Thinking through heterogeneous infrastructure configurations

Blog by Mary Lawhon

1 Sep 2017, 3:27 p.m.
Mary Lawhon



“Thinking through Heterogeneous Infrastructure Configurations” builds on our previous work that has sought to open urban political ecology to more diverse epistemological stances, describe the history of African urban infrastructure, and intervene in infrastructure to create more just and sustainable living conditions.  We recently started work on a project on waste and sanitation in Ugandan cities (HICCUP,, and this paper articulates the theoretical frame that we seek to explore in the project.


How did we get here?  Through circuitous routes, we the authors have all come to a sense that the global North norm of universal, uniform urban infrastructure (Graham and Marvin’s ‘infrastructure ideal’) is unachievable for much of the global South.  This builds on our concerns with history, practice, and the provincialization of urban knowledge and norms.


In a paper published in Antipode (Lawhon, Ernstson and Silver 2014), several of us argued for the need to start with the everyday in order to better understand urban political ecologies and create the possibility for radical incrementalism.  Thinking through HICs builds on this idea of starting with what we see: urban denizens using multiple different infrastructural artefacts in their day to day lives. Each of these is associated with different risks and has different power relations embedded in it, and people often make choices- albeit constrained ones- about how to navigate this configuration.  Replacing such diversity with singular “well-performing” artefacts often has positive impacts- until the new artefact breaks or becomes inaccessible. 


Our aim here is to outline a research agenda that goes beyond a celebratory description of the everyday towards an analysis of the possibilities and limitations of specific HICs, with explicit attention on the impact of heterogeneity and the constrained navigation of users of configurations.  We believe that research has a role to play in analyzing what is there, as well as imagining what might be.  Thinking through HICs is thus a call for an explicit focus on, and comparison of, different infrastructure configurations, including but not limited to analysis of the risks and power embedded in different configurations.


We the authors have different perspectives about what we think the future of urban infrastructure in Africa and beyond can and ought to be, how it might be made more just and sustainable, and what justice and sustainability look like. We agree that all sociotechnical choices have different impacts, differently distribute environmental risks, costs and benefits and the power that goes with service provision.  Thinking through HICs does not solve this problem, for this is a value-laden proposition.  Instead, it is a call for analytical work that is more explicit about the different trade-offs between different sociotechnical configurations.


Lawhon, M., Ernstson, H., & Silver, J. (2014). Provincializing urban political ecology: Towards a situated UPE through African urbanism. Antipode, 46(2), 497-516.


You need to be logged in to make a comment. Please Login or Register

There are no comments on this resource.

Return to Category