘cities for the people’) – what then are the local ramifications of this phenomenon? In a previous blog post on mobility issues mostly related to the site of the new Campus Belval, some of the causal mechanisms that drive the country’s spatial development were already mentioned. Following these considerations, Luxembourg’s business model is conceived of as being geographical by nature, where the small country is, firstly, surrounded by larger neighbours that provide the labour pool for its expanding economy. Secondly, the increasing connections established to the global economy lead to a spatial imprint of the small country that is much larger than its surface area of 2,500+ km2 may indicate.

The associated impact of the globalized place on physical space, infrastructure systems, and arteries that ensure the seamless flows of all the items that keep the country’s economy going is massive. It’s a trivial (not banal) truth that the enabling systems for operating a top services and financial industry location are necessarily material: One needs educated staff, land for buildings and offices, accessibility etc. Housing is certainly included here as well, and the bitter truth is about scarcity in quantitative terms (partly due to the provision of office not housing areas), and qualitative standards that are limiting affordability. Offices, condos, related services for the services class are thus increasingly dominating the built environment of towns and cities. The enormous degree of construction that is observed in some of Luxembourg’s hotspots (the capital city, Belval, and many more projects emerging at smaller scales) is an immediate outcome of the relational profile of the city-state formation called Luxembourg. Likewise, the huge sites that have been developed in the past, such as Plateau Kirchberg, are a good illustration of the spatial needs of the white-collar industry.

Another interesting impact revealed by the cases of the Oberstadt and Etoile, which were part of the first of these two blog notes, evolves from the fact that the city’s financial market and the real estate market are getting closer together, even though they have evolved rather separately. Maybe this is random, maybe it’s an outcome of the increasing financialisation of the urban, maybe it’s simply because the huge amounts of money administered here also seek a secure place to land. For that purpose, the Grand Duchy seems extremely well suited, given its stable political environment and the stunning growth prospects for the near future. Thus, it seems rather likely that big global money will not only continue to pass through for the sake of its multiplication, but that it will also settle in with further investment in bricks and mortar. 

This impact threatens to become even more delicate, since actor constellations in Luxembourg are different from the usual global city, where foreign currency swipes away at local residents and their interests, unfolding as a clear black and white pattern that evokes the contentious meanings of “us” and “them”. Here, the alliance between land and money is more complex, as it is still driven by the autochthone; that is, it is orchestrated by a mélange of local property owners, real estate industries, financing, and political representation of most parties. The divide is not between the global and the local, but probably between the roughly two halves of the society: the one that has land resources and political power, and the other that has to pay an increasing price for realising the mere right to find habitat, while being mostly excluded from political decision-making. So, the higher the pressure gets on the “system,” the more lucrative it tends to be at least for some of the actors involved here. Why should they claim for change?

3 Thirdly, in light of these interpretations, an important question is whether planners and politicians are aware of these changes, and how spatial planning should respond to them. Is planning sensitive to the peculiarities of the economy and the links to the real estate market? Not really. Indeed, spatial planning is still at work in this country, both at state and municipal levels.(4) However, any attempt to keep pace with the pressure and speed of growth and development must be limited. The most striking issue here is that the political economy is absent from local analyses of urban issues and related problems: There is little or nothing heard that addresses the causal relationships between socio-economic and political-economic framework conditions and practices on the one hand, and the obscure ways development is pushed forward on the other hand, particularly by providing more and more office space for the services sector. Land speculation is as absent from urban and planning discourses, just as Luxleaks and Panama Papers were also mostly ignored by general debates some time ago - despite their significance with respect to the country’s efforts in being a trusted place for doing business.

Conceptual approaches for spatial planning are hardly visible. If they exist at all, then they are shifting between the generic and the specific, between domestic and international frames, between high ambition and more formal instruments, and they are without robust orientation. One continues to compare the capital city and/or the country with metro areas such as Brussels, Copenhagen or Paris, and continues to seek and collect “best” practices – as if these could be easily implemented in an entirely different, highly specific environment (as explained above). Irritation at the level of institutionalised planning adds to the problem. It is probably fair to say that the tradition of planning in this country is by and large authoritarian, and that public participation (or better, consultation) arrived on the agenda only recently, in a sort of hasty attempt to compensate for long lasting deficiencies. However, planning is yet understood as a means of defining the one ultimate solution for future development, and not as a method of finding the well considered choice between different alternatives.

The consensual (and thus hegemonic) bottom line is urban design, welfare politics, and the negation of conflict and contradictions. The ‘real’ causes of the problem  i.e. the concurring demands on land use, that reflect different sets of economic resources and political power that target different consumers – are rarely emphasised. Plans and policies should be  negotiated between authorities and civil society etc. Such approaches, understood in strategic and not deal-making (!) terms are still missing here. It is then only consequent to expect that the related problems on real estate and housing markets, which inspired this two-part blog, will remain as pressing as they currently are.

Markus Hesse


1) Thanks again to Adam Grydehøj for providing this wonderful phrase:Grydehøj A. (2011) Making the most of smallness: economic policy in microstates and sub-national island jurisdictions. Space & Polity 15(3), 183-196.

2) For introducing the concept of the relational city, see Sigler, T. J. (2013) Relational cities: Doha, Panama City, and Dubai as 21st century entrepôts. Urban Geography 34(5): 612-633; and Sigler, T. J. (2016) After the ‘world city’ has globalised: Four agendas towards a more nuanced framework for global urban research. Geography Compass 10(9): 389-398. As applied to this country: Hesse, M. (2016) On borrowed size, flawed urbanisation and emerging enclave spaces: The exceptional urbanism of Luxembourg, Luxembourg. In: European Urban & Regional Studies23(4), 612-627.

3) Taylor, P. J. (2013) Extraordinary cities: Millennia of moral syndromes, world-systems and city/state relations. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

4) See the short country report on the state of planning and planning education, Hesse, M. (2015) Luxembourg.In: disP – The Planning Review51(1), 54-55.