Infrastructure Stories

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Infrastructure as a Road

In my last post, I suggested that it might be intellectually productive to think about infrastructure as a place, not as a road. However, I recently experienced the character of roads as infrastructure in a brute force manner. While travelling in Panama, we encountered roadblocks on two days which, on the first instance, aroused a significant degree of anxiety, similar to what Robert Johnston, Stefan Schellhammer and I have described in our paper ‘Infrastructure as a Home for a Person‘.

The first roadblock occurred on Sunday, August 6, en route from David in the western part to Panama City. The action had been planned well since it involved a staggered series of blocks along a stretch of the road where the so-called Panamericana is the only route along the isthmus, as we discovered after having successfully overcome the first two blocks. In fact, after getting stuck in the third roadblock, we discovered that there is a small mountain road which, in a wide semi-circle, offers a bypass. But we eventually found that this road, which was in an extremely poor condition with parts where half the road was missing already, eventually terminated in a construction site where the road had completely disappeared into an abyss. So we had to turn around and wait for the roadblock to be lifted, which eventually happened during the night.

The reason for the protests by the indigeneous people was exactly what we had encountered ourselves: the poor condition of ‘their’ roads and other infrastructures, including electricity and schools. On our way from Panama City to the western highlands a few days earlier I had thought that we were travelling through an uninhabitated mountenous area. But I now realized that the mountains were quite densely populated by indigenous people as the mountain road which we had tried is lined with villages, and people and animals are wandering along the road for their daily business. As we have learned from fellow travellers, these roads are in such poor condition, and there are so few of them, that pupils have to get up at 3 a.m. in order to reach their school on time (in fact, the third roadblock was set up right next to a school).

So whether or not the roadblocks were illegal — they probably were, but it seemed to us that the police had been held back by politicians who entered into negotiations with the protesters –, they were certainly legitimate.

A road, by its nature, is open only in two directions, sometimes only in one. This is why a roadblock brings to the fore the nature of infrastructure as an opening, as Robert Johnston and I have characterized infrastructure in our paper ‘Living Infrastructure‘. One challenge in infrastructure development then consists of keeping an infrastructure open, i.e. of fending off efforts to appropriate the opening for private purposes. Now, a roadblock is certainly the most extreme case of such appropriation. But it appears as such only if we take a single road as the infrastructure. Panama is, in this regard, an extreme case because the Panamericana is, across some regions, indeed the only road that connects the parts of the country. But this closing of the road just points out that the regions along the road, where the indigineous people now mostly live, perhaps because they have been driven away from the fertile lowlands, are not open in this sense. Hence, if we broaden our view to ask: what is the road infrastructure of a region, we find that such an infrastructure can and should be open in multiple directions. This is the case when the road network has the character of what Christopher Alexander calls a ‘semi lattice’, i.e. when it is a highly meshed network. In his seminal article ‘A City Is Not a Tree’, Alexander argues that modern cities are often ‘life-less’ because they have been designed. From a design perspective, the easiest, and often the only feasible, way is to decompose an object hierarchically so that each component performs a single function which contributes to some sub-goal which eventually feeds into an overall single purpose of a design object. By contrast, ‘living’ cities, examples of which are easily found in Northern Italy, are characterized by the components performing multiple functions; for example, a quarter may serve for living, working, play, and education. Similarly, a road infrastructure would display a semi lattice structure if it supported multiple kinds of activities, such as moving goods, travelling, and local commutes. The Panamericana, by contrast, only supports the movement of goods and people between the two major cities of the country, David and Panama City. It does not support the movement of the local people. ‘Their’ infrastructure is in a state of severe neglect and not integrated with the main road. Hence, even when the road is not blocked, it is not open in the sense in which an infrastructure should be open. To realize this, it was necessary to encounter the road when it was closed.

P.S.: In Panama I attended the 29th Americas Conference on Information Systems (AMCIS 2023) on which I presented a paper (‘From Data Exchanges to Data Markets: An Institutional Perspective), co-written with Xunhua Guo, in which we propose to make platform use data saleable in order to better balance the conflicting policy objectives of protecting the privacy of users as well as a competitive market for online services.

Infrastructure as a Place, Not as a Road

We usually think of infrastructures as transportation systems, such as railroads, highways, and data networks. And I do not want to argue that this is a wrong way to look at infrastructure. But, for a moment, try to accept the idea of infrastructure as a place and see how such a way of looking at infrastructure might enhance the way you think about it.

Lewis Mumford – author of ‘The Myth of the Machine’ – has argued that our modern age is overly enamoured with moving things – where ‘moving’ can be thought of both as a verb and as an adjective – to the neglect of what he calls ‘containers’. This has led to overlook the importance of a large group of innovations, for example of amphorae required for making beer and wine and thus preserving nutrients, but also of larger structures such as cities.

In our paper ‘Living Infrastructure’, Robert Johnston and I have explored this idea, drawing on an idealized metaphor of the medieval city square to work out essential aspects of infrastructure. In that paper, we describe infrastructure as the happening of an opening which occurs through the productive opposition of the essential dimensions of city life. In our idealized example, such an opening happens when the realms of citizenship, aristocracy, religion, and commerce – represented through the city hall, the palace, the church, and the market hall – engage in a productive opposition. The opening which results from such opposition, the city square, which is often bounded by these buildings in Northern Italy, characteristically enables a multitude of activities that occur simultaneously, a hallmark of a living infrastructure according to our argument.

Today, I spent about an hour sitting on the stairs of the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, designed by Bruneleschi, the ingenious builder of Florence cathedral’s dome*. It was lunchtime, so many of those sitting next to me in the cooling shadow of the gallery were enjoying their lunches. However, many other activities occurred on the square as well. During this one hour, I compiled this list of activities:

  • Walking across
  • Cycling across
  • Playing football
  • Taking photos
  • Meeting
  • Explaining (tour guides)
  • Eating, lunching
  • Feeding pigeons
  • Waiting
  • Collecting clients (taxi drivers)
  • Pushing motorcycles across
  • Driving (cars) across
  • Observing / watching
  • Running / jogging
  • Resting

We just came back from an evening walk through the city and the composition of activities has changed a bit, now including walking dogs and sleeping. Against this benchmark, many of our modern infrastructures seem sterile. I believe that, drawing on this metaphor, we might be able to enliven them and thus strengthen their human potential, just what the Renaissance artists have strived for.

* Bruneleschi’s life long quest to build the dome is described by Ross King in his fascinating book ‘Bruneleschi’s Dome’.

The Downfall of Infrastructure

As a frequent traveller, I am a well-versed user of the German railway system. You know, when I grew up the saying ‘punctual as an express train’ (pünktlich wie ein D-Zug) was still in wide-spread use. Nowadays, of course, the situation has reversed, Deutsche Bahn has become the epitome of unpunctuality and unreliableness. Travelling by train in Germany has become a sure recipe for frustration, only mildly compensated by the excellent ‘Navigator’, DB’s app which helps to navigate its derailed infrastructure, and greatly magnified by the almost ever-present loudspeaker announcements concerning delays and cancellations as well as the notorious and helpless ‘We apologize for any inconvenience’.

But the German railroad infrastructure is not the only infrastructure that has suffered recently. In a mirror image to its sorry state of public transport, the German healthcare system is still standing sturdily in the face of increasing public health turmoil, but its since 2003 continually hailed healthcare information infrastructure is a manifestation of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. And where infrastructures do not fail because of mis-management and free-market ideologies, they become the target of sabotage , as was recently the case in Germany when criminals cut important fiberglass trunk lines laid along rails, this time giving Deutsche Bahn an opportunity to shine when it managed to swiftly put in place its emergency plans, and, more depressingly, in the relentless Russian attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure in one of history’s most dismal cases of a nation’s aggression against a neighbor.

What is it that causes the downfall of our infrastructures? And why are we simultaneously witnessing the rise of the platforms? Is this latter development just a consequence of poorly managed infrastructures, as is often claimed with regard to Uber, or do these two developments grow out of a common cause?

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