The Metasystemic RoadTrip

What is infrastructure? Personally it is not something I often think about, and it is probably a safe bet that most people don’t really think about it either, even though we all use it every day for a wide variety of things. These systems are so deeply embedded into our lives that we don’t notice them until they stop working for us, something we became ironically aware of on our road trip up the M6.

We were heading north because we had been invited to Manchester to help facilitate at the “City Infrastructure Lab”, hosted by Future Everything. Suddenly infrastructure got real.

The event brought together city planners and commissioners, researchers of diverse backgrounds and generally those working with and around infrastructure in Manchester. Their aim, to identify opportunities for action and generate ideas in response. Working in mixed teams to develop concepts into useable products and services, the outcomes then used to inform the development of the Greater Manchester Open Data Infrastructure Map.

The Lab was led by experts in foresight, urbanism and civic innovation from FutureEverything, Future Cities Catapult and the Digital Catapult. We kicked things off with a talk from Paul Graham Raven titled ‘The Metasystemic Perspective: what is infrastructure, how do people use it, and how does that change?’ If this sounds complex, it’s because it was. Paul is currently working on a PhD around this subject and delivered to the group, a rapid deep dive into the complexities of the deeply rooted, and interconnected, everyday necessities that many of us never even think about.

Paul’s talk was followed by a presentation by Vincent Walsh, founder and director of The Biospheric foundation. He shared some of the research and development projects they’ve been working on centred around the investigation advanced ecological urban systems. This inspiring talk stimulated ideas for potential alternative solutions which are more self-sustaining and eco-friendly in line Manchester’s aspirations for the future.

These provocations caused us to reflect on our own experiences of design and its application in broader context. Myself and Daniel have spent the last 6 months looking at how we can apply design to local government, as a means of creating new services that answer real people’s needs and redesigning existing services to better deliver their intended value.

One of the biggest takeaways that we can apply to our practice is that very often we are not designing infrastructures themselves rather new ways of interfacing with them. This is where it becomes clear that different design disciplines are needed to create holistic solutions to huge, complex and interconnected problems (wicked problems). We need to find new ways to use the existing infrastructures in our cities and also consider how they will be affected when we design and implement new facilities and systems.

Designing effective methods to do this can be incredibly complex so for us it was an incredibly rich learning experience for us to be involved in the Manchester’s city infrastructure lab where the approach to the event was to intentionally combine these various design disciplines. Much like a jam, it was underpinned by design thinking processes in a co-creative environment and facilitators worked to help unlock and connect the expertise in the room to tackle wicked problems, incorporating systems thinking.

Manchester are clearly taking great strides to consider how their systems and infrastructures will meet their aspirations for the 21st century. What was most interesting about this experience was the leading roles allocated to the creatives and designers; to steer, connect and build the conversation and to creatively weave various ideas into solutions that can work for all.

To get you thinking here is a hard hitting and comic analysis of America’s infrastructure by one of Birmingham’s (UK) favorite sons, John Oliver: