Infrastructures and the Question of Access

Reflections on discussions in Group A by Meghan Downes

A core component of the Transregional Academy program is the participants’ ongoing project presentations, and throughout the week we shared and discussed our research in small groups. In Group A, like in all the groups, our projects were on very different regions and we brought a wide variety of different disciplinary perspectives to the table. This diversity of regions and backgrounds and approaches made for lively and productive discussions, generating new insights into our individual projects and also into broader scholarly debates about infrastructure and urbanisation. One key term that we found useful to draw connections between our projects was ‘access,’ a term that can also help us to incorporate notions of justice and inclusion into infrastructure scholarship.

Our first project presentation on Monday afternoon was Nick Smith’s paper, ‘Learning to Build Cities and Subjects in Late-Socialist China,’ which looked at the fascinating history of the Shekou Industrial Zone as a kind of ‘urban laboratory’ for experimenting with different kinds of development (and democracy) practices in China during the 1980s. On Tuesday morning, Sonja Ganseforth took us to Jericho with her paper, ‘Occupying Infrastructures: Contested Development in Palestine.’ Focusing on a Japanese development project, the ‘Corridor for Peace and Prosperity’ in the Jordan Valley, this paper explored the countless challenges and contradictions and complexities of international development aid processes, particularly in highly politicised contexts and occupied territories. Later that day, Matthew Archer’s paper ‘Sustainable Supply Chains in the Age of Big Data’ left us all feeling very sceptical about tea certification processes, after revealing that the increasing business imperative for data/measurements/reporting on sustainability can often have little impact on (and in some cases even undermine) actual sustainable practices. Stefan Hübner provoked and intrigued us on Wednesday morning with the idea of the floating city in his paper ‘From Tokyo Bay to Climate Change: Why Industrial Oceanic Urbanization has Boomed, Busted and Resurfaced since the 1970s’. On Wednesday afternoon, I presented my paper ‘Media, Marketing, and Morality in the Meikarta Development Project.’ We watched several clips from the Lippo Group’s advertising campaign for ‘Meikarta,’ a new city being built in Indonesia as a kind of escape from the congested and polluted capital Jakarta, and discussed the role of media and popular culture in shaping and reflecting popular ideas about infrastructure and urbanisation. Our final presentation was Busarin Lertchavalitsakul’s ‘Contested Lands and Medical Services: ‘Border Bureaucracy’ and ‘Ambiguous Infrastructures’ in the Myanmar-Thailand Borderlands.’ Busarin introduced us to a particular checkpoint established by Thailand in 2015 as a highly useful site for examining the ambiguous impacts of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ border infrastructures on the everyday lives of people living on/around/between borders.

All these projects were at different stages – some were initial fieldwork reflections, others were project proposals, others were being revised to be submitted as journal articles or book chapters, and I think we all got some really valuable feedback and suggestions for moving forward with these pieces.

The issue of access ran through all the projects. Infrastructures enabled, but they also seemed to divide between those who had access to resources and special territoriality that infrastructures created and those who had little agency in decision-making and access. Busarin’s work with borders is very much about mobility and access in a clear physical sense. Sonja’s project is also centrally concerned with borders and territories and resource access (her detailed maps of autonomous/semi-autonomous/occupied territories were quite striking). My analysis of the Meikarta campaign highlights socio-economic inclusion/exclusion from utopian new city projects, and Stefan’s floating cities also raise questions of access and inclusion/exclusion: who will be able to occupy these cities, and how will the cities themselves legally occupy ocean space? Matthew’s research into sustainability certification processes involves a whole range of different types of access: market access, supply chain access, data access, and so on. Market access is also a big part of Nick’s Shekou story, and becomes connected here in very interesting ways with ideas of democracy and political access.

Arguably, all of our projects deal with ‘special zones’ in one way or another; the kind of power relations that ‘accrete’ in and around these spaces; and also how these zones come into existence through their interactions and intersections with other zones. The term infrastructure can often have connotations of being fairly neutral and apolitical, but by adding the idea of ‘access’ into the mix, it really highlights the processes of inclusion and exclusion that occur around any kind of (hard/soft/metaphorical) infrastructure.

Meghan Downes

Meghan Downes is a research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University Australia. Her research areas include environmental and digital humanities, urban youth, and the politics of media and popular culture, with a particular focus on Southeast Asia. She has previously held a postdoctoral research fellowship at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, in the interdisciplinary Asian Urbanisms research cluster. She completed her PhD at the Australian National University and is also the recipient of two Australian government Endeavour Awards for her research on contemporary Indonesia.


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