UCL Urban Laboratory


How do we research ‘circuits’ of finance?

2 August 2022


by Matthew Lane

In this blog post, Matt Lane reflects on some of the discussions from the team meeting in South Africa in February 2022. Matt explores how the Making Africa Urban project is putting the idea of circuits to work, developing new insights into the ways in which finance is (re-)shaping Africa’s cities.

Central to the interests of the Making Africa Urban (MAU) project is the relationship between finance and urban development. How is it that different sources of capital, from a variety of different places, across a variety of different scales, come to shape the development trajectories of African cities? Key to engaging with this question is the issue of how we attempt to represent and conceptualise the ways in which financial investment is made present (and indeed absent) in particular urban spaces.

From a local governance perspective, growing attention is being paid in this regard to a phenomenon of ‘financialization’ as city authorities find themselves compelled to participate in a global neoliberal landscape in order to raise capital for the financing of development projects (Aalbers 2020). Correspondingly, intellectual currents within both economic and urban geography have, over recent decades, developed new analytical insight into the range of knowledges, ideas, and policies that are developed in order to facilitate these flows of capital. Here, a powerful collection of actors (Rapoport 2015, Wood 2014) and policy ideas (McCann and Ward 2011; Peck and Theodore 2010), come to comprise established ‘circuits’ of influential urban governance practices. In such a conceptualisation, ‘mobilities’ of ideas, people and practices forge the global channels through which liquid finance flows from city to city. The long-established use of a language of liquidity within financial lexicons is thus complemented by an associated set of ideas regarding how money travels across geographical space and arrives in new locations.

These accounts have been met with critique, however, for the passivity they usher in regarding the way in which particular local contexts become subordinated by ‘globally’ powerful agencies (Jacobs 2012; Lane 2021; Prince 2016). In doing so, local institutional governance landscapes become meek ‘variegations’ of the wider financialization agenda (Robinson et al. 2022). This fails to offer a full interrogation of the complex ways in which particular local governance contexts are themselves produced by relations of power operating at different scales. Questions can therefore be raised regarding where the conceptual (and thus methodological) entry-points lie for studying financial circuits in a way that does not pre-suppose, a priori, the power of such circuits to shape local decision making. How is it that certain agencies (in the form of ideas, resources, and individuals) from across different scales come to be ‘power-full’ in certain places, at certain times?

As a starting point for addressing these questions, the notion of an urban development ‘logic board’ provides a potentially illuminating metaphor for our ambitions to better understand what facilitates finance-led urban development. A logic board is an alternative name for the circuit boards found inside electronic devices and used to compactly connect a variety of different components in the delivery of outputs. As discussed at length during the MAU workshop, this metaphor directs us towards situated and grounded arrangements of transcalar complexity. Borrowing from the work of John Allen (2016), the notion of an urban development logic board helps to move us ‘beyond territories and networks’ in appreciating the way in which a particular arrangement of actors, agendas and logics allows investment-led urbanisation to move forward.  In this topological reading, finance-led urban development is not merely derived from a particular city’s passive place within networked flows of liquidity but, rather, financial logics actively work to engineer particular territorial formations, conducive to the production of new value.


By adopting such a framing, the focus of enquiry is directed to the question of how, based on what contextually accepted logics, finance is able to flow freely in order to deliver urban futures? And, relatedly, how (if at all) such components might be arranged differently in the pursuit of alternative, potentially more equitable, urban futures. Answering these questions means untangling the investment logic boards that have allowed already existing development projects to become viable in the cities of Accra, Dar es Salaam and Lilongwe.

This investigative process began in earnest during the Making African Urban (MAU) project workshop (February 2022) and, informed by a number of case study developments we will be investigating, it is possible to distil the following circuit-themed hypotheses from the various debates and discussions that took place:

1.   The relationship between financial circuits and urban territories is more complex than existing literatures often portray.

Much of the existing literature on the relationship between finance and urban development adopts a land-policy-finance lineage. This paints an entrepreneurial picture of cities in which urban land is actively ‘served up’ by local actors who embrace a generic logic of capitalism in efforts to attract globally circulating finance. Thus, a great deal of theory-building has focused on the mobility and circulation of both policy and capital. Meanwhile, considerably less attention has been paid to the ways in which urban land is itself produced as available for development by different kinds of financial logics. Turning this set of relations on its head and starting with questions of finance (finance-policy-land) therefore offers the prospect of new insights.

2.   It is possible to identify some core sets of financial logics made up of rationales, terms and conditionalities around investment.

Characterized as ‘Sovereign’, ‘Developmental’ and ‘Private’, the MAU project identified three major circuits of finance for urban development across African urban areas. However, if we move from the idea of “flows” to the metaphor of a “circuit board”, these can be thought of as three, more complex, “logics” of investment, operating across one another in context-specific ways. This marks a first attempt to capture some of the different ways in which specific kinds of finance come to be infused with sets of values and assumptions about the city, and about the future. These logics are then transmitted into development projects in a variety of ways, shaping the urban accordingly.   

3.   These logics don’t necessarily correspond neatly to particular actors and agencies, and more than one logic might infuse the interests of a single actor while more than one actor might coordinate in the delivery of a certain logic.

There is a messiness to the different investment logics that needs to be unpacked. They are never ‘pure’ in nature and particular investments do not represent exclusively sovereign/geo-political or private/profit-generating motivations. One such illuminating example would be the winning of contracts by Chinese construction companies for projects not funded by the Chinese state but by private and developmental sources from diverse geographies.

4.   Understanding such complexity means stepping inside the minds of particular actors who seem to wield a certain power in particular places at particular times.

The conceptual starting point offered by the logic board metaphor also offers some accompanying methodological pointers. Most importantly, it centres the value of a contextually situated perspective in the development of understandings of investment in urban development, and the need to be cognisant of the competing interests, aspirations and speculations of the various actors involved. At a time of methodological romanticism regarding a ‘following of things’ (money, actors, resources, ideas) as they journey around the world, the idea of the circuit board directs attention to the value of standing still and interrogating territorialised processes which initiate, shape and direct the “flows” they are part of, in order to appreciate how various components come to be connected together.

5.   Considerable insight can be gained in this regard by comparing different logics through the posing of questions such as:

  • What role does the nation state play in the establishment of different urban investment logics?
  • What role does spatial planning policy play in presenting the city as an investable territory from the perspective of different investment strategies and logics?
  • How does place-based experience compete with sector-based expertise in the drawing up of urban investment and development plans for different financiers?
  • How easy is it for local government actors to access financial resources from different sources with different logics?
  • How can local government actors draw on planning policy tools to shape and guide the developments that result from different financial logics?

As the MAU project moves into its empirical phase, it is hoped that questions such as these can not only stimulate grounded research in the three locations, but also come to offer a tangible means of cross comparison and, ultimately, theory generation about the processes of urban development.



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Allen, J. (2016). Topologies of power: Beyond territory and networks. London and New York: Routledge.

Jacobs, J. M. (2012). Urban geographies I: Still thinking cities relationally. Progress in Human Geography 36 (3):412–22.

Lane, M (2022) Policy Mobility and Postcolonialism: The Geographical Production of Urban Policy Territories in Lusaka and Sacramento, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 112(5), 1350-1368,

McCann, E., and K. Ward. (2011). Mobile urbanism: Cities and policymaking in the global age. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Peck, J., and N. Theodore. (2010). Mobilizing policy: Models, methods, and mutations. Geoforum 41 (2):169–74

Prince, R. (2016). The spaces in between: Mobile policy and the topographies and topologies of the technocracy. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34 (3):420–37.

Rapoport, E. (2015). Globalising sustainable urbanism: The role of international masterplanners. Area 47 (2):110–15.

Robinson, J. et al. (2022) ‘Beyond variegation: The territorialisation of states, communities and developers in large-scale developments in Johannesburg, Shanghai and London’, Urban Studies, 59(8), pp. 1715–1740

Wood, A. (2014). Moving policy: Global and local characters circulating bus rapid transit through South African cities. Urban Geography 35 (8):1238–54.