Cities of justice: Reclaiming Valletta from the market forces of gentrification

Amsterdam-based professor and writer Sebastian Olma takes part in Living Cities, Livable Spaces: Placemaking – an upcoming conference organised by the Valletta 2018 Foundation addressing key themes of Olma's work – namely, the concept of serendipity, and how it can help us  make our urban environments more egalitarian

Sebastian Olma speaking during the launch of his latest book, In Defense of Seredipity, at the V2_Lab for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam (Photography by Gustav Velho)
Sebastian Olma speaking during the launch of his latest book, In Defense of Seredipity, at the V2_Lab for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam (Photography by Gustav Velho)

What would you say are some of the most significant factors and issues that play into how we are experiencing living spaces over the past ten, five, even two years?

Of course, it depends on one’s perspective. I mean, an international businessman, a local artist or a refugee will give you quite different responses to this question. For me, I think what we have seen over the course of the decade is that our cities have been massively commercialised and this has happened in the name of “creativity” and “innovation”. Some ten, fifteen years ago, municipal governments all over the continent began to adopt so-called Creative City policies. Initially, this looked like politicians had seen the light and understood the role of culture and the arts for our cities. Unfortunately, as has become painfully obvious today, the Creative City is merely a marketing operation that functionalised culture and the arts in gentrification and “upgrade” strategies.

At the core of the Creative City paradigm is the notion of intercity competition, which means that the success or failure of a city depends on how attractive it is for investors and tourists. This has led to an incredible homogenisation of our urban environments because market value has become the overwriting factor for urban policy making.

It has made our cities less creative and innovative as the habitat for cultural difference – what traditionally we refer to as public space – is quickly shrinking. This is what happens when culture and the arts have to dance to the tune of the market because the market is by its very nature a force of homogenisation: it makes differences disappear by expressing diverse phenomena in the only language it understands, i.e., money.

And because markets need to grow, applying their logic rigorously to the governance of the city makes urban living increasingly unaffordable to everyone who is not very well off.

What do you pinpoint as particular challenges for places like Valletta – which are at the cusp of service as European Capital of Culture, while also dealing with skyrocketing rent and property prices as part and parcel of a gentrifying mechanism – to achieve some degree of egalitarian living that makes use of technology and all forms of innovation that doesn't directly feed into the neoliberal machine?

I think what you are saying here is extremely important. One of the things that the Creative City discourse has achieved – and that we see now intensified in its successor, the Smart City – is the almost complete erasure of the question of social and economic (in)equality from the political agenda. This is an absolute catastrophe. Interestingly, the American Sociologist Richard Florida, who is one of the intellectual farthers of the Creative City, has admitted in his new book that increased economic inequality is one of the major consequences of the policies he inspired. His book is called The New Urban Crisis and I think that any response to the great challenges that our cities are facing right now has to begin with the realisation that there is, in fact, such an urban crisis. 

The question of technology and innovation that you’re posing in this context is an interesting one. What I’m arguing in my book In Defence of Serendipity is that the imagination of the younger generation has been hijacked by the ideology that our current problems are not political problems, but mainly technological problems that we can solve by a mixture of, say, urban gardening, 3D-printing and digital innovation. Of course, I’m now exaggerating but I think that we have to understand that economic inequality and social segregation are not “problems” to be solved by smart social entrepreneurs. These are essentially political problems that have to be addressed by politics. I am aware that our current political elites are not very keen on doing this, mainly because they have come to understand themselves as managers rather than politicians. What we as concerned citizens of a democracy can do in this situation is force these vital questions back onto the political agenda.

Okay, I understand what you’re saying but my question then is: how can 'normal citizens' be empowered to cut through the miasma of the systems that dominate them – be they political realities or the wider mechanisms of neoliberalism – and use the various instruments of innovation at their disposal to help reshape reality to more 'utopian' ends?

Yes exactly, this is where I think the use of technology comes in as an important issue: instead of engaging in what I call the gymnastics of changeless change, i.e., the use the rhetoric innovation and technology as a means to cover up the real problems we are facing, let’s employ our technological savviness for the sake of new emancipatory projects. Part of this is, as I said above, a question of repoliticising politics. What we have to understand is that in order to successfully confront the great challenges of our day we need new political visions of a future that is desirable for all.

However, there is also an economic side to it. Here, I see a formidable challenge for instance for the maker movement: it’s not enough anymore to design sustainable products for a “circular” economy. If you seriously want to “make the world a better place” you also need to help redesign economic processes in such a way that those who are increasingly disconnected can be economically integrated again. Or think about Silicon Valley’s platform business models: why not repurpose them in more cooperatively, collectively run business models? It’s not economically sustainable that the massive profits from operations such as Uber or AirBnB go only to a handful of people in Silicon Valley (to say nothing of the damage they cause to our cities anyway). We need to place questions of emancipation and equality at the very heart of the question of technology. It’s the only way to “make the world a better place.”

Could you outline why the notion of serendipity – and its many re-appropriations – is interesting to you, and how do you think that a focus on it would help us reconfigure our relationship to our living spaces in potentially beneficial ways?

Serendipity is a neologism from the middle of the 18th Century and quite peculiar to the English language. It describes the process of finding something useful, valuable or just generally “good” without actually looking for it. The history of invention and discovery is full of serendipity: from Columbus’ discovery of America to, say, the invention of Viagra, serendipity is everywhere.

Horace Walpole, who coined the term in 1754, defined it as the convergence of accident and sagacity, which gives us a sort of basic mechanism to understand creativity, i.e., the process by which something genuinely new is discovered or invented. What serendipity can teach us is that “the new” always enters the world through the back door of the accident. For true novelty to emerge, anomalies, detours or confusions are required to occur. However, it is at least equally important to notice these accidents and recognise their potential. This is where sagacity comes in. It represents the ability to turn the potential of the accident into the actuality of something new entering the world.

Unfortunately, the infrastructures of the Creative City are neither susceptible to accidents of the disruptively generative kind nor particularly hospitable to the kind of sagacity that would recognise potential that goes beyond the boring aesthetics of the market. This is why I propose the Serendipitous City as a way to rethink our urban environment. In order to be serendipitous, a city needs diversity; cultural, economic and social diversity. It needs the market as an economic mechanism but its governance has to adopt a much broader view. Just look around you: where things get exiting is always beyond the logic of supply and demand. The Serendipitous City is a city that understands itself as a multidimensional public space where all these different logics coexist, collide, and intermingle.

What are you working on right now, and how does it pick up on some of the themes and preoccupations that you've been concerned with over the past couple of years?

Well, there are a number of things that I’m doing. In Amsterdam, where I live, I’m engaged in all kinds of what you might call “subcultural” initiatives and organisations, trying to preserve the little bit of autonomous space that is left in the city. Doing my civic duty, if you will. But of course, I'm also a professor and a writer who tries to raise awareness of and struggle against the ideological fallacies (and sometimes idiocies) of our time. My book In Defence of Serendipity was written from this perspective and I’ve just finished a manuscript on a new book that looks into the role of contemporary art in all that.

Sebastian Olma will be one of the keynote speakers at the Living Cities: Liveable Spaces: Placemaking conference being organised by the Valletta 2018. The conference will take place on 22-24 November at the National Museum of Archaeology and the Valletta Band Club, Valletta. Registrations close today (November 12). For more information and to register, log on to