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Award-winning monograph explores how to source and utilize data to improve cities


In a new thought-provoking monograph, Dietmar Offenhuber, an architect, information designer and urban planner, challenges the way practitioners think about waste, infrastructure and urban governance.

Published last month by MIT Press, Waste in Information: Infrastructure Legibility and Governance explores how data can be sourced, used and governed to improve cities. On Friday, Oct. 6, Offenhuber’s work was recognized with the ASCINA award for Austrian scientists in North America.

Here, Offenhuber, assistant professor of public policy and urban affairs, explains the role of design in governance and how the infrastructure of waste management can shed light on pressing issues facing digital society.


Q: How did you become interested in the role of design in infrastructure governance?

A: As an architect, information designer and urban planner, I have always been interested in how we experience and “read” urban systems. In the case of infrastructures such as waste systems “we” refers to actors such as the public works department, companies, field operators, activists and residents – each of them sees the system differently, and never in its completeness. My book is based on the idea that all these partial legibilities of a system shape its governance discourse. How a powerful group perceives a system is a strong driver of policy.


Q: In your monograph Seattle, São Paulo, and Boston are used as case studies. What drew your attention to these three cities, and how are they good examples of infrastructure legibility and governance?

A: Seattle is considered environmentally one of the most advanced cities in the U.S. that ships a large part of its recyclables and electronics to Asia and the rest of the U.S. I was interested in its role in the global waste system.

São Paulo is the birthplace of the waste picker movement in Latin America, and the government has introduced very interesting policy for integrating waste pickers into the formal systems. Here, I was interested in how informal waste systems and formal systems relate to each other.

Finally, Boston is one of the leaders in civic technology, experimenting with new technologies for making urban governance more responsive to citizen needs. Here, I was interested in new participatory modes to provide waste management and public services.


Q: What did you try to accomplish with your monograph? Who would benefit the most from reading it?

A: The book should be interesting from the perspective of emerging fields, such as urban informatics, dealing with questions of how data can be collected and utilized to improve cities. Among architects, planners, sociologists, and designers there is currently also a lot of interest in studying infrastructures and all the social and cultural practices that are connected to them. Waste systems are very elusive, complex and multifaceted infrastructures, and they are usually discussed from an environmental or social justice perspective. I think that waste systems have a much larger cultural significance, and many of their problems are related to questions of design.


Q: How have you translated the research you conducted for this project to your design and public policy courses at Northeastern?

A: In visualization and urban informatics, it is definitely a large part. I also work as an advisor for the United Nations Development Programme on infrastructure projects in Moldova and Kosovo, where I was able to apply many of these issues directly.


Published On: October 10, 2017 |
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