Tag Archives: infrastructure

“Deviant and non-average practices” — Fam, Lahiri-Dutt & Sofoulis (2015), Scaling Down: Researching Household Water Practices

Fam, D., Lahiri-Dutt, K., & Sofoulis, Z. (2015). Scaling Down: Researching Household Water Practices. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies14(3), 639-651. [link]


(A timely rediscovery that echoes with Carson’s digs at Accelerationism… )

This is the introductory editorial piece from a special issue devoted to qualitative demand-side approaches to water consumption research; while the focus is on water, much of what’s being argued here is just as applicable to other infrastructurally-mediated consumptive practices—which is to say, pretty much all of them. The special issue “captures and emphasises the importance of local information and on-the-ground interactions, as well as discursive processes and embodied knowledge, in researching everyday water practices in the sites of households and similar locales.” (p642; strongly reminiscent of Haraway’s situated knowledges)


The paper begins with a critique of the ‘scaling-up’ dogma as an indicative feature of technocratic approaches which:

“… [treat] social change as an engineering problem, where individuals within the society are provided expert opinions aimed at changing their attitudes to produce a more economically rationalist and efficient set of water consumption behaviours. […] The preoccupation with scaling up tends to go with a preference for psychodemographic approaches […] that aim to produce behavioural modifications in populations of consumers, such as through mass media campaigns pitched to an imagined ‘average’ consumer.” (p640)

(This is our old friend the knowledge deficit model, shown decades ago in medical research to have no empirical or theoretical basis, but which is still central to a huge swathe of interventions into consumption. See also the literature on “imagined publics”, which should not be confused with “imagined communities”; the latter imagines itself, while the former is imagined by communication professionals.)

“The foremost implication [of scaling down] is scalar, or geographical: the household is not a mere building block of some larger social unit, nor a convenient site for accessing individuals and their psychologies, but is an entity worth studying in its own right […] a household-scale approach reveals that households are internally differentiated and include specialist domains of practice, often linked to the gender, ages and cultural backgrounds of its members, rather than unique psychologies and behavioural choices.” (p642; also “lived sociotechnical realities”, the household as a particular configuration of infrastructural affordances in relation with the values and meanings held by household members)

The real value of going beyond the bell-curve: “the deviant and non-average practices revealed in smaller-scale qualitative studies indicate what scope there is for experimentation and innovation” (p642); this is why most “innovations” research is tautologous  hindsight, because it can’t recognise a successful change until long after it’s actually proven itself and become average.

That said, household-level studies don’t produce an infinity of social variation; because of contextual commonalities across a geographical area (e.g. divisions of labour, domestic and paid, within the household; infrastructural affordances), “a handful of main types may be distinguished” in a regionally-bounded study. (p643)

There follows a very brief archaeology of the role of cultural theory in addressing consumption cultures and practices: Bordieu (channeling Spinoza); Giddens’s “structuration” (discursive vs. practical conciousnesses); theories of practice, which “focus on the things that people do and view patterns of consumption as embedded in the social context in which they are done”. (p644)

“A focus on practice does not abolish concern with individual motivation, but reduces individual psychology to just one of many social, technological and habitual factors that shape a practice and that are enacted in it.” (p645, emphasis added)

A scaled-down approach … reveals that not all end-users are created equal.” (p648)

“Social research is particularly valuable at the early stages of adapting to new technologies, when learning is still taking place, practice has not yet been automated into a routine, and technologies have not yet retreated into the background of awareness.” (p648)

Closes with an observation that “unreactive” metadata collection strategies beloved by positivist research paradigms (e.g. smart metering for utilities) explicitly devalue the knowledges of their (often unknowing and unconsulted) subjects; by contrast, participatory methods allow people to articulate what is meaningful to themselves, for themselves; this reinstates both the possibility of, and agency for, bottom-up change.


Nothing hugely new in this one, at least for me—I’ve known Zoe Sofoulis for a good few years, and this is very much a standard (if still mostly ignored) set of arguments in favour of the sort of practice-theory-rooted research she (and others) favour. But there’s some good frames and quotes in there, making it a useful citation for arguments against the status quo of consumption research and/or policy intervention.

The language of Smart City is always Global Business English

… the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.

Whenever that’s done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it’s done wrong, it’ll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines. There will also be a host of boozy side effects and toxic blowback that even the wisest urban planner could never possibly expect.

Chairman Bruce at The Atlantic.

“Engineers try to do politics by changing infrastructure.”

From an interview with Fred Turner:

What are the “politics of infrastructure”? What does that phrase mean?

It means several different things. First, it involves the recognition that the built environment, whether it’s built out of tarmac or concrete or code, has political effects. I was joking earlier about reshaping the Forum, but I shouldn’t have joked quite so much, because the fact that the Forum was round encouraged one kind of debate.

Think about an auditorium where someone sits onstage and the audience watches, versus a Quaker meeting where everyone sits in a circle. They’re very different.

So, structure matters. Design is absolutely critical. Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another. How are those constraints built? What are its effects on political life?

To study the politics of infrastructure is to study the political ideas that get built into the design process, and the infrastructure’s impact on the political possibilities of the communities that engage it.

Cited mostly because it’s something of a relief to hear a big-league talking head starting to come round to the ideas that a lot of my colleagues and friends have been working on for about the last decade or so. (But on the basis of personal experience, good luck trying to convince engineers that infrastructure is political; it’s among the discipline’s Great Unthinkables.)

And on that note, here’s a bonus snip from the same piece, on the (perceived?) libertarianism of the Valley:

… I think that the vision of the Valley as a libertarian space is a combination of actual libertarian beliefs held by people like Peter Thiel and a celebration of libertarian ideals by an East Coast press that wants to elevate inventor types. Steve Jobs is the most famous. East Coast journalists want to rejuvenate the American hero myth—and they’re going to find a world to do it in.

In order to make these heroes, however, they have to cut them off from the context that produced them. They can’t tell a context story. They can’t tell a structure story. They have to tell a hero story. Suddenly the heroes themselves look like solo actors who pushed away the world to become the libertarian ideal of an Ayn Rand novel. So I think it’s a collaboration between actually existing tech leaders and the press around a myth.

I have, for quite some time, been inclined to agree.

Gig alert: “Beneath the city streets: urban infrastructure and its invisibility”, Sheffield Hallam, 1 March 2018

Attention, urbanists and infrastructure-heads who are geographically proximate to Sheffield, UK (or who just really like travelling a long way for seminars): Luke “Bunkerology” Bennett is chairing a panel discussion on 1st March 2018 at Sheffield Hallam University under the title “Beneath the city streets: urban infrastructure and its invisibility”. It’s free to attend, but you’ll need to book via Eventbrite. Here’s the promo blurb:

Sewers, cables, roads and myriad other infrastructural networks are the enabling frameworks of modern life, and yet we so rarely notice them. This free, open-to-all, evening event will present a panel of four researchers who are each exploring urban infrastructure with the aim of making it better known. The presenters will each give an account of their practical and/or conceptual explorations and in doing so also offer up thoughts on how their work seeks to render infrastructure’s existence and operation better known. They will also reveal why this unmasking is of concern to them.

This event is jointly organised by the SHU Space & Place Group, a network of academics keen to sustain interdisciplinary conversations about the researching of places and spaces, and C3Ri, SHU’s Cultural, Communicaton and Computing Research Centre.


  • Dr Luke Bennett, Reader in Space, Place and Law, Department of the Natural and Built Environment, SHU.


  • Dr Paul Dobraszczyk, author and Teaching Fellow, The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College, London.

In his recently published book, The Dead City: Urban Ruins and the Spectacle of Decay (IB Taurus, 2017), Paul explores Manchester’s Irk Culvert as a way of excavating lesser known features of that city’s urban history. Paul will present an account of that unmasking and also discuss the way in which he uses urban exploration as a research methodology.

  • Dr Becky Shaw, Reader in Fine Art, C3Ri, SHU

Becky will discuss her participation in the ‘Watershed Plus’ Dynamic Environment lab (http://www.watershedplus.com/) which saw five artists following the City of Calgary’s water supply from its glacial source through rivers, treatment plants, maintenance yards, pipes, meters and households. Her ongoing project, ‘How Deep Is Your Love?’ uses ‘dirty’ pop music to travel through the necessarily inaccessible, hygienic industrial, economic and romantic water infrastructure. The project follows the movement, actions and technologies of Calgary’s leak locators, exploring the role of public art in relationship to the water infrastructure as a material negotiation of publicness.

  • Dr Chris Bailey, Lecturer, Sheffield Institute of Education, SHU

Chris will juxtapose examples from his doctoral study of children’s virtual-world-creation within a Minecraft club with experiences of physical investigation of urban spaces. Within the after-school club children made worlds, and in doing so made assumptions about the layout and provisioning of built forms and of their infrastructural interconnections. Here children, in their play, tested out and reinforced adult assumptions about what is foregrounded in the experience of the built environment and what falls conventionally to be unseen or unexplored.

  • Paul Graham Raven, PhD candidate at Sheffield Water Centre, University of Sheffield

Paul is a science fiction writer, critic and essayist who recently completed his doctoral studies in infrastructure futures and theory at the University of Sheffield. He is also affiliated to the Institute for Atemporal Studies. Paul’s research is rooted in a novel relational model of sociotechnical change, and is aimed at developing and deploying narrative prototyping methodologies for the critical assessment of speculative future infrastructures. In his contribution to this event Paul will explore the illegibility of the hidden city by theorising the metasystemic self-effacement of infrastructure: asking, in other words, how the hidden city came to hide itself.


It’s quite the honour to be invited, as my interaction with the good Doctor Bennett to date has largely consisted of me asking him a few rambling questions after he spoke at seminars; they must have been interesting questions, I guess? I’ve something of a quibble with the use of the word invisible — infrastructure isn’t invisible so much as it’s illegible, or so my own research would have it — but I suspect it’s exactly those sorts of theoretical semantics we’re going to get into on the day, so I’mma keep my powder dry for now. If you’ve got opinions about cities, infrastructure and urban exploration, and you’re in the area, you should come along.

(Postscript: the whole not-yet-being-an-actual-Doctor thing becomes much more painful when you see yourself on a roster like that. I guess I should be proud I get asked to speak with researchers far more experienced than myself — and I really am! — but it still kinda sucks to be the one person who has yet to officially pass the bar.)