MoLab: The Mobility, Livelihood and Wellbeing Lab

"Running Legs for You" (paotui daiban): An online Chinese advertisement for errand-running services.

Mobility has become a grammar of our economy. The entangled mobilities of people and things, over short and long distances, and for reasons momentous and mundane, shape our lives collectively. Through the lens of mobility, we see in sharp relief how basic economic categories – such as work, value, ownership, currency, and access – actually work in practice, and how on-going experimentations and adaptations unfold on the ground.

Mobility is not only a subject of governance, but also a tool of regulation. COVID-19 has turned the world into a global laboratory of mobility regulation. Restrictions on mobility have been the most common policy response to the pandemic, but specific measures vary greatly by country, and have, in turn, been met with different social responses with varied outcomes. MoLab documents and analyses these policies and outcomes, unpacking the complex impacts on different populations.

On this basis, we formulate and explore more general hypotheses about longer-term relations between mobility, livelihood, policy, and well-being. MoLab also aims to facilitate scholarly informed public debate about COVID and beyond.

MoLab initially includes three sub-projects:

 I. The MoLab Inventory

The MoLab Inventory collects detailed information about mobility restriction measures and social responses in ten countries. While incorporating big data on human mobility (e.g. generated through Google, Apple, mobile phone registrations), the inventory primarily consists of qualitative information that traces reactions between policies and behaviours. For instance, in the short term, lockdowns typically trigger panic and fleeing. We probe the key characteristics of these “counter-movements” in terms of their size, destination, demographic composition, underlying motivations, and starting and ending points.

 II. Mobile Livelihoods

COVID-19 reminds us just how many people across the world rely on mobility for their livelihood: drivers, delivery workers, street vendors, maintenance technicians for remote operations facilities, sex workers, the homeless, street kids, amongst others. Mobility is their main means of work and survival. They either facilitate others’ movement (e.g. drivers) or move on others’ behalf (e.g. delivery riders). Although one of the most “traditional” lifestyles, mobile livelihoods today are intensively mediated, particularly by large digital platforms.

This project starts by exploring how groups with typical mobile livelihoods have survived imposed immobility in China, India, and the US, and how mobile livelihoods may assume new patterns in this process. Based on a wide range of case studies, we will generate broader frameworks that will guide future research on mobility-based economies.

III. Shock Mobilities

Combining historical and ethnographic evidence, this project looks beyond the recent crisis and examines how major shocks, ranging from natural disasters to economic crises, have led to new patterns of mobility, such as reverse migration from cities to the countryside or perpetual movement without a destination. These mobilities save lives but can also complicate rescue operations, and they can have long-term impacts on actors’ livelihoods and well-being. Existing research on related phenomena has largely focused on either the causes (e.g. “climate migration”, “distress migration”) or solutions (e.g. refugee settlement), rather than the process of movement itself. Literature on forced migration emphasizes its involuntary nature, paying less attention to the fact that not everyone in a situation of distress decides to move or moves in the same way. The patterns, duration, density, demographic composition, and temporal dynamics of shock mobilities remain a black box in many cases.

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