Researching power and contestation in global digital infrastructures

Changes to the globalising world are being written, not in the language of law and diplomacy, but rather in the language of infrastructure

– Keller Easterling

On 13-14 April I am going to Amsterdam for the Critical Infrastructure Lab Launch Event.

The lab aims to create space to co-develop alternative infrastructural futures that center people and planet over profit and capital, by establishing a community around three infrastructural subtopics (geopolitics, standards, environment), producing a sound body of research and developing actionable policy recommendations and strategic insights.

The question raised is how infrastructure can become a lens and approach to addressing some of the world’s wicked problems, we might think about anything from supply chain issues, to climate change, human rights to governance and ideas of social justice. This includes my own interest and a question that I have thinking about in my work at the Bassetti Foundation: can infrastructure support democratic ideals?

Addressing these questions requires a proactive rather than reactive approach to thinking about infrastructure. Futures have to be imagined, we need a better understanding of how infrastructure (digital in this case) shapes society and could maybe lean towards supporting certain values and away from others, all of which which might require policy development both in terms of governance and business planning.

We could start from the question of possible bias built into a system that is developed primarily by (young) men working for a select group of multinational companies. Which futures do they envisage? What does the development framework look like? Whose interests and positions are excluded?

A broad range of expertise and non expertise in social as well as technical matters is required if we want to address questions about infrastructure design with society in mind, and so the lab is hosting a launch event that offers discussion space for anyone.  The event offers workshops on infrastructural futures and maps and models, including feminist perspectives and collaborative and sustainable approaches to infrastructure design.

Why not Register for the critical infrastructure lab launch event and have a look at the schedule?

For more discussion and a bit of background on the current debate see my recent post comparing two books about digital infrastructure. It includes a comparison of the series of proposals made by the different authors. One book is about the influence of digital infrastructure during recent popular revolutions (think about the Arab Spring and the revolution in Ukraine) reviewed here and the other addresses problems of data as private property rather than a public resource.

The authors both propose ideas and thoughts about how infrastructure that effects every-day life in different contexts could be viewed and developed differently, with the proposals containing a lot of shared ideas and goals.

Computing Within LIMITS 2023, call for papers

LIMITS in Computing

Last year I attended the LIMITS 2022, posting about the experience here.  The organizers have just published the following call for papers for the 2023 workshop:

The LIMITS workshop concerns the role of computing in human societies situated in a world of limits*. This interdisciplinary group of researchers, practitioners and scholars seek to reshape the computing research agenda, grounded by an awareness that contemporary computing research is intertwined with ecological limits in general, and climate- and climate justice-related limits in particular. LIMITS 2023 solicits submissions that move us closer towards computing that support diverse human and non-human lifeforms and thriving biospheres.

* For example, limits of extractive logics, limits to a biosphere’s ability to recover, limits to our knowledge, or limits to technological “solutions”.

Call For Papers

We welcome scholarship by researchers, engineers, designers, and artists who are investigating and/or (re)designing computing systems that engage with pressing ecological and social issues. We also invite works that build on previous LIMITS work, such as provocations from earlier LIMITS gatherings (e.g., Unplanned Obsolescence, LIMITS 2017), that broadens the understanding of LIMITS (e.g., Age of Consequences, LIMITS 2015), that explores our own limits (e.g., Computing within Psychological Limits, LIMITS 2015), that explores strategies for working in a LIMITed world (e.g., Limits-aware computing, LIMITS 2015), or that design and/or build transitional systems (e.g., Solar-powered website, LIMITS 2021). Transitional systems attempt to (re) design, implement, and/or evaluate a real-world or hypothetical socio-technical computing system in response to “implications for design” raised by earlier LIMITS papers or LIMITS-related scholarship in the areas of computing and sustainability, computing and climate-justice.

We also encourage authors to consider the stories they tell and reify through their work. As Costanza-Chock reminds us, “Stories have power”. They ask us to consider, “(…) what stories are told about design problems, solutions, contexts, and outcomes? Who gets to tell these stories? Who participates, who benefits, and who is harmed?” (Costanza-Chock 2020 p. 134)

Key Dates

Abstract registration deadline: March 17, 2023, 11:59pm AOE
Paper submission deadline: March 31, 2023, 11:59pm AOE
Paper reviews available: April 28, 2023
Camera ready deadline: May 19, 2023
LIMITS Workshop: June 14-15, 2023

In 2023, LIMITS will be a virtual, distributed workshop. We welcome participants to organize local gatherings or “LIMITS-hubs” that encourage community-building and sharing of infrastructure.

Reach out to Elina (elina(at) if interested. I will be there.

Smart Pedestrian Crossings

Climate Neutral and Smart Cities

As readers might remember, TechnologyBloggers has a partnership with the Bassetti Foundation. The Foundation participates in several European Union funded projects, and as I was learning about one of them, I discovered a connection with the city of Utrecht where I live.

One of the projects (MOSAIC) is funded through the EU Mission on Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities (Cities Mission), which aims to deliver 100 climate-neutral and smart European cities by 2030, while paving the way for remaining European cities to become climate-neutral by 2050. It works on a bottom-up approach which requires the participation of the entire local ecosystem and support from all governance levels.

It turns out that another project funded through the same mission is called IRIS, and one of the IRIS Project pilot Cities is Utrecht where I live, and so I went to see one of them, a smart pedestrian crossing with sound, air quality and traffic speed monitoring. Not only that but the white strips in the road actually light up as you approach and lights on the tops of the poles change colour according to the traffic situation creating the bright lit up crossing area in the photo above.

The crossing project takes in more of the area around it, with new street lights that can be dimmed or brightened and collect more data on the weather etc. The project was developed with the local population, the idea being that the local governance and urban management systems work with the people who live in the area to build and maintain the infrastructure that they feel they need.

From the MOSAIC website:

The mission presents a unique and unprecedented approach to the goal of climate neutrality. This new demand-led approach brings together all key stakeholders within a city, as well as the respective national/regional governments and the European Commission to work towards the same goal. The Climate City Contract provides a novel tool to ensure that all key actors – local authorities, private sector, academia, citizens/civil society – will work together towards the same ambitious goal via a joint strategy. The multi-sectoral and multi-actor dimensions will be key for the mission’s success.

The Cities Mission is therefore ideally placed to engage European citizens and stakeholders in the pressing global challenge of impending climate change, as it focuses strongly on the places where most Europeans live, work and move. While the overarching ambition of the mission relates to the issue of mitigating climate change, achieving success within this mission requires not only significant technological innovation but also a paradigm shift within the public sector, on local, regional, national and European levels, regarding the inclusion of the general public.

Check out the links in the article and the photos and video. A Rainy night in Utrecht.