Words by AbdouMaliq Simone | 01 Aug 2021

The designation “urban popular economy” that forms the basis of this collective enquiry refers to a multidimensional process that identifies and assembles diverse facets of the urban environment—laws, policies, buildings, spatial uses, material resources, social compositions, styles of governance and so forth—in order to create territories of operation for poor, working and lower middle-class residents whose lives are increasingly unsettled by precarious forms of livelihood. It entails a process of refiguring labour, engaging the collective dimensions of household life increasingly dependent upon the infrastructures of care created by women, which themselves are increasingly financialised and opened up to market forces, and developing new forms of institutions.

Urban popular economies are a means of constituting possibilities of livelihood and social reproduction in the interstices of apparently contradictory logics of accumulation. Not outside capitalist logics, not beyond the reach of extractivism, nor inside any coherent frameworks of tradition or even makeshift improvisation, urban majorities nevertheless generate spaces of relative autonomy through diversifying the “points of contact” where disparate logics intersect.

If an underlying ethos of popular economy, at its most minimal conceptualization, concerns the formation of a collective sense of being in common, what kinds of work are entailed in substantiating that “we”? How do the dynamics of work—its compositions, power arrangements, forms of valuation—shape particular versions of that collective “we?” How are specific struggles for the recognition of particular collectivities expressions of collectivity itself; that is, is it possible to differentiate the coherence of the collective from the struggles—or political effort—necessary to establish it?

Given the provisional character of most organisations put together at the grassroots, even in long-term initiatives, what constitutes potentially viable infrastructures for institutionalising emergent popular collective efforts? Collectives are created through struggle and the provision of care, and their modalities of operation are often provisional because of how they are situated in larger contexts of power. Given these conditions, what are the strategic practices and political economic considerations necessary in order to consolidate collective efforts beyond preoccupation with their own inventiveness and precarity? This is the question popular economy attempts to address.

What follows in this glossary are some conceptual terms that point to different dimensions of urban popular economies. This is not so much in the interest of providing concrete or comprehensive definitions. Rather, the aim is to open up consideration of some of the wide-ranging dimensions and experiences of economy. All of the pushes and pulls, the clearly tangible and more intangible facets of attempts to make lives worth living.

Whilst the current Covid-19 pandemic has orchestrated a renewed series of crises, popular economy workers continue to organise to support themselves. Yet, this pandemic has operated as a tipping point in the reconfiguration of work, technology, bureaucratic and territorial arrangements. This has brought into stark relief the on-going precarious livelihood arrangements that exist alongside those experimental efforts to live differently that inform the creation of the popular economy. This provisional glossary seeks to address old problems and new challenges, in order to examine how key concepts come to ground across diverse global contexts.

This glossary is provisional. It maintains an emphasis on experimental rather than universal insights. Each entry has been developed from the fieldwork, advocacy and political experiences of members of the collective across varied global contexts. In so doing, it draws together a body of experiments in what the urban popular economy might be, maintaining the different histories, practices and rationalities from each context.


Bojana Babic, Bilgi University, Istanbul; Humboldt University, Berlin

Solomon Benjamin, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras

Alioscia Castronova, University of San Martin, Sapienza University of Rome

Luci Cavallero, University of Buenos Aires

Cristina Cielo, Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales Sede, Ecuador

Véronica Gago, University of Buenos Aires

Prince Guma​​, British Institute in Eastern Africa

Rupali Gupta​​, School of Environment and Architecture, Mumbai

Victoria Habermehl, Urban Institute, University of Sheffield

Brij Maharaj, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Raquel Rolnik, University of Sao Paolo

Lana Salman​​, Belfer Institute for Science and International Affairs

Prasad Shetty​​, School of Environment and Architecture, Mumbai

Gabriel Silvestre, Urban Studies Program, University of Sheffield

AbdouMaliq Simone, Urban Institute, University of Sheffield

Constance Smith, University of Manchester

João Tonucci, Federal University of Minas Gerais