From Blade Runner to Habitat IV – How livelihoods can make or break the City of Tomorrow

by Edmundo Werna


Part I

“Our Struggle for Global Sustainability will be won or lost in cities”,1 said Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. The present article argues that our struggle for good urbanisation will be won or lost depending on the opportunities and conditions of work.

What will cities be like in 20 years’ time? In 1976 the United Nations introduced the Conference on Human Settlements, the largest urban forum worldwide, to be held every 20 years. The third forum (Habitat III) was concluded in October 2016. Therefore, it is an interesting moment to ask: what will Habitat IV inherit in 2036?

Cities and towns have never had as much wealth and innovation as they have nowadays. Still, there are huge poverty deficits and socio-economic differences, which have serious impacts on urbanisation and are intrinsically linked to decent livelihoods.

There is a consensus that everybody, especially the poor, need good jobs. If this is the consensus, we need to ask ourselves why nothing is happening on a large scale, and what can be done about that.

It is important to understand the changes that are currently taking place in the world of labour and how they influence and are influenced by urbanisation. This article aims to contribute to such understanding. It is divided into two parts.

In part I, the first two sections briefly explain major subsequent paradigms related to the world of work, defined (for the sake of simplification) as Fordism (standardised mass production) and Post-Fordism (the current context of specialisation and fragmentation). The latter makes reference to the iconic film Blade Runner as a teaser to illustrate the challenges faced by urban workers. The third section elaborates on the analysis of labour’s current predicament and highlights two contrasting trends: flexibility and stability. The analysis uses the United Nations summits on Human Settlements as chronological points of reference (from Habitat I in 1976 to Habitat IV in 2036).

Part II includes two sections to conclude the article with policy recommendations for a post-Habitat III world, promoting livelihoods together with urban development and paying particular attention to balancing the drive to hyper-flexibility with a social economy and a re-invention of the ‘local’.

From Fordism…

Throughout the 20th. century until around the mid-1970s, trends in the labour process were heavily influenced by the overall strategy of industrial development and accumulation prevailing in most industrialised countries, termed Fordism. This entailed mass production of standardised goods, production lines along a Taylorist model, as well as direct, long-term and secure employment. While the majority of developing countries was far from such a Fordist model, it was believed that this paradigm would propagate itself throughout the world. This is what was seen as ‘the future’.

Fordism influenced urban policies directly and also inspired the Modernist school of thought in architecture and urban planning dominant at the time, which believed that developing countries should emulate the path taken by developed ones.

The conceptual model of a Modernist city certainly encompassed an improvement in the quality of life of the population. But the Fordist dream of long-term and secure employment in stable corporations was largely unfulfilled, coupled with evidence of the failure of urban Modernist projects especially in developing countries.

In the mid-1970s the world experienced major shifts in the labour process, embedded in a new mode of industrial development and accumulation. In tandem, in the realm of urbanism and architecture, the Modernist movement was (at least symbolically) declared dead in 1972.2

.. to Post-Fordism or the Blade Runner condition

The changes brought about after Fordism were emblematically depicted in the film Blade Runner. It is set in a futuristic city where the economy is based on small- and micro-enterprises, self-employed workers and also sub-contracting chains linked to corporations. The film does not depict labour in a positive way, and seems far removed from the Fordist utopia that every worker had a bright future in the production line ahead of them.3

It is true that many pre-Fordist workers, particularly in developing countries, were far from the sophistication shown in Blade Runner and lived in less than ideal conditions. Yet, one of the curious features of post-Fordism is that in many ways it resembles pre-Fordism. It is interesting that the concept of the informal sector was coined in the 1970s,4 which seems to suggest that people no longer held the belief that the Fordist model would be the solution for developing countries and would open up a far-reaching school of thought on urban labour (i.e. informal employment).

Similarly to Fordism, Post-Fordism also influenced urban policies directly and at the same time inspired a new school of thought in architecture and urbanism (largely defined as Post-Modernism).5

Post-Fordism has been broadly associated with enhanced flexibility and speed in the way livelihoods have been re-organised. This has generated similar tendencies in urban policies, towards hyper-transiency (an acceleration in cycle of production and the use of spaces). This trend (here called ‘the hyped city’) has many times been taken for granted as the only foreseeable future for urban development.

However, interestingly, a contrasting tendency, again influenced by configurations of livelihoods, has also manifested itself somehow in parallel, revisiting the concept of permanence (here called ‘Neo-Localism’). Therefore, urban change has been stretched between two opposing trends – flexibility vs. permanence -, which will be analysed in turns in the next section.

Flexibility or Permanence?

The Hyped City
Since the advent of Post-Fordism, the subcontracting of enterprises has been split up into more and more layers. Core companies have used it as a buffer against periodic declines in demand. Cuts in production are passed down the supply chain, and the subcontracted enterprises always have to be on the lookout for multiple clients.

This context of hyper-flexibility – as a driving force to expand and intensify production and accumulation – has seen an increase in casual and informal labour, also in developed countries. Related to this is the zero-hour contract, where the hours an employee gets paid for every week solely depend on the demand of the employer. The worker, similarly to a subcontracted enterprise, is forced to have multiple employers at once. Actually, more and more workers are turning into ‘one-person enterprises’.

The impact this has had on cities entails an increase in the transient use of space and enhanced mobility to look for new or multiple jobs and contracts. For example: transient offices (rotating customers renting by day or hour), rental housing as opposed to occupation by the owner (including in low-income neighbourhoods,6) greater commuter belts and more complex transport systems.7

Difficulties to find jobs in private companies and increasing self-employment have also resulted in the increasing use of public spaces as workplaces. Street vendors constitute one large group of users. Others include waste pickers and recyclers, local transportation workers, vendors in public markets and urban farmers who use public land for cultivation. It is also common to see open areas (especially in developing countries) used by hairdressers, typists, entertainers, and other professionals.

The use of public areas entails a transient occupation of space par excellence, as there are no fixed workplaces. In this way, working in public spaces is an extreme version of the transient office.

In addition to an increase in the transitional use of spaces, there has also been an increase in transitional spaces themselves, usually also aimed at speeding up the production and consumption of goods and services, with implications for labour and urban development. Transient spaces imply jobs in rotating locations, which promotes labour movement, which in turn requires new spaces, leading to a cycle. While this may not be new, the speed of the process has intensified significantly.

One recent innovation, called ‘flying factory’, originates from the production of the building materials of the city itself. Rather than producing building materials in off-site, fixed factories, construction companies are now pushing to assemble temporary and mobile factories at the construction sites, to accelerate the process.

The search for raw materials for different sectors of the economy has also led to spatial transiency, at times at the level of entire settlements. Many urban areas have sprung up near sources of materials for diverse enterprises. When the sources were exhausted, and when the settlements did not manage to reinvent themselves, enterprises and workers moved on, leading to the abandonment of the previous settlements and leaving behind ghost buildings or entire ghost towns. A disjuncture between the acceleration of real estate investment and the slower capacity to generate jobs has also led to a different type of ghost towns, i.e. the ones which have never been occupied.

Changes in the world of work have led many cities to adapt or even reinvent themselves. While some have addressed their challenges by surfing on the high-speed wave along the lines of the examples presented above, others have taken a different direction, signalling a contrasting trend towards the fixed use of space and towards fixed facilities.

Although digitalisation of the economy has usually been equated with spatial flexibility, this is not always the case. Digitalisation has enhanced possibilities of fixed locations (as opposed to spatial flexibility), linking workers and enterprises throughout the world not only via supply chains but also via Cyber-Taylorism (a production line in which workers are physically in different places). Linking up with production based elsewhere without the need for physical migration has brought many job opportunities. Jobs are also created in the expanding fields of the (digital) economy, although they are sometimes offset by the closing down of traditional work posts.

An important trend in regard to fixed facilities is home-based work. On the one hand, this is due to a rise of telecommunication through digitalisation. In addition, there is also a growth of home-based enterprises, especially in the Global South, that cater for different sectors such as food and clothes production, repair and maintenance of mechanical utilities, and personal services. This requires re-thinking housing not only as a place to live, but also as a place to work. Part-time work and unemployment may also entail spending more time at home, requiring further changes in the housing unit.

A number of workplaces (both away from home and at home) also become more stable once they secure a niche in global value chains and / or in Cyber-Taylorism.

The trends which point away from flexibility have been compounded by a re-emerging focus on Local Economic Development (LED). This is a reaction to the perceived limitations of globalisation and at the same time a protection against recurring crises related to financial services, food supply and natural disasters. During such crises, relations with the global economy slow down or are interrupted. LED entails a repositioning of jobs to cater for the local demand. While it may include some level of spatial flexibility, the overall tendency is to the opposite direction.

Related trends which reinforce LED entailed a resurgence of the artisan economy and of connecting clients directly with individual providers without structured enterprises and intermediaries. Part of this trend, especially in developing countries, involves the continuation and expansion of traditional crafts and client-producer relations which never ceased to exist. They are now reinforced due to a lack of alternatives in the urban economy. They also interface with the concept of the informal sector, but are not exactly the same. In developed countries they are part of the transition away from Fordism. These trends have reinforced the spatial permanence of urban facilities, while processes of production remain flexible.

In sum, the search for livelihoods has led the urban world to a crossroads of contrasts. The extremes have been illustrated above: an ever-expanding flexible economy versus a reinvention of permanence. The upcoming second part of this article presents policy suggestions to promote livelihoods in tandem with urban development.


The presentation of the characteristics of Fordism and post-Fordism builds upon a set of analyses carried out during the late 1980s and during the 1990s. Of particular importance is the work of Harvey (1989), further elaborated by the author in Werna (2000). The analysis of the labour-spatial connections and the flexibility-permanence spectrum are new.

To be continued. Check out Part II on URBANET, to be published on 12 January!

Edmundo Werna

Edmundo Werna

Edmundo Werna has worked for over 35 years on different aspects of urban development with particular attention to municipal management, livelihoods, and housing. He started his career in the 1980s in field activities such as territorial planning and upgrading of low-income settlements, moving on to policy advice and academic research. Werna joined the UN in 1998 and is currently with the ILO (International Labour Office). He has been the focal point of this UN agency for the New Urban Agenda throughout the process leading to Habitat III and the subsequent deliberations after the summit. He holds a PhD in urban development from University College London (UK).
Edmundo Werna