Theorizing Global Infrastructure

The emerging site of Manchester Airport City, a key node in the UK’s evolving geopolitical relationship with China. Photo by Alan Wiig, August 2016.

Infrastructure has historically been the state-provided, universally-distributed services of a city-region: water and sewerage, energy, transportation, telecommunication and information exchange. While these networks were unevenly distributed, they nonetheless remained a layer binding cities and regions together. Within and between city-regions today, a new class of global infrastructure reconfigures proximity and distance, privileging the far over the nearby. These networks facilitate the material, digital, and capital flows of the globalized economy, and are not necessarily products of the state alone. Harnessing these emergent networks are political and economic relationships outside of established, territorial conceptualizations of regulation, oversight, and public accountability. Global infrastructure enables neoliberal economic growth agendas that propagate through policies and planning strategies intended primarily to benefit multinational business enterprise. Worldwide, global infrastructure facilitates elite enclaves, free zones, logistics centers and other prototypical developments where urban futures are deployed, often in the absence of democratic institutions. With Brexit in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the United States signaling a rapidly changing geopolitical stage as these two nations potentially advance isolationist politics that cut them off from the rest of the world, the disposition of global infrastructure and the routing of these networks — both literal and through design, funding, and management — through the UK and US may change. In turn, ties to China throughout the global South and North, including new geopolitical arrangements between China and the post-Brexit UK, are reforming the terrain of global infrastructure.

This reading list examines (i) the design, construction, and maintenance of global infrastructure, (ii) the relationship between planning, global infrastructure, and politics across local, national, and trans-national scales, and (iii) the integration into these networks into spatially-proximate, if not globally-aligned, regional economies. The seminar will also further (iv) new, comparative methodologies required for globally-oriented research concerned with juxtaposing infrastructural phenomena and patterns such as the free zone that, while originating in the global South, are today materializing in the global North.

The first half of this reading list theorizes global infrastructure from its origins in the 19th century through to its 21st century evolution, focusing on the politics that underlie global infrastructure. The second half of the reading list examines global infrastructure as it impacts cities and regions directly. Empirical case studies are presented of i) the World Bank Group and McKinsey & Company’s respective efforts to finance and build global infrastructure in the global South and North, and ii) the importance of global infrastructure to Manchester, England’s re-emergence in the globalized economy as the heart of the United Kingdom’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Finally, the reading list concludes with a speculative look beyond the global to the inter-planetary infrastructure involved in colonizing Mars.

Infrastructure as Networks

  • Carse, A. (2016). Keyword: Infrastructure, in P. Harvey, C. Bruun Jensen, and A. Morita (Eds). Infrastructures and Social Complexity: A Companion. New York: Routledge, 27–39.
  • Williams, R. (1993). Cultural Origins and Environmental Implications of Large Technological Systems. Science in Context, 6(2): 377–403.
  • Latour, B. (1993). We Have Never Been Modern (C. Porter, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Section 4.10: Even a Longer Network Remains Local at All Points, 117–120.
  • Beckert, S. (2014). Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York City: Knopf. Chapter 8: Making Cotton Global, 199–241.

See also:

  • Mattelart, A. (2000). Networking the World, 1794–2000. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Splintered Infrastructure, Fragmented Cities

  • Graham, S., and S. Marvin. (2001). Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. New York: Routledge.
  • McFarlane, C., and J. Rutherford. (2008). Political Infrastructures: Governing and Experiencing the Fabric of the City. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32(2), 363–374.
  • Larkin, B. (2013). The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology, 42(1), 327–343.

Social Dimensions of Infrastructure

Politics through Infrastructure

  • Easterling, K. (2014). Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. New York City: Verso.
  • Agamben, G. (2005). State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Global Infrastructure Networks

  • Carse, A. (2014). Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal. MIT Press. In particular, Chapter 1: The Machete and the Freighter, 1–24.
  • Barry, A. (2006). Technological Zones. European Journal of Social Theory, 9(2), 239–253.
  • Easterling, K. (2016). History of Things That Don’t Happen and Shouldn’t Always Work. Social Research, 83(3), 625–644.

See also:

  • Simone, A. (2015). Passing Things Along: (In)completing Infrastructure. New Diversities, 17(2), 151–162.
  • Filion, P., & Keil, R. (2016, early release). Contested Infrastructures: Tension, Inequity and Innovation in the Global Suburb. Urban Policy and Research. 1–13.
  • Varnelis, K., Ed. (2009). The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. Barcelona: Actar.

From Free Zones to Smart Cities across the Global South and North

  • Chen, X. (1995). The Evolution of Free Economic Zones and the Recent Development of Cross-National Growth Zones. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 19(4), 593–621.
  • Watson, V. (2014). African Urban Fantasies: Dreams or Nightmares. Environment and Urbanization, 26(1), 215–231.
  • Shelton, T., M. Zook, and A, Wiig. (2015). The ‘Actually Existing Smart City.’ Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 8(1), 13–25.
  • Luque-Ayala, A., & Marvin, S. (2016). The Maintenance of Urban Circulation: An Operational Logic of Infrastructural Control. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 34(2), 191–208.
  • Datta, A. (2015). New Urban Utopias of Postcolonial India: ‘Entrepreneurial Urbanization’ in Dholera Smart City, Gujarat. Dialogues in Human Geography, 5(1): 3–22.

See also:

  • Bratton, B. (2016). The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Logistics, Energy, and Environmental Networks

  • Bond, P. (2014). The Political Economy of Water Management: Neoliberalism and Social Resistance in South Africa. Proceedings from: Durban Water and Sanitation Policies, Projects and Politics. Source:
  • Johnson, C., & Derrick, M. (2012). A Splintered Heartland: Russia, Europe, and the Geopolitics of Networked Energy Infrastructure. Geopolitics, 17(3), 482–501.
  • Cowen, D. (2014). The Deadly Life of Logistics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Chapter 5: Logistics Cities: The ‘Urban Heart’ of Empire, 163–195.

See also:

  • Birtchnell, T., Savitzky, S., & Urry, J. (Eds.). (2015). Cargomobilities: Moving Materials in a Global Age. New York City: Routledge.
  • Carse, A., & Lewis, J. A. (2016, early release). Toward a Political Ecology of Infrastructure Standards: Or, How to Think about Ships, Waterways, Sediment, and Communities Together. Environment and Planning A, 1–20.
  • Brewster, D. (2016, early release). Silk Roads and Strings of Pearls: The Strategic Geography of China’s New Pathways in the Indian Ocean. Geopolitics, 1–23.
  • Cowen, D. (2017). Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance. Source:

Neoliberal Infrastructure, Neoliberal Planning

  • Flyvbjerg, B. (2005). Machiavellian Megaprojects. Antipode, 37(1), 18–22.
  • Flyvbjerg, B. (2005). Policy and Planning for Large Infrastructure Projects: Problems, Causes, Cures. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3781, 1–32.
  • Swyngedouw, E., F. Moulaert, & A. Rodriguez. (2002). Neoliberal Urbanization in Europe: Large–scale Urban Development Projects and the New Urban Policy. Antipode, 34(3), 542–577.
  • Enright, T. (2013). Mass Transportation in the Neoliberal City: The Mobilizing Myths of the Grand Paris Express. Environment and Planning A, 45(4), 797–813.

See also:

  • Olds, K. (1995). Globalization and the Production of New Urban Spaces: Pacific Rim Megaprojects in the Late 20th Century. Environment and Planning A 27(11), 1713–1743.
  • Jonas, A. E. G., A. While, & D. Gibbs. (2010). Managing Infrastructural and Service Demands in New Economic Spaces: The New Territorial Politics of Collective Provision. Regional Studies, 44(2), 183–200.

Financing Global Infrastructure

  • Ashton, P., M. Doussard, & R. Weber. (2012). The Financial Engineering of Infrastructure Privatization: What Are Public Assets Worth to Private Investors. Journal of the American Planning Association, 78(3), 300–312.
  • Sclar, E. (2015). The Political Economics of Investment Utopia: Public–Private Partnerships for Urban Infrastructure Finance. Journal of Economic Policy Reform, 18(1), 1–15.
  • Loftus, A., & H. March. (2016). Financializing Desalination: Rethinking the Returns of Big Infrastructure. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40(1), 46–61.

Case Study: Building Global Infrastructure: World Bank Group to McKinsey & Co.

Case Study: Developing Global Infrastructure in Manchester, England

  • Kasarda, J., and G. Lindsay. (2011). Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. New York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Read Introduction, 3–24.
  • Haughton, G. et al. (2016, early release). Mythic Manchester: Devo Manc, the Northern Powerhouse and Rebalancing the English Economy. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 1–16.
  • Wong, C., & B. Webb. (2014). Planning for Infrastructure: Challenges to Northern England. Town Planning Review, 85(6), 683–708.

See also:

From Global to Inter-Planetary Infrastructure: Terraforming Mars

See also:

  • Barbrook, R., and A. Cameron. (1996). The Californian Ideology. Science as Culture, 6(1), 44–72.
  • Armstrong, R. (2014). Space is an Ecology for Living In. Architectural Design. 84(6), 128–33.
Middlewood Locks, a massive residential real estate development in Salford, directly adjacent to central Manchester and largely funded by Chinese investment. Photo by Alan Wiig, April 2016.