Urban Infrastructure, Ecosystems, and Eco-technological Systems

Posted on Posted in Cities, Environment, Public Policy, Science and Technology, Systems Engineering, Urban Ecology, Urban Informatics, Water Resources Engineering

Though exploding urban populations are indicative of the massive planetary changes humans are enacting, the process of urbanization has been a fundamental trend for centuries. Rapid urbanization in North American, European, and some Asian countries during periods of industrialization since 1860 necessitated a series of innovations in organization and infrastructure in order to facilitate transportation, improve public health, and improve communications for urban populations (Melosi 2000; Hughes 2005; Hall 1988). These innovations resulted in a series of social and physical constructions with long-lasting effects upon human lifestyles and environmental resource usage. For instance, water and sewer systems were constructed that pumped clean water to cities over great distances and disposed it into increasingly-polluted local water sources, resulting in a system today that fails to utilize new management and recycling technologies in favor of legacy infrastructure. We still live with this century-old infrastructure in multiple sectors, much of which is inefficient compared to newer available technologies.

The development of infrastructure, especially infrastructure requiring large inputs of capital, significantly influences growth and development patterns for decades or even centuries, while also providing a “sense of stability of life in the developed world, the feeling that things work, and will go on working, without the need for thought or action on the part of users beyond paying the monthly bills” (Edwards 2003, 188). Modern infrastructure enables the perception of “systemic, society-wide control over the variability inherent in the natural environment. Infrastructures make it possible to… regulate indoor temperatures, have light whenever and wherever we want it, draw unlimited clean water from the tap, and buy fresh fruits and vegetables in the middle of winter. They allow us to control time and space: to work, play, and sleep on schedules we design…” (Edwards 2003, 200). The actors, institutions, and artifacts involved in its creation and operation all contribute to maintaining this sense of stability and minimizing risky disturbances within such complex networks.

Integrating this infrastructure, including the myriad actors and institutions, is a complicated task requiring an interdisciplinary and approach that builds complexity through networks of systems. Infrastructures are often built at small scales to address locally-targeted tasks, only growing as these smaller systems are integrated into medium and large systems that are centrally controlled. Through this integration process, expertise is often transferred, but the technologies themselves, as well as affected cultural, social, and legal habits, undergo transformations in order to develop appropriate solutions to localized conditions within a larger network. Integrating these disparate but related infrastructures often requires some level of standardization so that various operators are able to effectively communicate and operate within the networked systems (Jackson et al. 2007). The creators of these systems must act as “heterogeneous engineers,” integrating not only technologies and materials, but also people, organizations, values, knowledge, and expectations (Hughes 1993). Engineers and scientists can no longer simply work alone, however, for they increasingly function in multidisciplinary realms that may include other financial, organizational, and technical experts to build increasingly complex systems (Hughes 1990).

Technology historian Thomas Hughes has studied both micro- and macro-level trends in the development of sociotechnical systems that incorporate natural elements through a progression of empirically-based work. For Hughes, the development of electric power systems, telephone and communication systems, railroads, and urban systems were influenced by technological artifacts, human actors, and institutional and social values (Hughes 1989; Hughes 1993; Hughes 2005; Hughes 1990). In ordering these systems, Hughes creates a conceptual framework that consists of the social world (institutions, values, interest groups, social classes, and political and economic forces) the technical world (artifacts and software) and the environmental world, which lies outside these two. The social and technical worlds combine to form sociotechnical systems, which both influence and are influenced by the environment (Hughes 1994). Increasingly, though we may not realize, the world is being organized into ecotechnological systems, which Hughes defines as interacting natural and human-built systems. While older cities may have developed at a time when environmental and technological influences were more equally balanced, recently-built cities such as Los Angeles or Phoenix are more driven by technology than environmental factors (Hughes 2005, 156–158). Older cities certainly have myriad social problems such as sprawl, crime, and pollution, but the discord between environmental and technological influences in the development of more recent cities leads to systems that disproportionately draw upon natural resources.

While Science and Technology Studies (STS) research provides insight into complex systems related to urban and social infrastructures, other fields also tackle the problem of explaining increasingly complex human and natural interactions. Urban ecology, a developing field that studies the interaction of urban and environmental systems, strives to describe the relationships between natural- and human-driven (urban) processes within complex networks. Urban ecology also struggles with methodologies and frameworks to incorporate humans into complex networks. Several researchers have proposed integrated models that include human and natural processes, as well as infrastructure, in order to conceptualize tools for categorization and analysis (Pickett et al. 2001; Alberti et al. 2003; Collins et al. 2000; W. E. Rees 1992; W. Rees 1996). In this field, many questions arise that are akin to those faced by STS researchers, such as:

  • Where do humans fall into a framework analysis?
  • How to describe or quantify the relationships between humans and biophysical processes?
  • If humans and their structures are incorporated, are they treated similar to other organisms, or are humans, their institutions, and their effects on the environment inherently separate?
  • What is the role of values and norms within complex systems?

Additionally, these frameworks and others also incorporate space, time, and social elements through tools such as the ecological footprint (W. Rees 1996; W. E. Rees 1992; Luck et al. 2001). The field has also conducted a decade of empirical research across complex urban systems through NSF-sponsored Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) sites in Phoenix and Baltimore with the goal of building large data sets and studying multifaceted processes (Grimm et al. 2000). By studying how ecological patterns and intensive resource usage in cities affect regional and global ecosystems, these authors recognize that technological artifacts related to urban areas, namely infrastructure, interact in complex ways with the surrounding natural systems.

Infrastructure development in the United States has received renewed attention in the past decade. Infrastructure experts have increasingly called for new investments to fix what they see as crumbling roads, collapsing bridges, leaking and inefficient water distribution systems, and outdated power distribution grids (American Society of Civil Engineers 2009a; American Society of Civil Engineers 2009b; American Water Works Association 2001; Environmental Protection Agency 2003; Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water 2002; Water Infrastructure Network 2001). Research has shown how the development of these infrastructure systems spanned long timeframes with complex interactions through public and private institutions. Continued ability to address infrastructure gaps in national and international infrastructures will require large investments of monetary and political capital, as well as social input. The role of ordinary citizens in this process, even after decades of advocacy for greater openness in the processes of science governance, may be overwhelmed by the enormous scale of complex systems development (Winner 1989; Edwards 2003; Foucault 1995; Vig 1988).



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