Understanding Infrastructure through a Humanities Lens

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

Speaking of connections between Planning and the Humanities, This recent article shines a spotlight on a UT history professor, Erika Bsumek, and her undergraduate course Building America: Engineering Society and Culture, 1868-1980. The course is in part an effort to put the STEM disciplines back into conversation with the humanities in order to rekindle the kind of broad minded innovation that can only come with interdisciplinary point of view. She points out that earlier engineers were renaissance men and we need more of that type of thinking. We need it to avoid the pitfalls that narrow technology-focused training invariably encounters, case in point the US Highway system. Indeed, as I have been discovering, the forerunners or grandparents of Planning were such thinkers and came from disparate fields. Many of them strove to bring together multiple fields of study into a grand synthesis, for example Patrick Geddes.

Another aim of this course is to cultivate a new generation of thinkers and doers who value–or don’t take for granted–the twentieth century infrastructure that has furnished our comfortable modern lives. And to get them to understand infrastructure as socially and politically constructed and not merely feats of engineering. The focus on the technical makes for simple answers to complex problems. Congestion? Widen the road! That doesn’t work as Bsumek’s graduate assistant argues. You build more roads, more people drive on them; you’ve induced the demand essentially, the “principle of induced demand.” Bsumek hopes that broadening perspectives through interdisciplinary collaboration will bring about a kind innovation distinct from the ever popular neoliberal model of disruption championed by the likes of Mark “break things” Zuckerberg. She envisions collaborative efforts that reconnect things instead. Its a model that sounds very much like the Marxian idea of mending metabolic rifts, closing broken circuits that waste resources and energy.

This course presents a compelling pedagogical vision and a useful way to think about what my literary training might offer to the field of planning. It’s exciting to see another human discipline turn its attention to planning! There’s more to unpack here about the connections to 19th century anarchism and poststructuralist literary theory, but I’ll save that for a future post.

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