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Saskia Sassen, Keynote Speaker, 13th Global Development Conference

It’s been often said that for the size of a country as Switzerland, having four national languages – French, German, Italian and Romanish is both superfluous and ostentatious. When the same grouse is laid before Saskia Sassen, an eminent sociologist, she quips, "Language is a bridge. I have not experienced it as an obstacle to know many languages." Professor Sassen, who grew up in five languages, believes that although it can get messy, it helped her to understand the different parts of the world better because language has a connection with place and realities.

But she is not just well-known as a sociologist. Saskia Sassen is regarded as a leading scholar on globalization. Her work focuses on the socio-economic and political aspects of globalization, immigration, global cities and terrorism. In fact, the term 'global city' found its way swiftly, and assuredly in all national and international debates relating to globalization, migration, trans-national economies, etc., following the publication of her book The Global City: New York, London Tokyo, in 1991.

Saskia Sassen, as the keynote speaker will kick off GDN’s 13th Annual Global Development Conference, on 16 June, Budapest, Hungary. When asked how the current conference theme – Urbanization and Development: Delving Deeper into the Nexus relates or link up with her areas of expertise, viz., sociology and globalization, she summarized astutely that in the current world, globalization, financialization and urbanization are the three dominant themes. Vast numbers of people are aware of them and discuss them. Every average politician mentions them; something that 20 years ago was not the case. It applies to finance as well, therefore indicating that there is something about the narratives of these major building blocks across the world in the current context that interests or bothers us all.

According to Sassen, urbanization has two key aspects. One of them is the growth of cities, the growth of slums and stuff that happens in the cities. But there are also processes and outcomes that happen in the shadow of cities – the variety of developments that occur in rural or non-urbanized areas, which are literally expelling people from there. As globalization expands, what we see is a growing number of cities getting added, because global firms and global markets get articulated across more and more countries across the world, pointing to "an almost organically produced systemic demand for global cities."

However, on the contrary, Sassen asserts that "most cities are not global cities" and that we need to understand our economies. In many ways, national economic development policies are actually, a reflection of a particular global city policy and Silicon Valley policy – "the privileging of particular kinds of economy and spaces to the neglect of the rest." Therefore, we witness misalignment and new alignment on the existing outline and make-up of cities and the national territories within which they function. Sassen cites "the slums we admire", the "good slums", which have made all kinds of sub-economies, where people have built their houses, schools, and they are learning and making their art.

In an interview to The Guardian in 2006, Saskia Sassen had mentioned that the future will be shaped, partly by technology and power, as well as by the dispossessed. When asked how she now sees the future in this context as one of the unavoidable by-products of urbanization is displacement of the dispossessed, which is one of the reasons leading to new alignments and misalignments, Sassen made a very poignant remark. She said, "I think it matters to recognize that the powerless do get to make history. And I have in my research an in-between zone that I like to point out to. Very often the powerless make history but they make it without getting empowered. And because they do not become empowered, their making of that history is therefore, easily rendered invisible. And that also explains why we so often don’t understand why a change has occurred."

For the upcoming GDN Conference in Budapest, Sassen is interested to know if the challenges, the questions, the inputs on the topic of city and urbanization, in the context of development can be processed in a way that it comes out with civic features, with capacities to transform hatred and conflict into something positive.

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NOTE: Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, New York and Co-Chair of The Committee on Global Thought. For her full profile, please visit:

Watch interview

Read Saskia Sassen's PPT presented at the GDN 13th Annual Global Development Conference