MDes Open Project: Experimental Infrastructures

Infrastructure is an encompassing and promiscuous term that has been enjoying a renaissance in design, the social sciences, and public discourse. We are inundated by rhetoric about green infrastructure, social infrastructure, global infrastructure, and so on. Yet, infrastructural work in practice often seems to be more about reinforcing the status quo than about building new connections or enabling new ways of living. 

This Open Project is invested in the design of “experimental infrastructures” that can interject new narratives into society. It will proceed by simultaneously engaging in critical studies of physical infrastructure (existing and speculative) as well as cultivating practices of “infrastructural thinking” – a network-based framework of inquiry into a range of social technologies, including time, money, language, statistical models, algorithms, academic disciplines, and other belief systems of all sorts as world-ordering logics. We will ask how these systems become hidden underground, behind walls, in technical documents, as well as behind common sense, the status quo, sunk costs, cultural heritage, and “expertise.” We will, in other words, ask about all things that behave infrastructurally.

The class will start with a survey of critical infrastructure studies, an interdisciplinary approach that questions how various infrastructures have been designed, built, and maintained in ways that reinforce social structures. We will discuss how “infrastructure” is a term with a specific history, though it has come to encompass a wide range of networks, systems, and tools, and we will use this critical historical approach to map out the political life of the concept and its expansion. After building a theoretical framework that allows us to interrogate infrastructure as a “master narrative” that shapes social relations and the built environment and as a “second nature” that disciplines landscapes and ecosystems, we will then attempt to reimagine infrastructure as a tool for radical change. What, for example, might an explicitly feminist infrastructure look like? A queer infrastructure? An anticolonial infrastructure? An anti-racist infrastructure? An infrastructure of degrowth? An infrastructure of care? A nonhuman infrastructure? (Etc.)

To engage in this rethinking, it will be necessary to confront the complicity of infrastructure within historical projects of global economic growth, nationalism, urbanization, resource extraction, and other world-making projects positioned as necessary public goods, but which have in practice led to gross injustices and inequalities. Our alternative infrastructures may prove to have dystopian tendencies, as well, and we will grapple with that complexity through individual and shared research throughout the semester.

Final projects may involve individual or collective work, writing and/or design, aimed at theory and/or practice. Ideally, we will collaboratively develop projects that are some combination, whether within individual projects or in projects that respond to each other. However, the “experimental” orientation of this Open Project also encompasses methodology: we will spend much of the semester talking about research design and knowledge production as sites of counterhegemonic thinking and experimentation. 

Please see the MDes Open Project Website for more information.