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Essay, Infrastructure, Systems Thinking, Hyperlocal, Disciplinary Prompts, Resilience

Seeking Infrastructures—
The Case of Local Resilience

Malcolm McCullough
Essay, Infrastructure, Systems Thinking, Hyperlocal, Disciplinary Prompts, Resilience
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Thematic map by the author via, using U.S. Energy Information Administration ( data: “US Power Plants” and “US Electric Power Transmission Lines.”

Where to start? When everyone needs more infrastructures, more reliable, resilient, and equitable infrastructures, many strategists point to the Global South. That is where the world needs to take a very different path ahead than the Global North has done in the past. But when there’s a yawning pothole right in your own street, perhaps one that would be quite jarring for your bicycle to hit in the dark, surely the city should come fix that first. There might even be a “311” kind of app for that. That would be a humble bit of urban technology in action. Yet this small instance illustrates a bigger problem to think about here for a minute: there is something not quite right in noticing infrastructures only close to home, and only when they are crumbling.

This year as Gradient explores how else to understand infrastructures, you might share in a belief how small acts of creative work can trigger larger shifts in public imaginations, about what is a thing, what is worth attention. You might share some sense that work in infrastructures needs deeper cultural speculations right now, and not just more repairs.

Consider what it means to make infrastructures more knowable–and not just something left to the experts and kept out of sight. To seek infrastructures yourself, notice their onramps and portals and handles in everyday places. Watch how people and organizations play their everyday contexts. Know that spatial scale, social proximities, tangible props, and traces of wear do still matter. Feel how form informs. This attitude can be fun to explore. For instance in Paris Invisible City[1], Bruno Latour famously toured control rooms, tunnels, and switching stations. With Networks of New York[2], Ingrid Burrington created a pocket field guide to the electronic data infrastructures at street level. This year, Gradient asks who else might join in this awareness–and where to start. 

1 Bruno Latour and Émilie Hermant, Paris Invisible City, tr. Liz Carey-Libbrecht, Empecheurs (2008/ tr 2016).
2 Ingrid Burrington, Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure, Melville House (2016).

Here you might sense some connection to the focus on social values raised in our editorial introduction. The question “whose infrastructures?” is not just a matter of political power but also of habitual activity. That’s where worldviews reside. Understand, as a cognitive scientist would, how places cue what happens there, and how much nameless knowledge arises from embodied engagement of habitual situations, without need for apps or instructions. A year or two stuck at home in the pandemic has taught that life without differently specialized places is impoverished. This is worth reciting to underscore the importance of inhabitable scale amid everyday material circumstances.

So there is more to infrastructure than buildout. Making use also matters.This is true even for large social projects. For example it matters not just where more passenger trains should go, but also what it is like to ride them. Imagine looking forward to taking a train! Likewise for other network resources. What would it be like to see your electricity being generated right outside your window? What did it mean, back in earlier days,  to make a civic monument of something like a water pumping station? What else beside mobility might you sense, culturally, when riding a dedicated bike lane–preferably one without potholes.

Here is a philosophical way into those much needed cultural changes around infrastructure. In any larger history of ideas, shifts in what is considered knowable arise from the contexts and props of everyday cultural practices.[3] Infrastructures get built to enable a more useful world. Enough small changes in making use also makes a different world. Architects of course also engage in world-making, and so do systems ecologists. So do epistemologists–the philosophers who study changes in the basis of knowledge.

3 For some venerable standards on the ethnography of situated engagement, see Paul Dourish, Where the Action Is–The Foundations of Embodied Interaction, MIT Press (2001); or Elizabeth Shove: Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience: The Social Organization of Normality, Berg (2003).

Systems are a way of knowing. For example when a thesis seminar in this college explored that prospect in Fall 2020, we were reading the epistemologist Clifford Siskin, whose 2016 book System–The Shaping of Modern Knowledge[4] happens to be a flagship work in the Infrastructures series at the MIT Press. From that troubled year of 2020, recall how many cries were heard to “smash the system,” as if some single coherent entity oppresses us all. But of course there is no such thing; more accurately each of us is at work in (if not always equitably included in) a “world of systems.” That latter expression may be familiar from the work of ecologist Dana Meadows, twenty years ago.[5]

4 Clifford Siskin, whose 2016 book System–The Shaping of Modern Knowledge
5 Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems–A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing (2008).

A world of systems is a world for doing things. Although at any moment some systems operate and interoperate better than others, in the long term, indeed over the last couple of centuries, systems have worked out more effectively than other ways of knowing. Epistemology has had a bias toward instrumentality. To build a system, to act out this worldview, creates culture, of a kind. To Siskin, who unpacked this claim with great scholarship, “system” thus became a cultural genre long ago, long before most modern infrastructure-building.

Next, take a moment to compare concepts of system and infrastructure. Imagine these as categories by which the world is made actionable. A system organizes and enables process control, particularly for input and output flows, usually by means of closed feedback loops, with an emphasis on its own stability and self-regulation. At least that’s where engineering schools begin. A system tends to be designed, engineered, owned, and operated by some particular group, usually a private company and often quite profitable. By contrast, an infrastructure succeeds at enabling activities, even some greater good, outside its ownership, models, or process control. An infrastructure might never become a money-maker itself, but it enables others. Indeed some larger economy might falter without it. To go on, infrastructures are by definition embedded (“infra” means below), not only in streets but also in institutions. It is difficult to think about infrastructures without emphasis on the organizational contexts from which they arise. Infrastructures tend to be layered into social arrangements, protocols of practices, and also onto one another. That is very difficult to engineer from outside, from above, or in isolation.

This distinction of systems and infrastructures helps disambiguate another closely related category: networks. If it helps to think of system as an engineered process how something happens, and infrastructure as a built investment in where it happens, then a network is what happens. For instance a network can emerge as a set of exchanges, whether in data, goods, or social relations. Whereas a network is constantly reconfigurable, and a system gets periodic updates, that makes an infrastructure the most fixed of the three, and thus all the more important to design, plan, and negotiate ahead as a social project.

These categories of course blend in local instances. For instance, nodes on networks can become the basis of casual social infrastructures in themselves, as sites of cultural exchange, sometimes taking form in architecture, like a market hall on a food network running on infrastructures of water, farms, and roads

As an ethnographer would repeat for emphasis, everyday practices of making use of such particular places, props, and proceedings shape some larger, more ineffable sensibilities. It is very important that all this is locally situated, differentiated, negotiated, and habituated. To Siskin, this is the key point in why not to blame “the system” nor to approach systems mainly as abstractions. So too for infrastructures. System, network and infrastructure are deeply interwoven but not interchangeable concepts. They are materially embedded in places and cultural processes. They are many.

In counterpoint to those abstract cultural categories, next consider one particular case: local energy. By now this is no longer seen as a distant single system, “the” grid, and it is no longer always best left to experts at risk averse public utilities. Whether for resilience, decarbonization, or the simple daily pleasure of seeing your own power resources, many more people have new awareness. Many more disciplines are in on the great transition: from energy generated centrally to energy generated everywhere; toward energy operating more noticeably; with efficiencies of resource and not only of price; and with emergency priorities valued in advance. For despite today’s prominence of all things digital, physical electric power remains the bedrock resource of modernity. Without it, in the smart city, a meeting, a door, or a faucet doesn’t work. 

A few years back, I went seeking a take on this transition. The result was a book, Downtime on the Microgrid,[6] which was recently featured in the most recent drop of Gradient Papers. A book is good for having longer thoughts in retrospect, but is certainly not meant to deliver the latest information. It provides some longer snapshot across some faster flux.

For of course with such massive infrastructural change at stake, today’s infrastructure builders are no longer just the old 20th century imperial/industrial giants like Siemens or Bechtel, but now also a whole new galaxy of startup and niche companies, each racing for a piece of the great transition while governments and investor-owned public utilities dither and lag. This is moving faster than academics, too. In this domain, flood of industry white papers and webinars that overwhelms anything coming out of the universities.

To accelerate the transition, there has meanwhile been a boom in disruptive emergencies, such as the wildfires in California that force preemptive outages. These have hit the habitat of communitarians and tech bros alike, and have given them all plenty of time to sit around and imagine how else things could be arranged. The topic has become timely alright.

Although 100% clean power can hardly happen overnight, by now renewables have become the more affordable option for most new new power construction. By now so much is reversing long-standing centralized economies of scale that any fully top-down one-way control can no longer expect to handle it all. In an expression coined about ten years ago, “grid edge” describes how much innovation happens outside central authorities, now in millions of smaller pieces more loosely joined, at community, campus, and individual client scale, too numerous ever to be overseen centrally, and too ready to interoperate for “the” grid to remain a one-way hierarchy. Here is a remarkably clear shift from “the system” to a “world of systems.”

Note some paradox here: ever more complex and sensate systems need more, not less, human participation in tuning them. As automation involves ever more sensing and algorithms, it requires more, not less, social oversight and ethics, and perhaps also a renewed sense of wonder, more like back in the days early twentieth century electrification.  

For the last few decades in architecture, topics in electricity had alas been left to thermal performance experts, as if solely about the operational efficiencies of individual buildings. Even more recent developments in  more sensate building treat architecture’s grid edge mainly as an engineering challenge: for instance in programmable light-over-ethernet; in the timing of shiftable process demands whether industrial or residential; in task-specific direct-current nanogrids; in the quest for breakthroughs in energy storage; or in solar panels that still deliver amid an outage. 

But now a big push to electrify everything creates a wave of infrastructure building huge enough to refit older infrastructures too. This grand project can shake out new technologies, but also new social institutions, and so to do more than to repair the crumbling legacy of the 20th century grid as if without changing its culture. So the question “whose infrastructure” is very much real.

6 Malcolm McCullough, Downtime on the Microgrid–Architecture, Electricity, and Smart City Islands, MIT Press (2020).

That ownership tends to be more local. For example, because the city of Austin owns its municipal power company, it is out ahead, particularly in the former Mueller Airport ecovillage prototypes[7] and the Pecan Street data models[8] that have come out of that. It is also institutional. For instance policies for Community Choice Aggregation that developed in California are now active in many additional states. Yet so far fairly few microgrids exist at communitarian scale. More often they belong to a campus, whether of government, an institution, or a large wealthy corporation like Walmart or Google. Where public utilities have at last begun to address public preference for renewables, this has instead happened remotely, as features of a larger grid, and because renewables take so much space, far more than will fit in an ecovillage.

Resilience now alters the metrics, however. Although everyday price efficiencies have been the key measure for nearly a century, in what was a monoculture based on centralized economies of scale, much has reversed in recent decades of decentralization, digital control systems, and increasingly two-way traffic. Disruptions accelerate this reversal, not only from centralization, but also from the all-or-nothing monoculture of what stays on. For example a town might pay three times the normal infrastructure cost to power a resilience hub where people can meet and pump water and charge their phones in an emergency. Critical sites like hospitals, public safety, or supermarkets already have their own backups, but they now have the means to get beyond diesel generators, which are dirty, noisy, and good for only a few days until fuel runs out. Other  organizations might pay a little bit more to have at least some resilience for uses they consider important. What gets priority becomes a more interesting cultural debate when more kinds of services can stay powered, however. Even individual organizations now have the means to reconsider their own priorities. So if there is a key social+technical insight into recent progress in microgrids, that it might be how they prompt more cultural debate on resilience. After all, there are deep worldview shifts in admitting that not everything can always happen anywhere anytime, or that intermittency is normal in many other kinds of systems, or that social preparations happen best before you need them.

7 Austin Mueller Airport redevelopment plan (2000).
8 Pecan Street energy data research

So perhaps the cultural value of resilience deserves a Gradient theme year in itself. What does it mean that almost all resilience is local? What kinds of communitarian small-i infrastructures now matter more? How to decide what must stay running, what can stand to be intermittent, and what might be better returned to more natural cycles of day or season? What would it be like not just to bounce back from a disaster, but also somehow to bounce forward? You don’t have to be a doomsday prepper to think about this. Just spend some time in California.