Inverse Infrastructures

Course subject(s) Module 2: Fuzzy borders: expansion and interconnection of infrastructure systems

Self-organizing Inverse Infrastructures

We need to re-think infrastructures as necessarily being large-scale, centrally governed and owned by governments or companies. Not only that. As you have learned during this course, we may need to adapt to the idea that in the future infrastructures will increasingly be ad hoc and temporary in nature and emerge from bottom-up initiatives and from self-organization. You might remember the animation in week 1: we call this inverse infrastructures.

Inverse infrastructures is a term coined in 2003 by professor Wim Vree to denote user-driven and self-organizing infrastructures. Let’s look at an example. You are cycling along a road that turns left. But instead of following the bicycle path, you take a short cut across the grass. You are not the first one to do so. There’s a desire path. Without any prompting, you and those before you have spontaneously created this path. It results from self-organization.

Do you remember Eve Mitleton’s explanation of the term in the module on complexity theory? Of interest is that you could have chosen the bicycle path. The pavement is part of a Large Technical System, an LTS as Thomas Hughes, the famous author of Networks of Power, calls them. The road infrastructure is pre-designed, public property, and governed centrally and top-down by the public authorities. The desire path is different. No one owns it. No one specifically designed it. No one is assigned to maintain it. But note, by walking or cycling it you contribute to its maintenance. As simple as that.

There are many examples of Inverse Infrastructures: from the citizen-driven waste paper collection and wind energy groups  to deep rural telecommunication in developing countries; from local radio and television reception to bottom-up water supply and sanitation across the world.

Inverse Infrastructures arise from tension, friction and often from a failing performance of governments. Inverse Infrastructures are a source of innovative services. Sometimes these user-driven infrastructures compete and threaten commercial counterparts. In other contexts they depend on – and live in – a symbiotic relationship with incumbent infrastructures.

But all in all, they disrupt the status quo. They do not blend in with institutions that were erected and matured in a historically different context. Often they are unintentionally illegal. They challenge policies specifically developed to cater to the interests of presently dominant large-scale established infrastructures. Policy makers will have to address questions such as: must user-driven inverse infrastructures comply with public network requirements specified for commercial parties? May citizen-owned information infrastructures be tapped for national security? How can policy address the tension between decentral energy generation (microgrids) and large scale electricity provision (e.g. issues of buy-back and  universal service obligation)?

Watch the following web lecture by expert Tineke Egyedi (co-author of the book Inverse Infrastructures, Disrupting Networks from Below) about inverse infrastructures.

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