Environmental Infrastructures: Comparative Ethnographic Study on Nature, Technology and Environmental Change

Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research

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Research Clusters

Cluster 1: Modeling Ecological Process

Members: Casper Bruun Jensen, Atsuro Morita, Keiichiro Matsumura, Sho Morishita

This cluster aims to shed light on the way in which nature and society become interlinked through scientific efforts to model ecological processes. The way nature influences society is always mediated by concrete knowledge practices. Large-scale scientific initiatives such as atmospheric and hydrological simulations, which are used for forecasting flood and drought events, impact people living in river deltas around the world in significant ways. By focusing on collaborative efforts among researchers building a global water circulation model in laboratories, as well as how this model is being put to use in Thailand in the construction of a flood protection system, this cluster aims to clarify the significant power of scientific modeling in shaping societies’ responses to environmental changes. Combined with research on relations between a drought warning system and local people in Ethiopia, this cluster further shows how emergent environmental infrastructures based on the modeling of ecological processes create new relations and frictions between communities in riverine areas and national and global policy arenas.

Cluster 2: Urban Sustainable Redesign

Members: Anders Blok, Shuhei Kimura, Tak Uesugi, Miho Ishii, Laura Watts

The research projects in this cluster focus on urban infrastructures and on processes through which such physical infrastructures are currently being redesigned with specific environmental concerns in mind. With urbanization processes continuing around the world, cities have emerged as increasingly important spaces for organizing societies’ (over-)extraction of natural resources. Redesigning such urban ecologies entails adding new infrastructural layers on top of existing ones, as part of efforts to move urban spaces and lifestyles in more sustainable directions. For instance, architects in Japan (and elsewhere) are currently engaged in redesigning aspects of the urban housing infrastructure according to ecological criteria. Similarly, select electricity grids in Denmark (and elsewhere) are singled out for “intelligent” redesign, in order to lower energy consumption. While such processes hold out the promise of socio-technical transitions towards sustainability, local urban life also risks being caught up in-between ill-coordinated infrastructures and demands. The redesign of layered infrastructures thus invariably involves a multitude of social groups, actors and interests. Understanding urban sustainable redesign through its layered infrastructures allows us to elucidate infrastructure design as a distributed and politically contested process.

Cluster 3: Governing Eco-standards

Members: Moeko Saito-Jensen, Osamu Nakagawa

The research in this cluster focuses on the role of standards in emerging environmental infrastructures. Standards are crucial devices that allow for governing the environment and for coordinating collaboration in environmental infrastructures. The cluster elucidates the importance of standards in infrastructures from two angles. On the one hand, governing bodies engage in wide-ranging efforts to standardize the environment. This aspect is central to research on the REDD+ policy initiative that aims to reduce carbon emission through sustainable forest management, while also creating commensurability between governance in different countries. On the other hand, a wide variety of eco-standards are developed and implemented, in order to qualify what counts as environmentally friendly, ecological and sustainable. This aspect is engaged by research into eco-standardization schemes, which aim to guarantee the ecological quality of farm products irrespective of where they are made or sold. In both contexts, standardization facilitates co-ordination within specific environmental infrastructures. This cluster elucidates how standards serve to turn internally diverse objects, such as forests and farm produce, into comparable, controllable and governable entities. At the same time, governing through standards also creates tensions and frictions, which need to be at the center of research attention. Standardization thus offers an important vantage point for understanding how environmental infrastructures embody tensions and conflicts between powerful centers, where standards are made, and the various peripheries where standards are put to work, implemented or contested.

Cluster 4: Digitalizing Environmental Knowledge

Members: Keiichi Omura, Moe Nakazora, Brit Ross Winthereik

The focus of this cluster is on current attempts to build new environmental infrastructures by digitalizing different forms of local or indigenous environmental knowledge. Whereas technical and scientific knowledge has long been the focus of digitalization efforts, recent years have also seen increasing efforts to classify and formalize more “informal” knowledge held by local people. Local and indigenous knowledge has come to seem increasingly important. This has happened not least as part of environmental discourses and strategies that promote such knowledge as central to ecological sustainability while also recognizing that there is potential market value to local knowledge. This topic is explored within this cluster in a study of ‘parataxonomy’, where scientists attempt to digitalize the natural knowledge of Indian villagers. Digitalization of local knowledge is also at stake in settings where Danish electricity providers aim to learn from particular areas in rural Denmark how they have reached energy efficiency levels much higher than what is elsewhere possible. The cases of this cluster focus on the zones of interaction and translation, where scientists and technologists meet with local people and work to find ways to represent their knowledge as part of new environmental infrastructures. The cluster elucidates the processes through which local knowledge is digitalized with particular interest in the “trading” and negotiations of meaning that take place in these interactions, and the translations that occur as informal knowledge comes to be formalized.