Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Right to Infrastructure: A Prototype for Open Source Urbanism

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Right to Infrastructure: A Prototype for Open Source Urbanism

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper develops an analytical framework to place the rise of open source urbanism in context, and develops the concept of the 'right to infrastructure' as expressive of new ecologies of urban relations that have come into being. It describes, first, a genealogy for open source technology, focusing in particular on how open source urban hardware projects may challenge urban theory. It moves then to describe in detail various dimensions and implications of an open source infrastructural project in Madrid. In all, the paper analyses three challenges that the development of open source urban infrastructures is posing to the institutions of urban governance and property: the evolving shape and composition of urban ecologies; the technical and design challenges brought about by open source urban projects; and the social organisation of the 'right to infrastructure' as a political, active voice in urban governance. In the last instance, the right to infrastructure, I shall argue, signals the rise of the 'prototype' as an emerging figure for contemporary sociotechnical designs in and for social theory.

Keywords: open source urbanism, infrastructures, urban ecologies, urban commons, right to the city, prototypes

What would a city look like if its infrastructures were designed, built, certified, and managed by its residents? Cities worldwide are witnessing today a transformation of their infrastructural and material landscapes. In the name of 'open technology', 'open hardware', or, more broadly, 'open source urbanism', citizens are wiring the landscape of their communities with the devices, networks, or architectures that they deem worthy of local attention or concern. From community urban gardens to alternative-energy microstations or Wi-Fi networks, open source hardware projects wireframe the city with new sociotechnical relations. Such interventions in the urban fabric are transforming, and even directly challenging, the public qualities of urban space. Public spaces become technomaterial artefacts that citizens take upon themselves to service and maintain.

This paper develops an analytical stance to place the rise of open source urbanism in context. It does so by surveying, first, the genealogical and conceptual purchase of the open source movement. Next, it moves to explore the concomitances of an open source urban hardware project in the city of Madrid, developing in the process a theoretical space for the novel epistemic work that such 'prototypes' (as I shall henceforth refer to them) are seen to be doing. In brief, the argument focuses on three challenges that the development of open source urban infrastructures is posing to the institutions of urban governance and property:

(1) Conceptually, projects in open source urbanism are populating urban ecologies with novel--digital and material--entities and interfaces whose emergence destabilises classical regulatory distinctions on what were hitherto deemed public, private, or commercial property forms, technologies, and spaces. Who and what is urban space made up of when its equipment and infrastructures are open source?

(2) Technically, open source urban projects are built on networks of expertise and skills that traverse localised boundaries. Decentralised communities working in open source projects have to reach prior consensus over the methods, protocols, and standards to be applied. These decisions often generate new designs, techniques, and rules for certification.

(3) Politically, open source projects are transforming the stakes in and models of urban governance. In an open source project a community assumes political and expert management over its infrastructures. Such assumption by local communities of the governance of infrastructures is straining the social contract that state administrations have traditionally subscribed to as overseers of urban equipment.

Building on recent developments in social anthropology, social studies of science and technology, and urban studies, here I aim to offer an original analytical framework for the study of open source urbanism as a novel expression and assemblage of public and collective action, one which I tentatively name a 'right to infrastructure'. …

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