David Hugill

SSHRC Postdoc Fellow at Simon Fraser University

Bachelor of Arts (Hons.), Contemporary Studies and Spanish, 2004

We train ourselves to think about the big structures that are driving the change.

David Hugill didn’t set out to pursue life as an academic. But something happened during his time at King’s in the Contemporary Studies Program (CSP) that propelled him through a Master’s degree at Trent University, a PhD at York and into a post-doctoral position as an urban geographer at Simon Fraser University.

It was learning how to think critically. To question.

David says, “It was a pretty seamless transition for me going from the kinds of questions that were being asked in the CSP, which is essentially a critical theory program, to the critical geographic tradition which asked the same kinds of questions.”

Critical thinking is at the core of urban geography. But that doesn’t explain what an urban geographer does.  David sometimes struggles to explain his discipline. He laughs and says: “The most intimidating thing to ask an academic is basic questions about what they do. We break out into hives.”

But he rallies his neurons and goes on.

“It is to pick apart the received wisdom of the world. The geographical tradition teaches us to ask questions about our relationship with space… We are interested in the way lives of human beings interact with social, political, economic and physical structures.”

David points to his research into the gig economy where full time positions give way to short term contracts to independent contractors and freelancers.  The role of the urban geographer is to ask the questions that peel back the layers of what we assume to be true. An example is Uber, the ride-hailing app that is changing the way people move through some cities.

“I am interested in the way firms like Uber present themselves as inevitable, the natural topplers of the previous regimes.” He says that becomes the “received wisdom” and “governments seem to swallow it up. It really disguises the basic questions of equity.”

In this case, David says cab drivers, the previous regime, have seen their wages drop by a third when Uber comes in. He says we need to question inevitability, “and the way that technological innovation is seen as transformative for our lives, something that is improving our lives. But it obscures the important debate about whether it makes these cities we live in better places.”

While David laughingly admits that academic writing can be a tad inaccessible to the general public, the work he is doing is not.

“This research has a direct kind of capacity to be part of the public conversation. This is a debate that is still raging and helps us have a grownup conversation about what it means to change our transportation system.”

It’s the meeting point of thoughtful research and public discourse. And it begins with what David was taught at King’s, critical thinking and challenging the status quo.

“We train ourselves to think about the big structures that are driving the change.”

Posted: June 2017

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