Q&A with Northeastern Professor Dietmar Offenhuber: Examining visual representations and urban governance
Dietmar Offenhuber’s research could be described as accountability design – focusing on the relationship between visual representations and urban governance.
Offenhuber, an assistant professor of public policy, art and design at Northeastern University, traveled to Manila, Philippines, during the summer to explore in-depth the city’s electricity grid and street lighting system.
He is in the process of writing a paper about his project, “Manila Improstructure,” which was released in early September, but he took a break from his keyboard and computer to chat with us about his findings and how he is encouraging students to undertake similar projects.
“Electricity and light really play a central role, and the local neighborhoods try to figure out ways to deal with that,” Offenhuber said. “It’s a very interesting topic. On the one hand, the location and the social practices that we looked at are very interesting, but, on the other hand, this notion of improvisational infrastructure is also something I want to look at in other contexts as well.”
Q: Why did you decide to investigate infrastructure in Manila?
A: Since 2011, I’ve been co-organizing with a friend a symposium series that also resulted in two books about urban data, its visual representations, and its impact on governance, society and the city. The first one was Inscribing a Square: Urban Data as Public Space (2012) and the other one was Accountability Technologies: Tools for Asking Hard Questions (2013).
My colleague, Katja Schechtner, had started working for the Asian Development Bank in Manila, and for a while we wanted to do a project there, but we wanted to do something different. One of the first things we got interested in are all of these funny street lights that they have because coming from an infrastructure studies background, this is something very unusual. Usually infrastructures are standardized and in the background, not really that much in your face.
Katja had access to some students from Vienna University of Technology. They visited the place in April and mapped out the location of all those street lamps. Then, I went during the summer to do a qualitative study of talking with urban planners, local residents, street level bureaucrats. It’s a very unique situation. If you look at how Manila developed, it was completely destroyed after World War II and it has grown into one of the biggest urban agglomerations of the world. It’s also one of the densest places. It’s a place where urban planners … are not really able to guide this kind of urbanization in any way so they’re improvising. There’s very much space for all kinds of informal choices and agreements.
It’s something that plays a very central role in the lives of everyday citizens and that’s what we want to get at, all these informal practices around electricity. You could say it’s a design ethnography where you look at the design artifact like the street lamp and how the residents and bureaucrats appropriate it and use it. We found a lot of super interesting practices, and it’s really a conversational way of building infrastructure. You have people who steal electricity. You have people who sublease electricity and sell it to street vendors. Then, you have the network that basically breaks down when too many people draw electricity, and you have the electricity company who suddenly comes up with new ways of confronting that. So you have this constant struggle.
Q: What’s the goal of the project?
A: I think we need a better understanding of how infrastructure works. The way how we see infrastructure is usually through these kind of abstract diagrams and idealist structures because you cannot really read it from the streetscape. You’re dealing with an abstract entity. Therefore, we are too much connected to these abstract representations of infrastructure, but that cuts out all those forms of improvisation. All of that is not part of the picture, but it is a necessary piece of it because the whole system would fall apart if people wouldn’t appropriate it in that way. That was basically our main interest in using this artifact to look at infrastructure from a different angle.
Q: In the project, you mention the city is plagued with infrastructure problems, and urban planners are not keeping up with the high rate of change in the city. What do you think can be done to improve the system?
A: It’s always a little problematic to have this arrogance as westerners to visit a place and then say we know how to solve your problems. We can learn from them and from the situation, but I’m not claiming that I can give them any prescriptions of what they should do.
Those people who are at the core of these practices are elected officials, but nevertheless, they act and negotiate with the residents in a completely informal and improvisational way. I wanted to call more attention to the informality inside the formal system and not as the kind of binary opposite. If you look at that, then you see the problems are not so much problems.
Q: What is Manila’s infrastructure’s role in everyday life?
A: Electricity in the Philippines is extremely expensive. It’s one of the most expensive rates of electricity in the world. For poor residents, it’s pretty common that the electricity bill is twice as high as what they pay for rent. It’s a substantial part of their life, and you see all those kinds of improvisations – wires that go everywhere; everything looks very chaotic but at the same time everyone has a very clear understanding. They know exactly how many light bulbs they have, how much power a laundry machine needs so they have a good idea of how much electricity they need.
The local neighborhoods try to figure out ways to deal with that. For example: A neighborhood council has a couple of families that cannot afford electricity so they hooked them up to the street light systems. There’s a corner with no street light so they asked a resident to put up a lamp and this person then maintains it. In other cases, there are street lights owned by the city and the city never repairs them if they’re broken, so people repair it themselves. Those things have a very central role in daily lives.
Q: Do your students work on similar projects that combine visualization with urban governance?
A: Definitely. Right now we have a project with the MBTA at Ruggles Station that is also a lot of fun. We are dealing with the experiential and sensory quality of public space, and we are working with two sound artists who look at the auditory quality of space. We look at these social and political implications of noise, but we’re also looking at sound as a way of reading all those issues in the space. It’s a joint studio between architecture and information design.