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Modern Architecture

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As societies today struggle to meet existential challenges of planetary change, its human causes and consequences, attention is fixated on the future and the multiple threats it holds. In increasingly urgent debates about climate, environmental and societal crises, talk of the future is drowning out consideration of the past. To many observers, indeed, the past is core to the problem, rather than part of any solution. Whilst activists condemn the past as a shameful era of exploitative carbon capitalism and commentators bemoan the ballast of obdurate social and material structures, politicians are drawing on the language of transition to distance themselves from the past, calling on engineers to generate technological innovations and economists to devise novel ways to incentivize their uptake. In this maelstrom of futures talking, the value of history as a compass for societal orientation is often unrecognised or even misrepresented, as some historians are warning (Edgerton 2007; Tosh 2008; Guldi and Armitage 2014). The proposed project challenges this dismissive approach to the past, using the case of infrastructure to demonstrate how history can be used as an experiential resource to help navigate the multiple crises we are facing today. It contends that the valid call to future-proof infrastructure systems (UNEP 2021; Samuels 2022) – and, by implication, society in general – needs to draw on a sound, critical and inclusive understanding of the past if it is to be effective. This process is characterized here as ‘past-proofing’: a novel term developed for this project to explicate how historical knowledge can enrich decision-making today. 

 

The project’s title – “Pastproofing Infrastructure Futures” – is not, therefore, a contradiction in terms but expresses the importance of history as an essential complement to futures thinking. Making pasts usable for transformative analysis and action, however, demands more robust and systematic analysis than hitherto. 

 

Here lies the core purpose of the proposed project, captured in three research questions:

1: How are usable pasts defined and what forms can they take? 

2: Which pasts of urban technology are potentially usable for infrastructure futures and how can they be researched? 

3: How can historically researched pasts be rendered usable with and for stakeholders to help future-proof urban infrastructures in a sustainable way? 

To this end, Berlin will act as a site of investigation and dissemination. Why Berlin? First, Berlin has a strong history of innovation and creativity in the fields of energy and water infrastructure, meriting the accolade ‘electropolis’ of Europe in the 1920s. It has pioneered many new urban technologies, as well as novel approaches to integrated urban development through infrastructure. Second, Berlin has also been home to protest movements and alternative visions of urban infrastructure since the 1970s. Campaigns to remunicipalize the city’s water and energy utilities since 2010 are merely the most recent expressions of resistance to the infrastructural mainstream. Third, the city’s utilities are today keen to develop ways of adapting their existing infrastructures to the multiple crises facing the city of tomorrow, notably climate change. They have expressed a collective interest in learning how infrastructural history can enrich this process.

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