Reconfiguring urban mobility systems: Comparing state capacity for experimentation in Bristol, Singapore and New York


This PhD project focuses on the capacity of the local state to reconfigure urban infrastructure systems through ‘experimentation’: tentative interventions testing new technologies, policies or governance approaches. In recent years, governing the city by ‘experiment’ has garnered increasing attention as a process that could facilitate innovation and break inertia in urban policy-making. Pilot projects abound in cities, but their generating long-term and city-wide impact has rarely been systematically explored. Many critical questions remain unexplored for this emerging area of research:

  • What potential do small-scale experiments hold for large-scale transformation of urban infrastructure?

  • To what extent does the state possess the autonomy, financial resources, and organisational competences to pursue experimentation?

  • Do local visions of future infrastructure shape experimentation, or are they in tension with the priorities of funders and national governments?

  • What kind of governance does experimentation involve, and to what extent is experimentation reshaping the relations between the public sector, private sector and civil society?


Drawing on urban studies, transition studies and transport studies, the project explores these issues under the overarching question: why does state governing capacity to reconfigure urban mobility systems through experimentation differ?. The comparative approach explores capacity for experimentation in different multi-level governance contexts in Bristol, Singapore and New York, seeking to contribute to theory-building from a broad geographical base encompassing the Global East. In each city, mobility experimentation is traced over two decades using intensive document analysis, with in-depth study of five experiments featuring different funding and governance constellations conducted using interview data.


Smart transport can change people’s lives – but austerity is suppressing new transit tech

The Conversation (September 4, 2018)

Smeds, E. and Acuto, M. (2018, in press). Networking cities after Paris: weighing the ambition of urban climate change experimentation. Global Policy. DOI: 10.1111/1758-5899.12587.

Smeds, E. (2018). Agency and Urban Transitions: Understanding the Capacity of City Governments for Sustainable Mobility Experimentation in Bristol and Ljubljana. Full paper presented at 9th International Sustainability Transitions Conference, 12-14 June 2018, Manchester, UK. Available at: