The Mobile Utopia activities underway at Lancaster ‘mobilise’ utopia as method, taking departure in a longstanding engagement with alternative mobility futures, and more recently, social futures research and many kindred empirical, creative, methodological and theoretical efforts across disciplines. Utopia as method (Levitas 2013) enables new forms of critique, a new ethics of care, and momentum for experimental ways of ‘making’ futures in – as Latour put it (2009) – radically careful and carefully radical ways.

Levitas proposes three ways of using utopia as method:

  1. Utopia as archaeology – to unearth and critique assumptions about social practices and institutions that are implicit in how futures are envisaged or made
  2. Utopia as ontology – to facilitate multi-scalar reflection on what it means or should mean to be human, or, rather, ‘more than human’ in a multi-species, material,  intergenerational sense.
  3. Utopia as architecture –  a commitment to and practice of actively shaping futures

Importantly, utopia is an iterative and an integrative method. It cycles through these analytical moments and fosters inquiry into the ‘systemness’ of social institutions, practices and ideologies at a societal and cosmopolitan level.

Mobile Utopia  at Lancaster ‘mobilises’ utopia as method to amplify this momentum. We are interested in global or cosmopolitan ‘society beyond societies’ (Urry 2000, Tyfield 2016), and the way in which it is constituted in mobilities, immobilities, blocked movements, moorings. Society is seen not as one uniform global entity, but as a multitude of interconnected concrete local and global lives, structured and effective in a variety of ways. If ‘reality is movement’ (Bergson 1960 [1919]:317), an analytical orientation to movement past, present, future enables us to perceive and account for the contingent emergence and relational multiplicity of realities and their multi-scalar interconnectedness. It opens up debates about mobility justice (Sheller 2012) and highlights how ‘things could be otherwise’, how ‘the future is now’ and will have in it only what we put in it (Urry 2016) . To address our responsibilities against this backdrop, it is important to become more ‘respons-able’ (Haraway 2008).

‘Mobilising’ utopia as method resonates with a range of kindred methodologies and theoretical frameworks that pursue forms of engaged ‘speculative’ inquiry. From Wells’ view that ‘the creation of utopias – and their exhaustive criticism – is the proper and distinctive method of sociology’ (1960, in Levitas 2013:xi) to Braidotti’s call to practice ‘affirmative critique’ (2010) and Haraway’s encouragement to ‘stay with the trouble’ (2016), researchers recognise response-ability as a ‘kind of political and ethical thinking that is called forth by the capacity of all manner of things, human and nonhuman, organic and nonorganic, to move and be moved by others’ (Whatmore 2013). Inspired by collaborative and speculative design (Galloway 2004), infrastructuring (Le Dantec and Di Salvo 2013) and the politics of aesthetics (Ranciere 2004), we add ‘making’ to thinking, or, in its most modest meaning, ‘worlding’ (Kimbell 2011), because analysing and imagining is not enough to fathom the dynamic complexities of the social world deeply enough to find grounding for alternatives or to experience how one person’s utopia might be another’s dystopia. Sometimes we need to get our hands on them.

Mobile, inventive, live methods (Buscher, Urry, Witchger 2010, Lury and Wakeford 2012, Back and Puwar 2012, Sheller 2014), art, prototyping, and experimentality (Szerszynski et al 2008) enable us to move  ‘into’ futures, debates shape and contest them concretely, even if only partially and temporarily. They also allow us to let ourselves be moved ethically, practically, politically, creatively. This new response-ability is a process or practice, and we hope that our collaborations during the Mobile Utopia events at Lancaster can hone it to find better ways of living in what Tsing (2015) calls ‘the ruins of capitalism’,  taking account of the fact that ‘our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering’ (Sontag 2004:92).

Selected References

Back, L. and Puwar, N. (2012) A manifesto for live methods: Provocations and capacities. The Sociological Review 60(S1): 6–17.

Bergson, H. (1960). Creative Evolution. London: Macmillan.

Braidotti, R. (2010). On Putting the Active Back into Activism. New Formations, 68(1), 42–57.

Büscher, M., Urry, J., & Witchger, K. (2011). Mobile Methods. London: Routledge.

Galloway, A., Brucker-Cohen, J., Gaye, L., Goodman, E., & Hill, D. (2004). Design for hackability. In Proceedings of the 2004 conference on Designing interactive systems processes, practices, methods, and techniques – DIS ’04 (p. 363). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press.

Haraway, D. J. (2008). When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kimbell, L. (2013). An inventive practice perspective on designing | Service Design Research. Lancaster University.

Latour, B. (2008). A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk). In F. Hackney, J. Glynne, & V. Minton (Eds.), Networks of Design Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society (UK) University College Falmouth, 3-6 September (pp. 2–10). Boca Raton: BrownWalker Press.

Le Dantec, C. A.  and DiSalvo, C. (2013). Infrastructuring and the formation of publics in participatory design. Social Studies of Science, 43(2), 241–264.

Levitas, R. (2013). Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lury, C., & Wakeford, N. (2012). Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social. London: Routledge.

Rancière, J. (2004). The politics of aesthetics: the distribution of the sensible. London and New York: Continuum.

Szerszynski, B., Koerner, S. and Wynne, B. (2008) ‘Experimentality 2009/10. Description of a Research Programme’,  available

Sheller, M. (2012). The islanding effect: post- disaster mobility systems and humanitarian logistics in Haiti. Cultural Geographies, 20(2), 185–204.

Sheller, M. (2014). The new mobilities paradigm for a live sociology. Current Sociology, 62(6), 789–811.

Sontag, S. (2004). Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin.

Tsing, A. L. (2015). The mushroom at the end of the world: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tyfield, D. (2016). Realizing the Beckian Vision: Cosmopolitan Cosmopolitanism and Low-Carbon China as Political Education. Theory, Culture & Society, 33(7–8), 301–309.

Urry, J. (2000). Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge.

Urry, J. (2016). What is the future? London: Routledge.

Whatmore, S. J. (2013). Earthly Powers and Affective Environments: An Ontological Politics of Flood Risk. Theory, Culture & Society, 30(7–8), 33–50.