Report on the Transregional Academy “Infrastructures, Regions and Urbanizations”
by Franz Waldenberger (DIJ Tokyo)
The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland had invited 18 doctoral and postdoctoral scholars from the humanities and social sciences to attend a Transregional Academy convened at the National University of Singapore (NUS) on the topic of “Infrastructures, Regions and Urbanizations”. The Academy was chaired by Weiqiang Lin and James D. Sidaway (National University of Singapore), Franz Waldenberger (Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien, Tokyo) and Simone Lässig (Deutsches Historisches Institut Washington). It was arranged in cooperation with the Asia Research Institute and its director Jonathan Rigg as well as the Max Weber Foundation Research Group on Borders, Mobility and New Infrastructures at NUS.
The participants coming from ten different countries represented diverse cultural and disciplinary backgrounds and research interests. They were split into three discussion groups, that met six times during the one-week program giving each member of the group the opportunity to present and discuss an ongoing research project. Seven parallel sessions, where presenters would introduce leading scholarly contributions related to the overarching theme of the Academy provided additional intellectual input and allowed participants to meet and discuss in different compositions. One public plenary lecture, one roundtable and a closing session offered possibilities for intellectual exchange among all participants. The academic program was complemented by two excursions exploring the city of Singapore.
Infrastructure has become a lively domain of scholarship. Whilst often seemingly mundane and quotidian, the politics, histories and geographies associated with infrastructures invite critical scrutiny and are a mirror to wider, socio-economic, historical-geographical and natural trajectories. Infrastructure has both tangible, material forms, such as roads, cables, wharfs, power and water grids and more intangible forms, such as formalized and informal civil society socio-political networks and institutions. The interactions between these forms and between infrastructures and regions merit examination. Regions include both “areas” as well as the scholarly approaches to them. The latter include a range of area studies traditions and trans-area studies. Infrastructures consolidate and transform uneven development, regional value regimes and landscapes at diverse, interacting and often contested scales. These include territorial states, regional organizations (such as ASEAN, the EU or APEC and the Trans-Pacific Partnership), cross-border formations (such as the Indonesia-Malaysia-Singapore Growth Triangle, sometimes known as SIJORI) and cities.
In regard of latter, the problematique of urbanization has also become a very lively subject of scholarly debate. This includes claims that sociologically and in terms of reconfigurations of space and nature, urban-centred networks span the globe, and hence the development of arguments that the appropriate analytical lens should be “planetary urbanization” bestowing a network perspective on cities, resources and territories. Either way, regions and inter-city dynamics are themselves continually reconfigured by infrastructure. A significant contemporary example, is China’s Belt and Road initiative that promises to reconfigure the spaces of Eurasia and East Asia’s interactions with the rest of Asia, the wider Indian Ocean and beyond into Africa.
Offering ample room for a broad range of topics and multidisciplinary perspectives, the research projects presented by participants covered a wide variety of subjects from supply chains in the age of big data, solar micro-grids, environmental justice, migration, urban and regional development projects, global infrastructure programs, oceanic urbanization, border conflicts to photographic representations of cities. The historic and contemporary examples of cities, regions and borders span across the globe, although several of the urban development projects took examples from India. Justice, poverty and environmental concerns were among the common socio-ecological issues problematized in many of the presentations. One important aspect addressed in the roundtable discussion was the imbalance between the increasing interdependencies created within dense urban as well as global infrastructures and the cognitive abilities of the people connecting to these multi-layered material and virtual networks. The inability to grasp the increasing complexity implies a growing individual ignorance of the total whole and creates fundamental governance issues.
The thematically dense and scholarly demanding one-week program still left room for personal exchange and networking, which, of course, is one of the goals pursued within the event format. Already prior to the start of the Academy, participants were connecting over the virtual platform provided by the Forum for Transregional Studies. The interaction in virtual space continued through and beyond the period of the Academy, providing a useful infrastructure for further transregional debates.