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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - IRI THESys

Insular and Divided Energy Cities: between autarky and integration

The research network “Insular and Divided Energy Cities” is dedicated to study energy provision and use in politically divided or isolated cities. The network was launched on 19-20 October 2017 in Berlin at a KOSMOS workshop organised by the IRI THESys and led by Dr. Timothy Moss.
The background

Photo: Strom für Berlin
Fig.: Bewag (ed.) (1984): 100 Jahre Strom für Berlin

Energy research in the social sciences and humanities has long used the binary of integration-versus-isolation to study fundamental issues of access, structure, territoriality, agency and justice relating to the provision and use of energy services. Interpreting energy through this particular lens has enabled generations of scholars to reveal, for instance, historical shifts from isolated municipal power plants to integrated national electricity grids, socio-spatial disparities in energy provision characteristic of emerging economies and renewable energy as a medium for decentralising established energy systems. Whilst much of this research plays up the differences between centralisation and decentralisation, between connection and disconnection or between insiders and outsiders, recent work is helpfully taking a more open and nuanced approach, conceiving of the relationship between integration and isolation as a continuum, rather than a dichotomy. From this perspective, energy systems are never either fully integrated or fragmented, but always embody varying degrees of integration and fragmentation to specific components of the socio-technical configuration in different places at different times. The integration-isolation continuum, this research tells us, is multi-faceted, place-specific and dynamic. Only with this sensitivity to the socio-technical, spatial and temporal enactments of energy is the relationship between integration and isolation truly insightful as an analytical tool in energy research.

The issue

A new research network has been established that is dedicated to the study of a very particular expression of this integration-isolation continuum: energy provision and use in politically divided or isolated cities. There exist over 40 cities across the world that were once united and have since been divided by political borders of one kind or another. Examples include West and East Berlin, West and East Jerusalem, North and South Nicosia, West and East Beirut, as well as cities divided as a result of changes to national boundaries. In addition, there exist an unspecified number of cities, or city-states, that are geopolitically isolated to a greater or lesser degree. Examples here include Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, Kaliningrad, Gibraltar, Ceuta, Melilla, as well as urban enclaves in the territory of hostile neighbours. The political division or isolation which all these cities have experienced has had a profound effect on their energy systems. Energy infrastructures have been (re-)configured, energy flows redirected and energy consumption practices adapted to accommodate the vulnerabilities associated with the divided or insular political geographies of these cities. At the same time, infrastructures, institutions and practices of energy provision and use have often been enrolled in strengthening the resilience of these cities, acting either intentionally or accidentally to reinforce separation or enable cooperation. Urban energy systems, in these contexts, can thus be both targets and tools of integration or isolation.

The network

It is with the purpose of studying these phenomena in more detail, comparing different cities’ experiences and explicating the relevance of the topic for energy research in general that the research network “Insular and Divided Energy Cities” has been initiated. It was launched on 19-20 October 2017 in Berlin at a KOSMOS workshop organised by the Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys) at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. There, scholars from the fields of human geography, international relations and energy studies came together to discuss the implications of political division or separation for the urban energy systems of seven cities from across the globe. Four overarching questions framed the presentations and discussions:

  1. How has geopolitical isolation or division in the past shaped the cities’ energy supply systems, in terms of the energy sources and technologies used, territorial integrity, energy security, management logics and energy governance?
  2. How have recent initiatives for greater territorial (re)integration and grid (re)connection in these cities prompted realignment of their energy systems and in what ways (politically, physically, economically, environmentally)?
  3. How are the legacies of supplying energy under conditions of geopolitical isolation or division framing today’s options to reduce carbon emissions, minimise energy use and increase energy efficiency? What new forms of energy autarky are emerging?
  4. How can the empirical findings on these legacies of autarky and (re)integration enrich international research on energy self-sufficiency, energy security and energy transitions in cities?

The research agenda

Comparing and contrasting the rich empirical cases engendered the outlines of a research agenda that will guide future work within and beyond the network. Key components of this research agenda are:

  • Materialities of separation and cooperation (e.g. energy sources, infrastructures, technologies) and their performative politics.
  • Geographies of energy in politically divided or insular cities that reach from urban locales of consumption to the hinterlands of energy provision.
  • Temporalities of energy services in divided or isolated cities that reflect past legacies, shifting contexts and imagined futures.
  • Strategies of urban energy resilience in these cities along the integration-isolation continuum.
  • Contexts framing the place-specific enactments of urban energy division or isolation.
  • Economics of urban autarky versus regional integration.
  • Modes of isolationism and cooperation, ranging from the formal to the informal, from the structural to the procedural.
  • Identities of divided and insular energy cities.

These themes are only indicative of the network’s thrust and do not in any way exclude future additions. It is anticipated that this research agenda will build on and reappraise a variety of scholarly debates around energy and cities. On the one hand, it will contribute a distinctly urban perspective to debates on energy security, the geopolitics of energy and energy self-reliance. On the other, it will enrich urban studies of divided cities, urban energy transitions, urban metabolism and urban resilience with novel insight about energy as a medium of separation and cooperation.

The next steps

The network intends to organise sessions on this topic at leading international conferences in 2018/2019 in order to stimulate interest and attract scholars working in related fields. The plan is then to publish selected papers from these sessions in a special issue on “Insular and Divided Energy Cities” in a peer-reviewed journal of repute. In addition, applications for funding have been submitted and are being written to enable in-depth research around the research agenda.

This announcement reaches out to social science and humanities scholars who have already studied energy in politically divided or isolated cities or are considering doing so. We – the emergent network – would be delighted to hear from you and discuss how you might like to be involved in our collaborative venture.

Research Group: Urban infrastructures and human-environment relations





Prof. Dr. Timothy Moss, Research Group Leader
Phone: +49 (030) 2093-66436
E-Mail: timothy.moss@hu-berlin.de