Whether we are travelling to work on a train, flushing a toilet, turning on a light, or sending an email, our daily lives depend upon repeated interactions with multiple and complex systems of infrastructure. Yet few of us regularly stop to consider our reliance on such infrastructure and how it shapes our daily life – unless it is one of those days when these complex systems break down and we are immediately exposed to the costs and frustrations of their absence.
But, as we are only too aware, many communities pay such costs every day. Some live next to airports or under flight paths, or experience the ‘threat’ of development to their quality of life. Others live without access to water or sanitation, often forced to develop their own informal practices to substitute for poor or lack of provision. In fact, it is often these very communities that pay the costs for the provision of infrastructure, as they are uprooted to make way for the likes of international airports, or suffer the environmental costs of the new mining practices upon which infrastructure development relies.
This unequal politics of infrastructure provision has been widely recognised. Infrastructures are far from neutral tools or technologies. They are governing instruments that shape collective and individual behaviour. They are the products of social struggles, exercises of power and forms of resistance. Their governance cannot therefore be divorced from questions of democracy, citizenship, social justice and economic equality, as well as rival claims to knowledge and expertise.
With this in mind, shouldn’t we all think a little more about the infrastructure that inhabits our everyday lives? And if so, how? How do we think beyond the debates over the economic and engineering value of infrastructural investment that abound?
These questions formed part of the agenda of a two-day workshop held in May 2017 on governance and conflict in urban and peri-urban infrastructures, sponsored by CURA and the British Academy. Of course, many have grappled with such questions. Here we set out the potential avenues of inquiry that emerged in the course of discussions between participants at the workshop.
Learning from difference
The two-day workshop brought together scholars based in Britain and Mexico to exchange their experiences of researching in and around infrastructure projects in Europe and Latin America. Its starting point was the importance of comparison and exploring how we might learn by comparing difference – how different scales, contexts, histories and framings of issues may shed light on what we take for granted or force us to reconsider our ways of thinking.
Much of our discussion underlined the need to grapple with complexity. Complexity comes in different shapes and forms. It was identified in the varied relationships between citizen groups and state agencies which cut across different levels of government and local and international non-governmental organisations and social networks. It comes with different histories and the need to understand legal and other institutional traditions (such as ethnicity and identity) in shaping the forms taken by contestation and resistance. Finally, it is to be found in the mechanisms and strategies used to withhold power by elites and by grassroots groups in challenging those centres of power. Grappling with complexity has to be intrinsic in any understanding of communication mechanisms (i.e. dialogue, consultation, diffusion of ideas/knowledge, resistance), where simultaneous practices are undertaken by individuals and groups to maintain or fight domination without recourse to coercion and repression.
The study of conflict through its myriad forms exposes critical junctures in the investment in new infrastructures. We need a broad understanding, from the development of knowledge and expertise as a form of control to the barbarism of violence and repression prompted by state actors in collusion with big national and transnational corporations. Indeed, the role and value of legal knowledge was foregrounded not only as a vehicle to study conflict between capital elites and local communities, but also the capacities of resistance, the redistribution of power in infrastructural investments (if any), and their broader interrelationship with the environment and climate change.
Investigating spatial geographies
The spatialisation of politics is widely recognised. Processes of infrastructure development bring into being new political spaces. But to what extent does infrastructural investment enhance or blur the linkages between the rural-urban divide? Although there have been important debates on land use, production, and circulation of goods and services to define urbanism, one pressing area of inquiry is the interrelationship between urban-rural actors in their contestation and resistance to landscapes impacted by urbanisation.
Infrastructures can provoke moments of conflict and crisis. But we should not ignore the everyday practices that surround infrastructures or compensate for them. These practices impact upon changes in production, consumption and the political institutions of localities experiencing major infrastructures. This focus on everyday practice and knowledge may well open up alternative opportunities for local tiers of government to challenge national decisions that have been overridden by global economic interests and for social mobilizations to potentially connect with broader environmental and social justice demands vis-à-vis economic compensations.
A new research agenda: infrastructures as political objects
Each of these new directions or avenues suggest the importance of viewing infrastructures as ‘political objects’ (to borrow from the recent study from Cole and Payre of ‘cities as political objects’). ‘Seeing’ infrastructure investment in this way leads us to spend time exploring the political discourse of infrastructures to understand: the contextualised rationales behind ethics, corruption and illicitness; governmental decisions and the simultaneous use of informal arrangements alongside expert knowledge; and the type of relationships and spaces built between social mobilisations, the state and the private sector. This offers us a future research agenda that cuts across global north and south dichotomies – an agenda that this network of researchers would like to pursue in the next few years.
The Workshop Participants
Vanesa Castan-Broto (Sheffield University)
Mercè Cortina-Oriol (DMU)
Dan Durrant (Bartlett School of Planning, UCL)
Jonathan Davies (DMU)
Adam Fishwick (DMU)
Armelle Gouritin (FLACSO-Mexico)
Steven Griggs (DMU)
Valeria Guarneros-Meza (DMU)
Graeme Hayes (Aston University)
Ibrahim Has (DMU)
David Howarth (Essex University)
Ernesto Isunza (CIESAS-Golfo)
Marcela Torres (FLACSO-Mexico)
Gisela Zaremberg (FLACSO-Mexico)
This blogpost was written by Valeria Guarneros-Meza and Steven Griggs, CURA members. The authors are grateful to the workshop participants for their contribution to the ideas developed in this post. All interpretations are of course the responsibility of the authors.