An interview with Deb Chachra, author of How Infrastructure Works
Deb Chachra is a material scientist and engineering professor at Olin College who writes extensively about infrastructural systems. Astute readers may have noticed that she is one of the thinkers most frequently cited in SOW: I recently referenced her work, as did TW earlier this year. Deb also joined as a guest writer in 2017. Her thoughtful writing forefronts the interplay between technical and social factors, calling infrastructure the way we take care of each other at a planetary scale.
I have loved following Deb’s work over the years, and her new book, How Infrastructure Works: Transforming our Shared Systems for a Changing World (to be released 2023-10-17 in North America and 2023-11-02 in the UK), is a fascinating and nuanced extension of the same ideas. In compelling prose, the book traverses the history of the infrastructure systems we live with today and considers the new pressures posed by climate change. Another SOW favorite thinker, Robin Sloan, says, “Deb Chachra is the perfect guide not just to how infrastructure works but also how it feels. This book is just like the power plants it describes: a precise machine, a fountain of energy.”
In a world saturated with news of climate doom, How Infrastructure Works lays out a hopeful vision of a future – and one that is grounded in the technical realities of the world. Deb Chachra dreams in systems, and we are all invited to step into that dream. I recently sat down with Deb to talk about her book, and her perspective on the world and work. The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.
HP: You characterize infrastructure as everything we don’t pay attention to – the hidden utility closet of the world. Throughout the book, you focus on the manifestations of infrastructure we can’t ignore, which you call charismatic megastructures. Could you talk about what these places mean to you, and how they can draw people into this hidden world?
DC: I didn't start with, "I want to understand infrastructure." I started with, "Infrastructure is cool, let's go see a cool infrastructure!" And that goes way back. I grew up in Toronto, and my dad worked for the provincial power utility. As an extremely nerdy child, I spent a lot of time at our local nuclear power plant, which had a science center.
And so, the charismatic megastructures – the bridges, the train stations, the power stations – are how we see and engage with infrastructure, how we become conscious of it. We're much less conscious of the day-to-day turn of the tap: That's the part we take for granted. There definitely is some tension here. Someone recently asked me, "I want my kids to care about infrastructure. How do I get them to care?" It's a little bit weird because, on the one hand, I want people to never have to think about infrastructure! That's the great luxury, the great privilege, of growing up in a country or place with a full stack infrastructure. You don't ever have to think about it, the water is just there, and the sewage gets taken away. You have power, you don't have brownouts.
Of course, the real challenge that we're starting to face is that these systems were built for a stable climate – their operations assume a landscape that doesn’t exist anymore. We're going to start seeing system failures, so we need to start engaging with how these systems work. I would like to do a good enough job of addressing these problems so that our kids never have to think about infrastructure unless they choose to. And so one of the roles that charismatic megastructures play – like the Zakim Bridge in Boston, or the stormwater separation sculptures in Toronto – is to remind the public that these hidden systems exist and they shouldn't take it for granted.
HP: You write about a meta layer – the ultrastructure – that sits on top of infrastructure systems. This is all of the social context, systems of power, and governance that determines what can feasibly be built at any given time. In short, whoever controls the system, decides who benefits from the system. You give the example of Robert Moses [the notorious bureaucrat who influenced decades of infrastructure building in New York, despite never holding public office] expropriating land from the Tuscarora Nation in upstate New York.
DC: Robert Moses – boo, hiss! I think everyone I know is anti-Robert Moses because of his work building freeways and bridges in New York but I'm anti-Robert Moses because he went to the Supreme Court to break a treaty obligation! He fought to take reservation land to turn it into a reservoir – and in the end, he didn't even need that land to get it done. The ultrastructure in this context is settler colonialism: He was able to demonstrate that the settler colonial government would side with the settlers.
We can think about infrastructure as the thing that enables us to collectively invest in ourselves. There's the good part of that, like if we build a municipal water supply, everybody has access to clean water. That means that everyone is safer because fewer people get sick, and it also means that people don't spend their time figuring out how to get clean water, so they get to do other things. If you make this collective investment it is exponential: Time and time again our best understanding of infrastructure is that if you invest in the thing as a public good it underpins economic activity.
Looking at the ultrastructure exposes how benefits exponentially accrue to the people who already have power. One group might benefit and continue to benefit, but other groups may actually be bearing the harms of the system. All infrastructure systems have both benefits and harms but they are unevenly distributed. And of course, that falls in the way you expect, there are examples of building dams and reservoirs over Indigenous territory, and of putting highways through African-American neighborhoods. I remember listening to an interview with a First Nations individual whose traditional hunting land in Quebec was drowned by a reservoir. And they didn’t outright say, "This is terrible." They understood the benefits that they received from having access to electricity, having a warm house, and having power for cooking. This group of people benefits from hydroelectricity, but also bore the costs and disproportionately took on the harms. Whereas if you live in Montreal, you get all the benefits, you don't have the harm.
HP: You point to network effects as a key piece of how infrastructure works. Sure, I could go procure my own fuel and burn it in my home, but that's wildly inefficient. Instead, I just plug in a stove to cook and take advantage of this network that is supporting my whole community. You wrote about Metcalfe's law, the idea that the value of a network becomes much greater as more and more nodes connect – whether it's a fax machine or the utility providing me power.
DC: So there's actually two different ways in which networks work. People are often familiar with one of them: Solving the last mile problem. If you have a whole bunch of people close together and you're providing them with services, it becomes much easier to provide them with the same things. You build out one network, you can just add nodes. So if you live in a little house on the prairie, you have to get your own water, but if you live close to a hundred other people, then building one system that gets everyone water is much more efficient, and uses much less energy than all 100 of those people getting their water for themselves.
And then the other piece of it is Metcalfe's law, which is that if you use networks to connect people, those networks become more valuable to each user as more people are connected. Robert Metcalfe is one of the inventors of Ethernet, so he named it in the context of Ethernet. Of course, the law follows with fax machines and telephones, and it’s even the same thing with roads and railways – the more people who are connected, the more valuable it is for everyone.
Overall, the bigger the network or the denser the network, the more valuable it is for individual users. That has been one of the big drivers of these infrastructure networks because everyone can understand that if everyone around me needs water, and if everyone around me also has water, my water will be cheaper, and better quality, and people around me won't get sick.
That's what we’re talking about when we consider making a collective investment. We do this because if we can all get together and build a water treatment plant, we will all benefit more or less in perpetuity. Historically, managing and building roads and managing water are the oldest forms of infrastructure and they require social organization. That’s why I think that the energy and the matter piece of the network is inextricable from the social context. The energy and the matter of networks work in such a way that if we work together, we can do something much better than what we can do on our own. That's why we have water systems, that's why we have road systems, and everything up to telecommunications, local neighborhood geothermal systems – the pattern repeats.
HP: I came to think of your book as a manifesto for living on the grid. There are always people loudly wanting to get off the grid but you're like, "No, let's get on the grid. Let's get more people on the grid, we need the grid to go further!"
DC: Right! Well, the reality is, as Ursula Franklin says, "We live in the house of technology." There is no getting off the grid in any meaningful sense that is not recognizably dystopian. If you're off the grid in the sense that you now have to worry about where your water or energy comes from, that's actually a step back. That's losing a system that you take for granted.
And as William Gibson says, “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed,” the same follows for dystopia. Many, if not most people in the world do not have access to the full-stack infrastructure that we take for granted in the global north. And if we had to go and live in their world, we would be like, "This sucks, this is absolutely dystopia. I have to figure out how I'm going to get clean water for my family every day. I have to figure out how I'm going to cook food every day." My family is from what is now India and I'm a middle-aged brown lady. Most women who look like me in the world spend most of their time getting clean water for their families and fuel for cooking. Every woman in my entire family history, except for my mother, that's what they did. And I don't.
So, I’m acutely aware that I could buy some land in the suburbs and build out my compound but why would I? For one thing, no matter how much I thought I was independent and off the grid, I'd still be putting CO2 in the atmosphere or I'd still be getting my solar panels from somewhere else. I would still rely on supply chains and modern technologies. Climate change is not going to go away, I don’t get to magically say, "Well, I'm going to personally rewind the clock 200 years and live off the grid." That's the house of technology: We all live in this world, whether you get the full-stack infrastructure of the global north, or whether you've never had access to any of these systems, you are still part of the same systems. We are all connected through things like carbon dioxide and supply chains, no matter where you are – we're all part of a single system.
HP: I appreciate that you don't individualize these problems. Between climate change and crumbling infrastructures, there is a huge host of issues and challenges that we need to face to have our systems be resilient, but at the same time, no one of us can solve them. But infrastructure is slow moving, it's expensive, and even when politicians greenlight a project, it frequently doesn't get built during their tenure, so they can often shuffle responsibility aside. I’m curious if you have advice on how we might leverage collective power to build more resilient infrastructure.
DC: So I think it's hard, and I don’t think we're very good at it! The post-war build-out of systems in the US and Canada was very top-down. Of course, the thing that has changed since then is that political power is much more contested (and rightly so) in 2023 than it was in 1950. And this question of who benefits and who bears the harm is much more contested. Which is good! It means that a bunch of white men wearing short sleeves in offices are not designing highways that go through neighborhoods that they think are undesirable.
Part of why I wrote this book is to give people a mental framework for how to think about infrastructure. I think we all actually have an inherent deep understanding of infrastructure because we interact with it, pretty much every moment of our lives. But we don’t always have the tools to make sense of it or to really see the social pieces, the ultrastructure.
Traditional public infrastructure systems are public goods because they draw on a common pool of resources, like the environment. Further, they're not market goods. You can't choose not to buy water this week because next week it will be cheaper. It's just not an option. So allowing people to make a profit, particularly an unrestricted profit, off of infrastructure is not going to end well. So, that's one thing I think of as a heuristic. Baltimore, for example, has passed legislation at the city level that states the city will never be allowed to privatize its water supply. They enshrined the belief that for-profit, investor-owned water infrastructure just doesn't make sense.
That being said, I don't think there's a checklist or one right answer for building better infrastructure. It’s so socially situated, and because resilient infrastructure and renewable energy depend so much on your local landscape, there will always be a civic negotiation. What resources do you have present? What is your political system like? What kind of levers are there in your neighborhood, what can you do? It also has to do with what risks you face – what are the things that we need to watch out for? All of this is going to be different depending on where you live. There isn't going to be a one-size-fits-all answer.
Overall, infrastructure shouldn’t lock you in – keep in mind the resilience and the reversibility. Like, if you have to vote on new [methane] natural gas connections don't lock yourself in, don't build new pipelines. If you have to choose between public or private, choose public. If you have to choose between large scale and small scale, choose small scale. This is because we're figuring this out, we don't know what the best renewable energy or climate-resilient infrastructure will ultimately look like. But, in general, if you go for decentralized energy systems, that will probably be more reversible.
But I don't have a checklist, I don't have an algorithm, I don't have five simple steps to build better infrastructure. One of the things I really like is how Mariame Kaba, an activist and prison abolitionist, talks about making social change. She says, you can think about doing actions in the short, the medium, and the long term, and you can think about doing actions on the individual scale, the community scale, or at a larger scale, like country-wide. Because I'm a giant nerd, I immediately think of this as a 3 by 3 grid. While these are global problems, I pause to think about what goes into each of those squares. No one person is going to be able to work on all problems, but there are billions of us and we can all work on different things.
HP: Outside of writing this book, you're a material scientist and an engineering professor. How has that work influenced your writing, and how do the ideas in the book show up in the courses you teach?
DC: Well, you write the book that you can write, and I am fascinated by the biggest systems. They're vast, they're the most complicated things ever created by humanity. While there's no one perspective, my specific perspective on these systems comes from being trained as an engineer and seeing them as matter/energy networks. Broadly, I understand all of the technological, and technical underpinnings of how the systems work and that's a factor in it.
The second piece of it is that my parents are from India, I grew up in Canada, and I live in the US now. I haven't spent very much time in India, but spending time there made me realize how much my life was defined by being born in a place like Canada. The opportunities that I had were not just because my dad was a civil servant and we were middle class – the real thing that underpinned my life on a daily basis was these infrastructure systems. In Canada, I never got sick because of unsafe water. In lots of places, that's not a thing you take for granted. Those two things, having this technical understanding and having enough experience outside of these systems to actually see them for what they are, were prerequisites to writing the book I could write.
And of course, being an engineering professor, I spend pretty much all of my time with 18 to 22-year-old students. I'm a grown-up, I will probably see the middle of the century, but I probably won't see 2100. My students will see 2100. That changed my perspective – 2100 isn’t that far away.
If you have kids, or anyone in your life that's under the age of 20, you are living in the future. We benefited from the systems that were built for us 50 years ago, 80 years ago, and that's what we're doing now for the next generation. So the other piece of being an engineering educator is that I am acutely aware of the fact that we are building the world for people to live in today, in 30 years, and in a hundred years. We are on the cusp of building a new world – we have the potential to make this incredible technological transformation.
For people like my engineering students, this transformation is potentially their life's work. This is what their careers are all about. This is their time. It’s amazing to be at this inflection point in human history where we transition from scarce energy – we can only get energy by burning stuff, setting things on fire! – to energy straight from wind or water that we convert to electricity and use for everything. We're sitting at this cusp.
The point I try to instill in them is not that we need to avert catastrophe. The point is not that the world is going downhill and we can do one of two things: We can either sacrifice and struggle or we say, “The world is going to die, so I should just have my good life and then we're over.” No, the thing we're trying to do is build this world where there's abundant energy for everyone. And it's not a world of sacrifice, it's a world of abundance.
With my students, I want them to make that mental shift between, “Everything sucks, all of you guys fucked the world up for us, and now we have to deal with the consequences,” and “The thing we are doing is building this other better world, this world where everyone has the energy that they need.” When we have infrastructure systems that work for everyone and are resilient in the face of climate change, that means that people have all of their basic needs met. We need that to be true globally, not just in our gated communities, whether that's our block or our country. And so working with my students, I focus on building that world; stopping the catastrophe is just the thing that will happen on the way.
I described these problems as a Gordian knot – the resilience piece, the equity piece, the colonialism piece, the climate change piece, and the pollution piece – these are all one giant Gordian knot. Solving the Gordian knot by taking your sword and cutting through it is the dumbest solution. We should think of reworking it through knitting or weaving; we want to reknit all of the same strings together in a different way. It's not creative destruction, it's actually about transformation. So it's how do we reweave this Gordian knot? That’s the task at hand, it’s what we're all being asked to do.
A big thanks to Deb for taking the time to talk about her work. For more, pick up a copy of How Infrastructure Works: Transforming our Shared Systems for a Changing World.