Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

REPORT | ISNGI 2016: Beyond Utopia

by Linda Carroli
[first published on Linkedin]

The International Symposium of Next Generation Infrastructure 2016 held in Wollongong and hosted on 1-2 September 2016 by the SMART Infrastructure Facility was a surprise. I half expected an engineering lovefest which would affirm my worst suspicions and fears of a world overrun by self-important technocrats. Instead, it was a deeply engaging series of conversations examining the complexity of built technical systems. It was reassuring to experience such a diverse series of conversations and reflections – a desire to reach out and engage with and in other disciplines even with a lack of language to do so. Some self-critical and reflexive commentaries also emerged, particularly around the dominance of project frameworks, silo busting and the failures of governance. For many in this field, notions of social capital are a revelation, even though social scientists have been banging on about them for decades. Expertise is not a zero sum game as some technocrats might have us believe, and knowledge, tempered by experience, multiplies, as the conference attests. Infrastructure systems are complex systems – they are socio-technical systems. Discussions at ISNGI 2016 swirled around complex systems theory and complexity thinking, and this opens the possibility of socio-cultural perspectives and acknowledging and engaging users. Perhaps another way of thinking about this is to reiterate that technology is not destiny. The speakers reiterated that “it is about people”.

One of the final statements of the two-day proceedings offered a dynamic pivot point. When asked about prospects for the future, Professor Chris Barrett (Biocomplexity Institute, Virginia Tech) replied, “doctrinaire urbanists should not be infrastructure planners”. Perhaps it is worth qualifying this as ‘should not pretend to be infrastructure planners’ or to qualify it with ‘economists should not [pretend to] be infrastructure planners’. It highlights the challenges of complex and multi-criteria decision making in a world, that by necessity, must become more collaborative, open and intentional. The point is that more damage is done when the complexity of socio-technical systems is not addressed in their complexity and in their social context and when doctrinaire urbanists (or economists) address complex problems with readymade solutions. This was such a sharp statement, indicating that fuzziness is difficult to negotiate across fields and professions like planning and engineering. Is this stiletto jab also a sign of system stress? And it is clear from the stories and experience recounted during the conference that all kinds of infrastructure systems are under stress, from American universities to Palestinian energy and water systems, meaning that people, in turn, are not thriving. Both the people and the infrastructure suffer from inherent inequity, underinvestment and governance failure. Wicked problems are ever more critical while cumulative impacts persist in assemblages of problems.

The conference also included speculation about different kinds of knowledge and problem solving in a dragon’s den format where early career researchers pitched their proposals to a panel for feedback and critique. This included a research proposal investigating how engineering problem solving might learn from choreography. The dragon’s den pitch, from Dr Ellie Cosgrove, evoked ideas of embodied knowing, visceral corporeality and kinesthetic exploration with design emerging from dance and choreography that might inflect in and benefit engineering. How can knowledge exchanges develop and what impact might that have on silos? Despite the calls for cross-disciplinary problem solving and knowledge sharing, material thinking and creative research methods can get lost.

A thread of the conference was the Internet of Things – and I prefer recognising the multiplicity and convergence of data and technologies (robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality etc) deployed in and as infrastructure than the deterministic framing of ‘smart cities’. It is about people. Where there is talk of technology and data, there is often talk of shifting power relations and flows, engagement and empowerment. As the speakers at ISNGI 2016 demonstrated, the purpose of infrastructure must be about social equity, system sustainability and service provision. I would also hope that it is about planetary futures and eco-system care. Infrastructure is no longer just focused on the sometimes limiting perspectives of engineered objects and asset management. Instead, there is a movement towards, as SMART Infrastructure Facility Director, Prof. Pascal Perez, stated, “changing the way we do infrastructure” to engage with ideas of place, community, ecology and service. Several speakers stressed the need for citizen engagement and conversation, not just cursory consultation, as well as facilitating changing relationships between networks and users. Such dynamics indicate that a cultural change is underway in the infrastructure sector and that, potentially, learnings from other disciplines such as urban and regional planning and urban design with their concern for spatial and social dynamics, place and community, and citizen engagement are acknowledged. It would be beneficial if, in the drive towards silo busting and interdisciplinary exchange, that those collaborations could be reflexively grounded in those shared concerns for society and place.


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