published in ProjectBaltia N0.22, Aug 2014
Infrastructure: “…basic and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” 
The wikipedia-definition of infrastructure lines out very simply and clearly what it is all about. We have come a long way to really understand this plain insight and I will try to trace this line of thought in this essay: The way we define infrastructure depends on our choices on what kind of society and economics we want; these choices are informed by the best stories that capture our minds and hearts.
In this context, many science fiction writers have an amazing gift. In his 1995 novel The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson detects the invention of a number of things that now form the ubiquitous backbone of our digital and so-called sustainable lifestyles: smart tablet computers, smart energy efficient buildings, 3D-printers, high-tech eco-architecture, geo-engineering and the growing human impact on atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere and hydrosphere we now call the anthropocene. However, he proves especially clairvoyant with regard to two concepts of infrastructure: firstly, he lines out the vast “Source Victoria” as the centralized distribution system providing clean atoms as the basic resource of a Western style consumer society. According to nano-tech principles these clean atoms are then assembled into any consumer product the user at the end of the distribution lines wishes for. It is called The Feed, tantamount to a heavy, hierarchic – and strictly proprietary – stream of unlimited stuff. Secondly, he describes a decentralized Eastern culture based on the more agrarian image of The Seed. Here, technology and culture – or technology and architecture, as it were – merge into a more light-weight, resilient open-source system where society does not just consume whatever it can, but jointly produces whatever it needs.
20 years after Stephenson’s book we are in the thick of this discussion; both on an economic and social level, smart mobile technology is just about everywhere, rapid prototyping is up and coming, eco-cities are being built and new networked concepts for smart urban mobility, smart buildings and the internet of things are being implemented. About every large international corporation worth its salt runs a smart city program. Our social and economic infrastructures are based around some sort of “Source Victoria”.
But at the same time more cyclical and dynamic – fluid – concepts of running a business and socially interacting have reached maturity; concepts that see waste as food and that see technology as a means, not an end; a sharing economy; new ways of frugality. On a socio-economic level, strategies to do otherwise, to run things in a more decentralized, democratic and open way are proliferating. Based on these developments we could say that architecture as an expression of form is being slowly replaced by an expression of social space and infrastructure. In the following, I will explain a bit further the historical factors and the way we have started to look at society and economy.
A very brief history of modern urban infrastructure and architecture
The infrastructural and architectural project of modernism was largely based on mobility and speed. Just as the European cities of the 19th century had grown along the new linear rail trajectories, the post-war modernist cities relied on large roads and a grid of subordinate zones of divided functions, connected yet separated by traffic arteries. This is true for Le Corbusier’s plan for Chandigarh as well as for Costa’s Brasilia. Although for instance Le Corbusier showed a dedicated interest in place and environment showcased in his grille climatique listing architectural solutions for certain environmental factors such as sun, wind, water sheds etc. this idea of a city – and with it its infrastructure – was very large scale and schematic.
This urban and infrastructure planning for the working masses and administrating classes was followed by the post-modernist attempt to provide diversified, subjective storylines for individuals.
Based on the modern grids of traffic, energy distribution and communication, infrastructure – like architecture – became increasingly the spatial expression of consumption (in the sense of depletion of resources and of a individualist, consumerist growth-society) and of investment devoid of local context. In other words, concern about collective needs has been replaced by concern for individual commercial needs. Hence, as of the late 90ies a strongly branded hyper-modernism for consumers, driven mainly by concerns about form, style and brand, has become the predominant spatial phenomenon.
In our times of the Great Transitions (Climate Change, Financial Crisis, Urbanisation, Demographic Change, Population Growth etc.) form and schematic abstractions can no longer form the major points of reference for the definition of infrastructure, nor of architecture. The current Architecture Biennale in Venice discusses possible new departure points from this situation. It is important to note, that stararchitect Rem Koolhaas – although still passionate for architecture – does not seem to be so fond of architects anymore. I will get to a possible new role of architects later on.
Separated vs. connected
In order to deal with the complex problems of the 21st century one needs to understand their wicked nature. In fact, there are hardly any tame problems left. We cannot find answers to our main social, financial, environmental or cultural issues anymore by just building yet another single edifice, an isolated motorway or by introducing car model no. 1000. People are just starting to understand now that everything is interconnected, integrated with each other: for instance, if we wanted to address the issue of public health, pollution and environmental impact of individual car traffic, then we needed to solve the issue of integrated, lower impact mobility in the context of energy production, technology and smart service design. Not the road by itself is the infrastructure, nor the cables that run along it; the infrastructure is the entire story of mobility, communication, social interaction and environmental impact. It encompasses architecture, engineering, technology, energy, habitat, food… and eventually dynamic social space. This fluid infrastructure as the “basic and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise” (remember the wikipedia quote at the beginning) is the dynamic, constantly changing and systemic result of design processes with an open outcome. The related regard of space can encompass all areas defining the quality of life of citizens and the entire range of scales – from the larger, systemic approach the smallest, human sized detail. Ultimately, the interconnected nature of everything around us lies within a changing experience of our own bodies; our own bodily wellness relates to the wellness of the communities and societies we live in. We have understood that the entire system, our entire world, becomes weaker if we just eliminate or leave things out; at the smallest scale the question of infrastructure as the fundamental underpinning structure of society and enterprise is related to humans – to the connected self.
Weaving a diversified pattern
Connecting the dots
Our societies and economies – and with it their infrastructures – exist in many small worlds of ecology, in a multitude of microclimates that are interconnected. Form has a place in these worlds as a function of nature and its laws; but as we have begun to get back to the importance of underlying structures of human work and artistry, the attention shifts away from individual objects to these very laws of nature and the basic conditions of the production of space; from discrete or linear infrastructure to layered patterns of interconnected dots.
Architects may take a step back in this process – not as to diminish the importance of their own vocation, but – on the contrary – to regain relevance in the production of space and decision making process of development. In such a process, designers act not so much as lone geniuses, but as companions in a long-term relationship with various stakeholders in the form of spatial agency. Like the decentralized proceedings envisioned by Stephenson in his Diamond Age novel, here the production of space involves the open-source production of shared infrastructures that can encompass just about everything from technology, local communities, energy or art. In practicing such strategic design, architects may be stewards in a process that provides and visualizes vision (why should we act?), strategic intent (what?) and planning (how?) on a grander scale than the individual objects. This may create the socio-economic infrastructures that form the basis or the catalyst for new growth patters.
Often, the individual elements forming the greater patterns of space may be small, minimally invasive, frugal in nature. These interventions may be designed with the users and act as crystallization seeds for long-term development. In the aforementioned context, such infrastructure would be a result of the visualization of new development potentials by means of design methodology, the mapping of existing local fabric and the formation of common interest alliances and long-term democratic processes. Such an approach may be called process architecture.
 Neil Stephenson, The Diamond Age, first published 1995 by Bantam books, USA
 Neil Stephenson, The Diamond Age, Penguin books 1996 edition page 7 “Source Victoria; description of its environs.” Page 8: “[…] the molecular disassembly line that was Source Victoria. Dirty air and dirty water came in and pooled in tanks. …The tanks at the end were filled with perfectly clean nitrogen gas and perfectly clean water.”
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Diamond_Age “The nanotechnology that generates wealth for the Victorian, Nipponese and Hindustani phyles provides software-generated goods fed through a strictly proprietary “feed” line that runs from their central generators into the homes of customers.”
 Among other examples see the Cradle to Cradle concept by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cradle-to-cradle_design et al.
 For technology as a tool to assist new social services such as the sharing economy as opposed to technology as a sheer consumer product also refer to John Thackara, In the bubble. Designing in a complex world, MIT Press 2005.
 Roberto Gargiani, Anna Rosellini; Le Corbusier. Béton Brut and Ineffable Space 1940 – 1965. Chapter 4 The Climate Grid, principles of a biological order, EPFL Press Lausanne, 2011
 Architecture Biennale “Fundamentals”, curated by Rem Koolhaas. Refer to Vernissage event: Elements of Architecture. 5000 years of architecture… and now what? architecture and technology?, with Rem Koolhaas and Tony Fadell. Moderator Niklas Maak. Giardini, Spazio Esedra, June 5, 2014; http://www.labiennale.org/en/mediacenter/video/fundamentals29.html
 From a transcribed talk by Charles Eisenstein from January 13, 2012 at “The Hive” in Vancouver, BC., on his book “Sacred economics”
“[…] It points to an approach that is at once sensitive to the forms of the earth
– to its artistry – and informed by the sciences of nature.”
 Tatiana Schneider and Jeremy Till Beyond Discourse: Notes on Spatial Agency
in Footprint Magazine, Agency in Architecture: Reframing Criticality in Theory and Practice, Spring 2009, p. 97 “If we take ‘agency’ in its transformative sense as action that effects social change, the architect becomes not the agent of change, but one among many agents.”
 Refer to Bryan Boyer, Justin W. Cook & Marco Steinberg In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change, Published by Sitra, Helsinki (Finland) 2011, p.29 “[…] More recently designers have begun focusing on the choreography of services and interactions (such as in user interfaces), and today a growing group of practitioners are going one step further by using design to peer into large-scale systems and developing strategies that enable us to affect them in positive ways. Strategic design is a way to specify the intentions that we want to accomplish and steward efforts towards the realisation of those aims. For the strategic designer it’s not a question of thinking or doing, but what to think about and how to do.”
 Refer also to Jörn Frenzel, L´avenir de petites choses (eng: The future of small things) in Réenchanter le monde. L’architecture et la ville face aux grandes transitions. Under direction of M.H. Contal , 2014 Co-edition Gallimard /Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine, editions alternatives, p.97 “Tout comme la nucleation […]”, engl. transl.: “Just as nucleation expedites crystallization in chemistry, small nuclei such as minimal invasive architectural interventions or small businesses may form the first steps in a concerted process with many stakeholders and multi-disciplinary design teams.”