What is a “heterotopia”?

Heterotopia is a concept originally described by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Heterotopia, meaning ‘other place,’ refers to physical locations that exist outside the norms of regular society, creating spaces that allow for, or even require, alternative social norms.

In his original text, Foucault primarily focuses on places where individuals find themselves involuntarily, either partially or entirely. These can include prisons, mental asylums, the military, or secluded boarding schools. However, he also mentions ‘heterotopias of transition‘. These are places where individuals choose to seek refuge for a limited time during periods of significant change, or to find solace away from the pressures of mainstream society.

Heterotopia and innovation

But there is more to heterotopia. Departing from Foucault’s focus on outside-imposed heterotopias, Kevin Hetherington, in his book ‘The Badlands of Modernity,’ identifies heterotopic places within society as a source of new innovation in social order. The potential for alternative societal norms in a heterotopia allows for free and creative thinking beyond the constraints of the status quo, ultimately fostering innovation. Hetherington explains his thinking on the example of the cafés in modern Paris where new ideas could be discussed across different classes of society.

Remote villages and the pursuit of utopia

In my own research on self-imposed heterotopias that can be found in remote areas, I could show there to be a prevalence for the pursuit of utopia— working towards creating a better world.

This pursuit can be described as ‘utopics.’ Utopics represents an incredible process of innovation, especially when it occurs within a heterotopia that encourages unrestricted thinking and facilitates exchanges among like-minded and highly engaged individuals. Whether utopia is eventually attained or remains a distant goal becomes less important—it is the transformative journey itself that holds paramount significance.

Numerous examples abound wherein the innovative mindset of rural areas not only enhances the local conditions but also influences urban environments.

Consider, for instance, the concept of a circular economy, where resources and capital are encouraged to circulate within the immediate community. This approach has been embraced early on by ‘eco-villages’ and has gradually permeated suburbs and urban settings.

Hetherington, K. (1997) The badlands of modernity. Heterotopia and Social Ordering. London: Routledge.

Foucault, M. and Miskowiec, J. (1986) ‘Of Other Spaces’, Diacritics, 16(1), pp. 22–27.

Pfaffl, M. (2019) Remote villages as heterotopias. James Cook University.