City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Afternoon walk, Tallkrogen 8 August 2020

There is no normal, there are everyday social infrastructures; Night trains are not just night trains; Isabel Wilkerson on caste as infrastructure, Simon Baron-Cohen on empathy; Planning remains socially distant from reality

COVID-19 thrives on the inequalities and fractures in our systems. Yet the way the virus spreads also demonstrates that a genuinely systemic response could not only prevent the increased likelihood of pandemics, but also bushfires, health inequalities, climate crisis, and racism. whilst developing social, cultural and economic resilience. Systems can be flipped to reverse the polarity of these negative outcomes, using the same relational logic with entirely different motives. And as with a bushfire, or a virus, or a protest, such interventions can start small and grow.

“In an unstable complex system, small islands of coherence have the potential to change the whole system.”—Ilya Progogine

This attempt to flip systems is unlikely to emerge from a technocratic approach, as if we can simply pull a few levers and step back and watch in satisfaction, as dashboards of negative indicators suddenly swing towards positives. Systems thinking is too burdened with the flawed logic of cybernetic theory, with its implication of command-and-control steering. The very concept of ‘systems’ is problematic.

Yet in government, in policy, in design, we have to figure out a way of addressing intentionality, whilst recognising that what happens is a form of unintentional design. We can possess a North Star  nixing global carbon emissions; not being racist planners; supercharging biodiversity for health all-round — whilst recognising that we are designing in the context of complexity. We are working in environments that cannot be simply steered, but will require constant engagement, and ongoing reassessment of our fundamental mental models in response to experience.

There are significant benefits to designing for engagement. An environmental design which intrinsically forces deep participation—for example, a design which deliberately heightens the need for maintenance, for repair, for care, for nurturing and tending of shared resources and spaces—would also ‘force’ the building of human and nonhuman relationships, of social fabric and ecological resilience. Such an approach would be entirely counter to the current logics framed around optimising for efficiency and profit, which look to minimise cost and maintenance, and break interconnected systems into discrete silos.

This reversal is so fundamental that such a reframing can only be legitimised if we address the purpose of our systems, rather than simply meddling with the mechanism. Donella Meadows made clear in her hierarchy of leverage points that the most powerful layer is the one marked ‘Paradigm’, the layer of mental models that she described as the “shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions … unstated because it is unnecessary to state them — everyone already knows them.”

Recognising that societies, collectively, tend to resist challenges to paradigms most of all, she nonetheless suggested that “mental models are slippery” when she wrote “there’s nothing physical or expensive or even slow in the process of paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing.”

A new way of seeing might enable us to see the alternate paradigms hiding in plain sight around us, to identify the new ‘infrastructures of everyday life’ being knitted together around us. What alternate patterns of living, of habitation, might emerge as a result of building around these alternates, and how might they provide for new paradigms, centred on care, on reparation and repair?

The British-Swedish architect Ralph Erskine once said, “it is the everyday situations that are important and that shape the major part of our lives and our cities.”

One of Ralph Erskine’s beautiful drawings for his masterplan for the Arctic town of Kiruna, currently on show at ‘Kiruna Forever’ exhibition at ArkDes, Stockholm

Identifying these patterns is not an analytical process, but a creative act. Invention is required not because such patterns are currently confusing, conflicted, and clouded by pandemic and protest, but this because how everyday life is.

In The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams writes about how the ordinary around us is actually far from ordinary. It is conjured, in precisely the same way that art is. We can look for ordinary within extra-ordinary, and vice versa.

“Everything we see and do, the whole structure of our relationships and institutions, depends, finally, on an effort of learning, description and communication. We create our human world as we have thought of art being created. “ — Raymond Williams (1961)

In the midst of the pandemic and protests, the phrase ‘a new normal’ was one of the more irritatingly over-used. Perhaps the key element there is ‘a normal’ rather than the modifier ‘new’, as that desperate yearning for a shared, settled normality in the midst of a crisis is understandable, recalling the idiom about there being no atheists in the trenches, a faith emerging from the most extreme conditions. But ‘a normal’ obliterates the very sense of fundamental differences that COVID and BLM have made abundantly clear. It implies a shared experience, a steady state we all exist within, whereas norms can of course divide and discriminate, as well as rarely being steadily or consistently experienced. Similarly, that modifier ‘new’ simplifies the variegated unfolding of time whilst rejecting a sense of history. As CS Lewis wrote, in the foothills of WWII, “life has never been normal.”

There is no normal, just as the ordinary is extraordinary.

Thus ‘everyday infrastructures’ are complex assemblages that we have to construct creatively, rather than pretend we can simply understand via their objective performance, as if reading ticker tape. These infrastructures are functional and non-functional at the same time, effective and ineffective, subjective, plastic, often doing mundane jobs for society whilst generating rich culture and diverse relationships. They are intensely social and cultural, rather than simply blank mechanisms.

As Williams wrote, “We cannot submit to be divided into ‘Aesthetic Man’ and ‘Economic Man’”. We will need a diverse array of lenses for this new way of seeing. And thus, the design of these infrastructures must be extended beyond form and function to include care and culture. The former implies its relational aspects, and a sense of ongoing attention, maintenance, and adaptation over time. The latter implies its expression of deeper values, assessing and articulating what it says about us and what we stand for, as well as our sense of being.

Eric Klinenberg, in his book on social infrastructures, draws from Princeton engineering professor David Billington, to capture just how infrastructures stand for, and shape, broader values.

“Infrastructures have a way of symobolising historic periods and expressing dominant ideas about how to organise economy and society. Our railroads, highways, parks, and power grids reveal who we were and what we aspired to become at the time that we built them. The systems we build in coming years will tell future generations who we are and how we see the world today. If we fail to bridge our gaping social divisions, they may even determine whether that ‘we’ continues to exist.”—Eric Klinenberg, Palaces for the People (2019)

To bring this down to earth, simply take a few moments to read the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane on night trains, an example which effortlessly conveys how these things can be technology, infrastructure, environment, and culture simultaneously; how infrastructure can be full of the quotidian mundane, and yet with a broad sweep of history—epic, in the contemporary parlance—at one and the same time.

‘The enduring romance of the night train’, Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, 4 May 2020

We could find a more thorough ‘unpacking’ of what infrastructure or technology can be — Susan Leigh Star, Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, or Eric Klinenberg have done just this, variously. Yet Lane’s prose arrives at the station sooner, and rather more elegantly perhaps, indicating how the sleeper train is as much memory and desire as much as it is tracks and train, funny as much as efficient, being a deeply cultural experience as well as resilient, low-carbon infrastructure.

If this confuses and contradicts the stratified professional disciplines and governance cultures that have ossified into place over recent decades, so much the better.

The “new ways of seeing” that Meadows describes as necessary to revealing the core paradigms must be trained directly onto the everyday infrastructures we are immersed within, situated on, and rely upon. This requires new lenses, and looking in new directions. And having done so, these new ways of seeing must also propose and prototype alternatives, lest these insights remain trapped in the aspic of analysis.

Despite these patterns surrounding us, it will often take new language, a new framing, to make us realise how fundamentally political and cultural they are, particularly when discussions are usually articulated in terms of efficiency and cost and pointed at narrow silos. For example, Isabel Wilkerson’s new book is based on the idea that America’s racial hierarchy should be thought of as a caste system, not unlike the one that dominates/dominated in India.

Intriguingly, in interview, Wilkerson used the word infrastructure to capture this sense of caste. She described caste as “the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.” (Elsewhere, she calls it “invisible scaffolding”.) All these phrases are close to Susan Leigh Star’s definitions of infrastructure, as we’ll see, yet they have new resonance when specifically applied to race.

I’m not yet sure that Wilkerson makes the direct link with the everyday infrastructures I’m focused on—housing, streets, environment, mobility, energy, water, waste, food, and so on—but equally, those infrastructures are usually not seen through the lens of something as powerful as caste. By tracing our fingers along the routes of Black Lives Matter marches we feel our way to the realisation that the past was full of racial profiling in the “worn grooves” of freeway programmes or the (largely) “invisible scaffolding” of urban planning generally, whether redlining in the North American cities or segregated housing in the Swedish ones. In many cases, these outcomes were intentional.

Infrastructure is not simply an outcome of caste, in Wilkerson’s reading of the word, but a generator of it. Or at least there is a symbiotic relationship between American caste and infrastructure, with each reinforcing the other. We now see that redlining and later freeway expansion was an officially mandated, expert-led tightening noose around the neck of African-American communities. The guise may have been efficiency, but the programmes were essentially racist in origin. Today, redlining may be a thing of the past, but most urban development projects are still largely dominated by questions of cost and efficiency, which generally means generating value outside of the community implicated on the ground. So they remain extractive, if not deliberately destructive.

This dynamic tends to dominate a project’s design and development lifespan. The core focus is on locating and removing value from place, by the real estate developers, infrastructure companies, consultancies, and increasingly tech companies, which are all usually located ‘elsewhere’. Just look at the compositions of the various teams involved in such projects; the balance of professions, their various background, their disciplinary mental models. They are simply not equipped to foreground local value, or address complex issues of environmental and social justice, such as those Wilkerson describes.

These approaches need recalibrating, and not solely for those elements traditionally captured by the word ‘infrastructure’, after Star’s definition. We also need a richer, more expansive sense of social infrastructure, such as that laid down by Eric Klinenberg and then developed by UCL’s Alan Latham and Jack Layton, in their article ‘Social infrastructure and the public life of cities: Studying urban sociality and public spaces’ for Geography Compass (Vol 13, Issue 7, June 2019.) (See also, for example, Shannon Mattern’s great 2014 essay on Libraries as Infrastructure.)

Latham and Layton unfurl the definition at the start of their article—“Libraries, laundrettes, and lidos. Pizzerias, plazas, and playgrounds. Sidewalks, swimming pools, and schools”—correctly suggesting that these elements shape the public life of a city as much as items like housing and railways. As well as public, cultural, and religious institutions, recreational and transit infrastructures, Latham and Layton include a discussion of “social infrastructures that operate commercially but nonetheless have a public character”, which extends into “markets, shops, laundrettes, cafes, bars, barbers, hair salons, nail bars, restaurants, hardware stores, street vendors.”

To me, this is profoundly useful. Public life is generated—or not—in these places. It is across this entire set of integrated architectures, activities and infrastructures that the seams of Wilkerson’s tapestry is stretched out. However, though Latham and Layton state that there is “an important role for planners here in ensuring a diverse range of stores and land use” for these social infrastructures, I can think of few planners who have true facility with the social and cultural minutiae of barbershops and nail bars, and what they are worth.

For instance, in my Arup team’s work for Gemeente Amsterdam, assessing the redevelopment of areas like ArenaPoort, the interviews and observations that Salomé Galjaard led quickly identified the importance of a local nail salon as a node in multiple overlapping networks, as part of our light-touch ethnographic research into this culturally complex neighbourhood. Yet it was a struggle to suggest that work to the client, to win that work, and deliver change from that work. They were simply not expecting that kind of intervention point.

Equally, of course, we looked at systems of energy, water, mobility, waste, and housing, the things typically associated with the word ‘infrastructure’. For me, these are all intrinsically connected, and the positive push and pull between these different types of infrastructure, when seen holistically—as part of the same systems—is not just revealing, but productive. It changes what we design, and how, as well as what happens. It means a much richer toolkit, and the ability to use hard and soft infrastructures together often means we can reduce the emphasis on the heavy, expensive, inert and mono-functional end of infrastructure spectrum. Unfortunately, that is precisely the end that planners and consultants tend to focus on exclusively.

As Donald Appleyard said long ago, “the planner sees his model of the projected city as a totality, from above; the inhabitant sees the present reality, from street level.” With some honourable exceptions, planning as a profession remains socially distant from the street.

We must bring these discussions together, and in the context of action rather than simply abstract discussion. The apparently rational and rather mundane world of transport planning, for example, has remained largely untouchable to social policy. Yet we can no longer allow the world of technology and infrastructure be seen as separate to that of society, politics, and culture, as if efficiency and convenience are necessary ‘agnostic’ goods which trump other, more meaningful challenges. (This is why computing might be better thought of as a social science; or rather, that a transdisciplinary approach to these everyday infrastructures would allow them to sing in their own voice whilst usefully colliding these unhelpful distinctions between computing, architecture, sociology, design, politics, and so on.)

“Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions that undergird the more visible delineations that we make among ourselves. In other words, caste is the bones, race is the skin, and class is the diction, the accent, the education, the clothing the things we can control as we present ourselves to the world … This is not to say that racism doesn’t exist. It’s saying that there’s something even more powerful underneath that we’re not seeing.”—Isabel Wilkerson, speaking on The New Yorker Radio Hour, WNYC Studios

Wilkerson’s poetic distinction of bones (caste) from skin (race) and class (diction, education etc) is intriguingly powerful. It’s almost akin to Frank Duffy’s ‘shearing/pace layers’ theory in architecture; as in, bones and skin are ‘slow layers’ that evolve steadily and carefully, whereas diction, education, and clothing are more fluid faster layers, exploratory and experimental, capable of holding and testing alternatives to norms.

Radical empathies

Wilkerson sees hope in ‘radical empathy’, which again has a natural affinity with a language of design.

“Each time a person reaches across caste and makes a connection, it helps break the back of caste. Multiplied by millions in a given day, it becomes the flap of a butterfly wing that shifts the air and builds to a hurricane across an ocean.”—Isabel Wilkerson, ‘Caste: The origins of our discontents’, (2020)

Design is often lazily assumed to be ‘good at empathy’ (although tellingly, you’ll often see it pop-up in design thinking frameworks as simply a stage in a process, which almost seems to deny the very idea of empathy.) Whilst there are elements of design practice, and related activities like ethnography, that could be broadly described as empathetic, we will have to dig a little deeper, particularly given Wilkerson’s prompt of ‘radical empathy’ being some kind of path forward.

The world-renowned developmental psychopathologist Simon Baron-Cohen describes how a form of “empathy erosion” stems from “people turning people into objects… in such a state we relate only to things, or to people as if they were just things”. This in turn enables violence, according to Baron-Cohen.

Whilst Baron-Cohen’s subjects were more often care workers rather than urban planners, this understanding surely sheds light onto certain forms of technocratic systems thinking and practice. That focus on “things”, with people just another kind of thing, unfortunately describes much of the culture of urban planning and much architecture, as well as governance more broadly. We now see that precisely that form of ‘empathy-eroding’ thinking and acting led directly to the racist planning now being exposed, just as it led to making infrastructure decisions based around automobiles (as vehicles or industrial products) rather than human and nonhuman life.

In his review of Baron-Cohen’s book Zero Degrees of Empathy, Ned Denny touches on the “closed-in, systemising minds” of those on the autism spectrum. This, too, feels a little like a description of silo-based municipal or regional governance at its very worse. Intriguingly however, when Denny quotes Baron-Cohen conveying these conditions can also “ bear strange and sometimes wonderful fruit”, it suggests a different mode, potentially of some value in this context:

“A mind constantly striving to step out of time, to set aside the temporal dimension in order to see… the eternal repeating patterns in nature”—Simon Baron-Cohen

Give Baron-Cohen’s work on empathy-erosion, multiplied by Wilkerson’s suggestion of radical empathy, perhaps a richer line of enquiry would be to recognise that empathy is not some generic process to be sprinkled onto a complex adaptive system, as if a dose of magical pixie-dust. The standardised ‘empathy mapping’ tools of design thinking will rarely be of use given Wilkerson’s understanding of caste and infrastructure, and the potential for restorative care-and-repair politics. Instead, we might ask what kinds of empathy, and how it combines: Empathy by whom? For whom? When? Where? How might we balance that ability to “step out of time” and see “repeating patterns” with rich understanding of emotional, psychological, cultural subjectivities, framed by often murky historical context? What are we thinking about when we’re thinking about empathy? (Given this, Baron-Cohen’s forthcoming book, The Pattern Seekers, looks to be essential reading.)

Tamika Butler, Director of Planning for California, writes “People of Color know that racism and racial bias in policing and infrastructure planning is a major factor in our safety and in our ability to succeed as we move about our communities.” Butler implicitly describes the infrastructural underpinning of racism that Wilkerson outlines, and links it to an idea of a radical empathy for something as ‘everyday’, as apparently mundane, as bike infrastructure:

“Bicycling cannot solve systemic racism in the United States. But systemic racism can’t be fixed without tackling it within bicycling.”—Tamika Butler, ‘Why We Must Talk About Race When We Talk About Bikes’, Bicycling, 9 June 2020

This has a truth to it, it seems to me. Moving populations by bike is part of the answer to multiple crises, including social justice. But it also applies, again, to energy, housing, water, school food, and so on. In order for design to be able to adapt and tune these everyday infrastructures to new forms of everyday life, though, we should pause to assess the evolving paradigms that infrastructures sit within, the soil from which things can spring.

Next: 31. Tilling the soil for slow-growth, and embracing uncertainty
Previous: 29. Slowdown landscapes: Street fight
Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


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