Thinking through Infrastructure by Christian Von Wissel


On February 20th the British Academy invited to the conference “Big Cities – Small Changes. Thinking Creatively Through Urban Infrastructure” as the launch event of its “Cities and Infrastructure“ research programme. Convened by Caroline Knowles and featuring former and current members of CUCR, the day was an inspiring occasion for putting in practice the conference’s subtitle as well as to meet old and new colleagues and friends. The aim was to expand the notion of infrastructure in order to tune in to the “rhythms of endurance” of urban life (Simone). Four panels structured the day, inviting participants to think infrastructure through the nexus of violence and vulnerabilities, to delve into ways of living in displacement, to explore the path from knowledge to change and to ask about the possibilities for small changes in order to respond to big urban challenges. A full conference report can be found online at  . Here I will share some of the questions and insights discussed during the meeting.

During panel one, for example, DAVID DODMAN sketched out the benefit that arises when thinking cities, infrastructures and their fragility through the perspective of risk. He defined risk as the ‘likeliness of harm’ and pointed to the necessity to take into view the ‘drivers of risk’ (health, mobility, shelter, access to possibilities), to make out the ‘spectrum of risk’ (from intensive to extensive, everyday risks) and recognise the latter as bearing significant effect on peoples’ lives, and to look at the ‘changing nature of risk’ in light of changing urban conditions.

Two essential comments from the floor rounded up the debate that was chaired by SUZANNE HALL: For one it was raised that ‘we need to ask: who is benefiting from the production of risk?’ Secondly, the subtle yet brutal violence built around gender and race requires close consideration as it inevitably undercuts all infrastructures and their power relations.

Panel three saw ADRIANA ALLEN call out for self-critique and theoretical reflection: she identified five deficits with regard to the study of infrastructure which she framed as:  the ‘commitment deficit’, where urban scholars have become less and less aspirational with what they want to achieve with their research; the ‘measurement deficit’ – much of the profession is too deeply engaged in efforts of counting while knowingly ignoring that numbers on their own do not account for improvement; the ‘conceptual deficit’ that divides much of the research being done in disconnected branches; the ‘time and space deficit’, when much research is done without a map, be it without territorial, physical-spatial as well as temporal-spatial awareness. And the ‘capacity deficit, when current endeavours fostering development primarily look at what people can do rather than at what it is that ties people’s hands. What we need is ‘transformative knowledge […]  Because we need it for politics.’

Panel four followed this call, for example, with KALPANA VISHWANTH, co-founder of the New Delhi social enterprise SafetiPin, reporting from her work with developing a technology application that makes cities safer, in particular, for women. “Women are commonly told to stay home at night,“ Vishwanth expressed her anger with gendered spatial injustice, „but: no! Women want the right to take risks as anyone else.“

MICHAEL KEITH explored the implications of the city being a ‘site of emergence’ and composed of ‘paths that are always novel’ because of their ever-new combination. How can we ‘think through this emergence’, he asked and stated as an answer that all interventions, social or material, are always forms of experiment and, as such, do not produce solutions but ‘alternative futures’. These need to be made visible – and it is by thinking through different scales and by listening to all registers of knowing, including the arts, that this can be achieved.

In her closing remarks, Caroline Knowles picked up on the day’s insights on how infrastructures work as a lens, as a set of commitments and as a device for mediating elsewheres. She concluded that part of making the multiple workings of infrastructure visible, and of activating them for producing change, is precisely by engaging creatively in their material formations and social practicing. This means ‘working with the tensions’ of how human infrastructures encounter physical and technological infrastructures. The reward can be the increase of connectivity in our thinking.

Thinking cities through infrastructure, I agree, contributes to finding new ways into urban socio-material/technical conundrums and to generate knowledge that can improve peoples’ lives.

Christian v. Wissel is a senior lecturer at the Institute for Theory of Architecture and Urbanism at TU Braunschweig, appointed professor in Urban Theory at Hochschule Bremen, effective Sept. 2018, and alumni of CUCR. He is currently engaged in research exploring live infrastructures and the production of public space.

Full conference report at:



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