Unhomely new places make the familiar strange and the strange familiar

Medellin PEAK Urban

Mobility (travel and relocation) is a key aspect of international research and innovation partnerships. While Covid-19 limited global travel, Covid-era research collaboration confirmed the benefits to science and society of working across borders, cultures and disciplines.
As we celebrate eight years of BEIS international programmes (Newton Fund and GCRF), we asked researchers and innovators to tell us about the journeys they've made and reflect on the many benefits and challenges to doing 'science beyond borders'.

By Michael Keith, PEAK Urban

At a time when we know the environmental and financial cost of international travel, some might argue that being able to fly between one part of the world and another is a luxury neither research funders nor global ecosystems can afford. Having been asked to think about a journey prompted by GCRF funding, I wanted to focus on the value of face-to-face meetings internationally.

The GCRF Peak Urban programme brings together researchers across five countries and four continents. Working across different disciplines such as anthropology, data analytics, medicine, transport and migration studies, collaborators produce research that is useful for people that live and work in cities and want to shape their futures differently.

Researcher workshop PEAK Urban

Our ambition was to generate a cohort of young scholars internationally who would benefit from collaborations across China, Colombia, India, South Africa and the UK. We hoped that early career researchers (ECRs) would learn to work across diverse academic traditions and the disparate contexts of our research locations. Each of them was to have an internship at a partner institution and gather once a year in a formal retreat of mutual learning and exchange. After a successful retreat in Bengaluru (Bangalore) in 2019 we found ourselves in February 2020 in Medellin, Colombia at Universidad EAFIT.

Medellin street

There are some forms of scholarship that can identify a problem, circumnavigate the unknown and then address it. Knowing what you do not know is helpful. Science advances as enlightenment approaches.

There are other forms of scholarship where we do not know what we do not know. For example, it can be difficult to understand our own surroundings because we are in it.  The German urbanist Walter Benjamin famously commented that he only came to know his hometown of Berlin once he had lived many years in Paris, once he had achieved defamiliarisation which is central to some social disciplines.

Poets also make the familiar strange. In an echo of an anthropological disposition, Craig Raine made his name in the collection ‘A Martian send a postcard home’ where the world was invented anew through the ignorant eyes of an interplanetary stranger. Writing in the 1970s he invoked a sense in which

“…time... is tied to the wrist

or kept in a box, ticking with impatience”

Medellin cable car

In Medellin, a city shaped by a mountainous landscape, a cable car was initially proposed as a tourist attraction. One of our collaborators in Universidad EAFIT, working inside city hall with colleagues, strategically used cable cars to link poorest neighbourhoods with the more affluent. The barrios (poor neighbourhoods) of the city in a country hosting big numbers of people displaced by civil war tended to occupy the highest and least accessible hillsides. Cable cars connected formal and informal cities. Their stations grounded an emerging welfare net, clusters of health facilities, libraries, welfare advice and schools forming nodes of a transit system affordable to the poorest, building bridges across verticality.

Medellin 2

In the informal city, norms, rights, and rules relate weakly to legal dwelling regulations. In the absence of law, diverse forms of semi-autonomous rule emerge. Informal networks structure the social organisation of barrios, favelas, bustis, shanty towns and squatter settlements. Everywhere we worked a political community emerged through intermediaries between state actions and those who self-build (auto construct) to assert their right to the city, but they configure very differently. Advocates for specific interests and brokers between them negotiate with enforcers of rules often invisible to the quantitative eye. In India generator wallahs provide electricity. In Cape Town informal economies are internally policed. Diverse forms of mediation also emerge from ties of family and faith. What can be taken for granted as universal is in reality generated by the multiple and very different configurations that structure the DNA of a city.

Researcher workshop PEAK Urban

During conversations in the barrios, the classroom, the bars and cafés during colloquial, convivial, and communicative Medellin field visits, early career researchers learn to defamiliarise global geographies. 

We know quantitatively the limits of communication by sight alone. The visual field of the online laptop screen privileges how we meet and know. In person, face-to-face in three dimensions, and in unhomely new places there is a greater democracy of the senses, the familiar becomes strange, the strange familiar. And that opens up new worlds and begins to make visible what appears normal but what, in reality, we do not know. At best I believe it valorises and celebrates both international collaborations we were privileged to share and the international travel it facilitated.

Michael Keith is Director of the PEAK Urban Research programme. Until October 2019, he was the Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford (seconded until 2024). He was until 2021 co-ordinator of Urban Transformations (The Economic and Social Research Council portfolio of investments and research on cities), and is the Co-Director of the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities. He is also Co-Investigator of the Open City research project.

His research focuses on migration related processes of urban change. His most recent works include ‘Urban transformations and public health in the emergent city’, and African Cities and Collaborative Futures, both published by Manchester University Press and the Unfinished Politics of Race, to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2022.

Images: Mikal Ann Mast, PEAK Urban

Learn more about the PEAK Urban programme

Newton Fund and GCRF are drawing to a close. The International Science Partnerships Fund (ISPF) is a new UK Government fund supporting research and innovation on the major themes of our time: Planet, Health, Tech, Talent. To stay on the Newton-GCRF website click Continue, if you would like to find out more about ISPF click Read more.