Infrastructure for the 21st Century

This is an excerpt of my introduction from the Infrastructure for the 21st Century event held as part of the Royal Academy of Arts Architecture Programme on 10 October 2016. The event sought to rethink how we understand infrastructure, and what, specifically, infrastructure might mean and enable in the context of a global city in the 21st century. 

As we are all witnessing, London is in the midst of a series of major infrastructure projects: Crossrail, the Thames Tideway ‘super sewer’ and the extension of the Northern Line to Nine Elms. Meanwhile, debate is intensifying over the next generation of projects: HS2 and airport expansion in the southeast, with the decision on whether the latter will entail a third runway at Heathrow looking set to made in the next few months.

The Brexit vote has acted as a catalyst for these discussions, as Theresa May’s government, in contrast to the political orthodoxy of the last three and a half decades, argues for a more interventionist state with a clear industrial policy – something that many thought had been consigned rightly or wrongly to the dustbin of political and economic history. What will actually pan out over the next few years remains to be seen, but the shift in rhetoric is notable.

So given this context, over the next few years, we are likely to hear even more from government about infrastructure. And it will be interesting to see what kind of political opposition it will meet, with Labour promoting their own version of an investment-led economic plan. Either way, infrastructure is one of the few areas in which left and right can agree that the government should have a major role. Infrastructure, as it is usually conceived, requires strategy and long-term planning that looks across several decades – something which the market is traditionally seen as reluctant to do.

Yet, governments, as we know, are also beholden to their own short-term agendas, principally the deadlines imposed by the next election. While on the surface the establishing of the National Infrastructure Commission in 2015 by George Osbourne might be seen as an attempt to take the politics out of infrastructure and to try to look beyond the next electoral cycle – but the reality is, of course, rather different for this most political of chancellors, who in that role was well known for his love of the grand projet and being photographed in ‘high viz’ and builders’ hat.

Infrastructure is always political – just witness the furore over Hinkley Point C and at Heathrow – and rightly so, as it requires the state to take decisions about where to invest often large sums of taxpayers’ money on projects that ca be hugely disruptive will undoubtedly benefit some people more than others.

While the NIC is ‘arms-length’, it, of course, remains political and partly as a consequence focused on government-initiated, centralised projects that deal almost exclusively with the physical movement of people, goods, energy and waste. This, though, is a concept of infrastructure that is rooted firmly in the twentieth century, if not, in some ways, the nineteenth – making it somewhat fitting thatthe NIC was launched by Osborne at the National Railway Museum in York.

This evening we’re aiming to look beyond traditional notions of infrastructure, to focus less on the movement of ‘stuff’ than on the systems, networks and spaces which, as London develops over the next few decades, will be arguably as vital to its success as its physical infrastructure.

These kinds non-physical or ‘soft’ infrastructures are often described in wooly terms as social, cultural or even economic infrastructure. So, we hope one the main outcomes of this evening will be bring a great deal more focus to this debate, as well as widening its scope, through the propositions and ideas put forward by our seven speakers. The intention is not to offer a complete set of worked-up propositions that are ready to go tomorrow – although we may see some – but to look at the fundamental questions of what infrastructure could or should be doing in the 21st century and how it might be formed.

Is infrastructure by definition always strategic and state-led? Can it be bottom-up?

Is infrastructure universal or should we be conceiving it in relation to specific social or cultural groups?

Are there any benefits to an absence or lack of infrastructure – particularly in terms of transport – when it comes to resisting or mitigating the effects of gentrification?

Physical infrastructure suffers hugely from NIMBY-ism. As infrastructure becomes increasingly digital, who or what will determine how it is designed in this realm – and who has access to it? What, for example, underlies the algorithm that regulates traffic flow in the city, and what should determine the decisions that it makes?

What is the relationship of infrastructure to power, particularly when it comes to the systems and structures that aim to shape health, lifestyle and wellbeing? When does ‘nudge’ become coercion? To what extent can de-centralised self-regulating systems function as a kind of individual infrastructure?

How can infrastructure sit between economic and other forms of value?