School of Social and Political Science

Nicolas Zehner

Job Title

PhD Candidate

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Country (Address)


Research interests

Research interests

Cities, urban sociology, Economic Sociology, Imagination, expectations, Sociology of expectations and futures, Dynamics of capitalism, Urban Ethnography, political economy of urban design, economic sociology of imagination, data-driven innovation, sociology of scientific knowledge, Science and technology studies, sociotechnical imaginaries


Doctoral work (submitted and passed)

Envisaging Dataist Modernity: The Construction of Edinburgh's Innovation Apparatus 

This dissertation investigates the process by which urban planning agents imagine futures and the sociotechnical conditions which help establish the credibility of their expectations. Aiming to shed light on the practice of city-making, the thesis focuses on how urban planning agents co-produce specific urban-regional sociotechnical imaginaries. Based on the assumption that city-regional innovation processes are inherently future-oriented and imply a profound reordering of society, the thesis pays close attention to who gets to construct and diffuse imaginaries of desirable futures. Drawing on documentary research, 50 interviews and ethnographic observations, this study empirically engages with the implementation of a contemporary urban-regional redevelopment project, the Edinburgh and South-East Scotland City Region Deal (CRD). A £1.3bn infrastructure investment by the Scottish and UK governments and local partners over fifteen years, it is designed to accelerate data-driven innovation and inclusive growth. Officially signed in August 2018, the CRD represents a unique case study for at least two reasons: first, it constitutes the first higher education-driven city region deal in the UK. Second, it aligns a cluster of considerably powerful actors – political leaders, higher education officials, tech entrepreneurs – around one specific sociotechnical imaginary: establishing the city region as the “Data Capital of Europe”.

Conceptually rooted at the intersection of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Urban Studies, this dissertation argues that future-making in the Edinburgh city region is characterised by an unequal distribution of projective agency and driven by an entrepreneurial class at the nexus of science and politics. Shedding light on the complex interplay of expectations and expertise in urban-regional development, this study demonstrates the growing influence of global higher education institutions such as the University of Edinburgh in shaping desirable futures. More specifically, the concept of “dataist modernity” is developed to characterise a form of modernisation that is rooted in an ontology of knowability and overestimates the power of data in solving complex social problems. By crafting this line of argument, this study extends co-productionist STS on ‘smart urbanism’ to take fuller account of the intricate relationship between technoscience and urban-regional planning.


Dr. Nick Prior

Dr. Nathan Coombs


Master of Arts in International Political Economy 2016-2017

University of Warwick

Dissertation: "Social Acceleration and the Imagination of Alternative Economic Futures"

Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, Politics & Economics 2012-2016

Zeppelin University


Book reviews/essays

Zehner, N. (2022) “The Civic University as a Key Agent in the Production of Urban Space” in: McGregor, C., Currie, M and Knox, J. (2022) “Data Justice and the Right to the City”, Edinburgh University Press.

Zehner, N (2019) Double book review of Göran Therborn (2017) Cities of Power. The Urban, the National, the Popular, the Global and Michael Sorkin (2018) What goes up. The Right and Wrongs to the City in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.


"Closes and Opens: A History of Edinburgh's Futures" A Edinburgh Futures Institute-sponsored movie about the history of Edinburgh's futures: produced, written and narrated by Liz McFall and AWED. The movie can be found here:

"The Armchair Sociologist- Before, After & Possible Futures of Covid-19" Guest appearance on "The Armchair Sociologist", discussing the role of futures in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The video can be found here:

Teaching experience

Sociology 1a: The Sociological Imagination: Individuals and Society (SCIL08004), tutorial, essay assessment and marking; 1st year UG main lecture, winter semester 2019 and 2020; University of Edinburgh


Pre-doctoral fellowship, Harvard STS Program, 09/2021-06/2022

ESRC Studentship 2019-2022

German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) PROMOS Scholarship 2014