INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF URBAN AND REGIONAL RESEARCH
© 2018 urban research publications limited
— URBAN INFRASTRUCTURE, IMAGINATION
AND POLITICS: from the Networked Metropolis to the
This article argues for the importance of social imagination in the understanding of
urban infrastructures, especially those designed and built by engineers. It begins by deﬁning
social imagination as image-based systems of representation and values that are shared by
various collective stakeholders concerned with infrastructure, such as engineers, but also
politicians, administrators, operators, maintenance technicians and indeed users, and then
introduces a tripartite model of infrastructure. Infrastructure is interpreted as the result of
the interactions between a material basis, professional organizations and stabilized socio-
technical practices, and social imagination. The notion of network is interpreted from such
a perspective. Its dependence on imagination is outlined. Through two case studies, the
nineteenth-century networked metropolis, epitomized by Haussmann’s Paris, and the rise
of the contemporary smart city perspective, the role of social imagination in the conception
of urban infrastructure is analyzed further. What seems at stake in the transition towards
the smart city is the increased importance given to occurrences, events and scenarios as
the basis for urban infrastructure regulation.
Infrastructure and imagination: between technology and stabilized
In order to analyze the role engineers play in cities, we generally have to study
the infrastructures they design, build and operate. The articles gathered in this
symposium all deal with engineering through the prism of infrastructures such as water
supply systems or transport systems. Studies of forms of infrastructure and their
evolution are generally located between two extremes: one approach focuses on their
technical character, to the detriment of their social and political dimensions, while
opposed to this is an angle of attack that is almost exclusively sociologically or politically
motivated and tends to relegate technical aspects to the level of essentially minor
considerations. In the first case, infrastructure is defined physically. Its foundational
function is studied: infrastructure generally serves to support circulation, whether that
be by moving containers or metro trains around or by exchanging electronic messages.
Most historical accounts written by engineers fall into this category. In the second case,
it appears much less immediately material in the sense that its true function seems to
reside in the social patterns that accompany its use, such as phenomena of inclusion
and exclusion. Ultimately, from the latter perspective, the true reality of infrastructure
is constituted by the stabilized practices that are coming to light through tools such as
standards, norms and regulations. Earthworks, engineering structures, cables and
servers seem secondary in comparison to these practices.
In reality, very few research projects adopt such extreme positions. Most
empirical studies in the ﬁeld of science, technology and society studies (STS) occupy an
intermediate position between the abovementioned two viewpoints on infrastructure.
The articles in this symposium also blend technological and socio-political analyses.
However, the contrast still tends to survive, in a diluted form. The main question is how
these two orders of reality should be linked: infrastructure as object or technical system,
or infrastructure as a set of social behavioral patterns. The two seem complementary,
but to fully clarify their relationship is a real challenge.