… 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.
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.
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.)
Talk delivered at the Munich Volkstheater on 14th October 2017 for Bayerischer Rundfunk’s annual Zundfunk-Netkongress.
If that’s whetted your appetite, the Stanford ORBIS Geospatial Model of the Roman World will take you all the way down the rabbit-hole. Those with a more parochial bent may prefer the tube-map atlas of Roman roads in the British Isles. (There are more of them than you think.)