Off the Grid: Relational Infrastructures for Fragile Futures

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science

Abstract

The creation of resilient infrastructures to meet basic human needs is a major environmental, economic and political challenge for our time. Confronted with fiscal and ecological crises the question of what infrastructures for health and energy will look like, in particular, is of great significance for our future wellbeing. Yet our ideas about infrastructure are changing. Across very different global contexts of wealth, economic growth and chronic poverty the connection of people to infrastructural grids - both literally (to wires, cables and pylons) and metaphorically (to planned, national systems of service provision) - is no longer seen as a sustainable or achievable model for delivering health and energy.

From spaces of alternative living in Scotland, to spaces of social entrepreneurship in India, to spaces of state fragility in Papua New Guinea we find the proliferation of de-centralised models for accessing health and energy that are not premised on the connection of people to grids but on the capacities of their social networks. The idea of being, living and sustaining life 'off the grid' has become immensely influential, mobilising people, driving policies, shaping politics and attracting finance. Yet there is an urgent need for further empirical research on the relationships that determine whether infrastructures succeed or fail in these places and how inclusive and sustainable those infrastructural relationships are. As concepts such as 'resilience' are criticised within the social sciences the academy needs to develop new concepts for theorising 'off the grid' infrastructures and new ways of communicating these concepts that makes them accessible and deployable by key stakeholders.

Over its 18-month timetable this project will build up three case studies of health and energy infrastructure in three radically different places that are constructed, imagined and experienced as off-the grid. This is an empirical starting point for theorising all infrastructures as relational (that is, as the complex of historic interactions and exchanges between people, technologies and the material environment that structure and sustain human life) and for exploring what kinds of relationships may constitute future infrastructures for health and energy. By comparing 'off the grid' living in contexts of wealth (Scotland), growth (India) and poverty (Papua New Guinea) this project seeks to encourage academics and policy makers to consider what can be learnt in the UK from other global contexts and to transcend traditional boundaries between the social and economic study of developed and developing countries. In doing so the project will transform our conceptual vocabularies for talking about infrastructure across the social sciences and make 'relational infrastructure' a major new object of social scientific enquiry.

The questions driving our comparisons include: what makes relational infrastructures resilient or fragile? Are they fair or do they perpetuate inequalities? How does life 'off the grid' remain dependent on grids for transportation, telecommunications, and governance? What can our case studies tell us about how infrastructures operate in times of crisis?

The project lays out a pathway to impact by visualising and communicating theory and research in accessible ways. A collaboration between two anthropologists and a digital theorist lies at the heart of the project. Collaborations with practising artists and infographic journalists will be built into the project from the outset. The visual tools and anthropological visualisations that result are intended to make the idea of 'relational infrastructure' available to health and energy policy makers as they seek new conceptual tools to plan for fragile futures.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit?
This research project will make the idea of relational infrastructure available to policy makers, practitioners and wider publics as they seek new ways to address the challenges of delivering energy and health in contexts of wealth, growth and global poverty. It will have widespread appeal to a range of stakeholder communities from beneficiaries in government, the private sector and the third sector. This research and its outputs will be of particular interest to:

(i) Policy makers in UK government (DfiD, DECC, DH).
(ii) Think tanks (Overseas Development Institute, Centre for Economic and Social inclusion, Centre for Social Justice, International Institute for Environment and Development, Forum for the Future, National Institute for Economic and Social Research, New Economics Foundation, Renewable Energy Foundation).
(iii) NGOs/INGOs working in the fields of energy and health access in India and Papua New Guinea (UNICEF, Practical Action).
(iv) In addition the research will also be of interest to journalists from news and media organisations that cover health and energy issues and are actively engaged in working to visualize social scientific research findings for their readers (The Guardian, New Statesman, Prospect, New Internationalist, Wired).

Though these stakeholders have divergent interests, each will benefit from enhanced understanding of the motives, values, and experiences of organisations outside their networks.

How will they benefit?
As researchers and policy makers in the UK Department of International Development, the Department of Energy & Climate Change and the Department of Health ask how to build future health systems (e.g. Bloom and Standing, 2008) and low carbon economies (e.g. Stern, 2006) this project provides concrete examples of the relationships on which these infrastructures will depend. This research sets out to transform the way in which government policy makers, policy researchers and advisors think about infrastructure in order to enhance their understanding of the importance of social relationships and histories for the ability of localized infrastructures to succeed. We anticipate that in the future infrastructure will be talked and written about in relational terms.

The project will also provide empirical case studies of 'off the grid infrastructures' that will encourage policy makers, researchers and advisors to question the widespread celebration of 'off the grid' resilience. In particular, we anticipate findings will demonstrate some of the ways in which 'off the grid' infrastrutures in places such as India or Scotland continue to depend on public services, and the limitations of social capital and networks in substituting for public infrastructures in places like Papua New Guinea. This will have implications both for policies in international development and for health and energy policy in the UK.

The development of new visual techniques for communicating social science research will help to transform the way in which policy makers and media organisations engage with academia. We anticipate that our visualisations will provide media outlets with novel material for publication and will encourage them to seek out further collaborations with social scientists in the future.

Publications

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Cross J (2016) Current in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies

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Cross, J (2015) The Digital Hydroelectric in Cultural Anthropology

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Street A (2014) Food as pharma: marketing nutraceuticals to India's rural poor in Critical Public Health

 
Title David Lemm Illustrations 
Description Artworks generated through an art-science residency on the Isle of Eigg that expired relationships between maps and infrastructure 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact Reached a wide audience through an exhibition in Edinburgh hosted at the Printmakers Gallery, was shortlisted for the Association of Illustrators World Illustration Awards and was displayed at Somerset House in London. In doing so it engaged other artists in new ways of collaborating with social scientists and communicated the projects findings concerning the importance of maps as social as well as technical artefacts to the wider public. 
URL http://www.theaoi.com/awards/awards-shortlist.php?catid=&type=2&page=2#
 
Title Health and Energy Infrastructures - Visual Narrative Templates 
Description An interactive online map that guides viewers through 'stories' of energy and health infrastructure in Papua New Guinea and Scotland. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact Potential impacts include for the social sciences in terms of new methods for visualising ethnographic data in accessible ways; can be given to policy audiences and practitioners as a way of communicating research findings 
URL http://www.lifeoffthegrid.net/papua-new-guinea.php
 
Title Mark Doyle Illustrations 
Description 12 Illustrations to accompany our ethnography - the product of a collaboration between myself and an Edinburgh based artist, Mark Doyle. Will be used in publications and websites. 
Type Of Art Image 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact Too early to say 
 
Title Off grid data lightbulb 
Description A 'hacked' lightbulb that enables people on Knoydart on the West Coast of Scotland to see how much energy is available for consumption. Also linked to a digital photo frame that forms part of a mobile exhibition. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact Widely reported in the Scottish press. The supplier of the lightbulb has expressed an interest in scaling up the project for use across the West Coast. 
URL https://github.com/Mehrpouya/PowerOfKnoydart/tree/master/KnoydartFrame
 
Title Off grid data lightbulb 
Description A 'hacked' lightbulb that enables people on Knoydart on the West Coast of Scotland to see how much energy is available for consumption. Also linked to a digital photo frame that forms part of a mobile exhibition. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact Widely reported in the Scottish press. The supplier of the lightbulb has expressed an interest in scaling up the project for use across the West Coast. 
URL https://github.com/Mehrpouya/PowerOfKnoydart/tree/master/KnoydartFrame
 
Description This research has comprised ethnographic fieldwork in three locations: Papua New Guinea, India and Scotland. Findings have concerned the 'relationality' of infrastructure. Physical infrastructures do not work independently of the social relationships in which they are embedded.

Health: Policy makers and academics have not always explored the role of infrastructure in sustaining health systems, nor considered the relationships on which that infrastructure depends. This research has generated concrete examples of health infrastructure, what it is, what it looks like and how it works. It has found out that technological solutions to 'off grid' health systems in Papua New Guinea often depend on the volunteer labour of target communities in order to work and that these relationships are becoming more fragile with the introduction of donor funded payments for some schemes. It has found out that the restructuring of routine and emergency health services for the highlands and islands region of Scotland is putting substantial pressure on communities to provide volunteer labour. Lastly it found that attempts to introduce private-sector driven infrastructures for addressing malnutrition in South India were largely unsuccessful because they remained too expensive for poor families without access to land.

Energy: This research has explored the social networks through which energy infrastructures are sustained, built and sold in Papua New Guinea, India and Scotland. It has discovered that lighting systems in rural Papua New Guinea are highly dependent on battery-based energy sources. It has found that solar lighting technologies in rural India do not take full advantage of the country's 'jugaad' traditions of fixing and mending, and that solar lanterns could be improved through more 'open' forms of design. It has found that the generation of digital data 'off grid' electrification schemes on the West Coast of Scotland is presenting both new challenges and opportunities for community mobilisation and organisation around energy infrastructure.

Methods: The research project has developed new visual methodologies for social science. This includes an open-source narrative mapping platform that enables social scientists to present qualitative research findings in a widely accessible visual format. We have developed a series of collaborative workshops with artists and designers which provide a template for art-science collaboration in the future.
Exploitation Route Our findings are useful for three audiences:
1) Social scientists interested in studying infrastructure. We have developed new experimental methods for engaging with practitioners and new forms of visual dissemination that will help social scientists to both explore and participate in the relationships that sustain health and energy infrastructures.
2) Policy makers concerned with how to design and maintain sustainable infrastructures for health and energy. Our research on energy infrastructures has given rise to series of experimental interventions, from the introduction of 'solar score cards' for industry, to the creation of an internet-based solar repair network in India, to the development of new interactive devices that help people regulate energy consumption on the West Coast of Scotland. In relation to health, findings concerning the burden of work that many 'off-grid' health systems place on target communities is important for policy makers who need to plan for long-term sustainability.
3) Artists, designers and the creative industries interested in engaging with the social sciences as part of their practice. Our mobile exhibitions and collaboration with Edinburgh based artists has both transformed the way those artists work with social science themes and materials, and enabled our own research to reach a wider audience.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Energy,Healthcare

URL http://www.lifeoffthegrid.net
 
Description Energy related impact: 1. Off Grid Solar Scorecard: In 2015 in collaboration with SVTC and the Turing Trust, a UK Charity, Cross launched the Off Grid Solar Scorecard, an initiative that introduced new international standards for reparability and sustainable design into the off grid solar industry. The Off Grid Solar Scorecard is an online tool that allows people to evaluate the sustainable design of pico-solar products sold in Sub Saharan Africa and South Asia by disassembling them. The solar score card evaluates the capacity of solar lanterns to be locally repaired. The score card system is designed to (i) extend the lifespan of solar lanterns in hard-to-reach locations (ii) encourage manufacturers to build repair options into their design (iii) reduce solar waste. The tool is the result of consultation with stakeholders across the off grid solar lighting industry and had been endorsed by distributors of solar lighting products in Africa and Asia. 2. In March 2014, in partnership with Scene, an Edinburgh based renewable energy consultancy and India's Energy and Resources Institute, Cross was awarded £60k by the Scottish Government to launch 'Urjaa Samadhan', an SMS based solar repair system for rural Odisha, India. This grant was a practical recognition of the importance of Cross's ESRC funded research into the issues of technological breakdown and failure in off grid solar markets that impede efforts to extend energy access. Urjaa Samadhan has sought to translate qualitative research on solar energy technologies and market failure into a viable non-profit social enterprise capable of both generating livelihood opportunities in the informal repair economy and significantly extending the lifetime of solar photovoltaic systems. In 2015 Urjaa Samadhan was runner up 'Social Impact Technology of the Year in the annual Business Green Technology Awards. In 2016 six solar power distribution and installation companies in Odisha began using Urjaa Samadhan's suite of SMS and web based tools to extend their repair and maintenance networks. 3. In 2015 in partnership with the Knoydart Foundation, Cross launched the UK's first 'renewable energy data light bulb' that connected a lightbulb to a live feed of community electricity data and presented an innovative alternative way of managing energy demand. The lightbulb responded to the ESRC Off the Grid project findings, which identified the ways that 'smart' or digital devices, information systems and logics are changing relationships to technical systems and reshaping the conditions of possibility with which people encounter electricity off the grid. The installation in Knoydart - preliminary and provisional - offered a unique starting point for people and organisations interested in linking the future of lighting design to our low carbon future and was profiled by the Scottish Mail, the Telegraph, and the Times, by Philips and the BBC (Landward 6th June 2016). Art practice related impact: 1. We worked closely with Scottish based artists to develop new methods for incorporating ethnographic methods into art practice and ethnographic findings into artistic outputs. This led directly to two artists generating new bodies of anthropology/ethnography informed work. One of those bodies of work was subsequently displayed in a solo exhibition in Edinburgh and a display at Somerset House in London. These impacts were achieved through (i) a three day micro-residency held with 10 artists, illustrators and designers to develop artworks out of the findings from our ESRC supported research (ii) a collaboration with an illustrator to develop new ways of 'telling stories' with our findings (iii) an ethnographer/artist residency on the Isle of Eigg to explore the meanings of being 'off grid' through mapping and way finding.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Energy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services

 
Description CHSS Challenge Investment Fund
Amount £15,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Edinburgh 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 06/2015
 
Description CHSS Knowledge Exchange Grant
Amount £3,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Edinburgh 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2014 
End 06/2014
 
Title Online Narrative Mapping Platform 
Description An open source online mapping software that enables social scientists to visualise qualitative research in highly accessible ways. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact Too early to say 
 
Description Micro-Residency (Artists) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 3 day Micro-Residency for 10 artists to collaborate with 'Off the Grid' team and generate visualisations of ethnographic data. Culminated in a public 'pop-up' exhibition attended by over 60 people.

After this event I was invited to contribute to the catalogue and provide an opening talk for the artist, David Lemm's solo exhibition, to be held at The Printmakers, Edinburgh in February 2014.
After this event an arts charity, The Bothy Project, invited us to participate in an artist residency project on the Isle of Eigg.
After this event we invited one of the participating artists, Mark Doyle, to collaborate further in the production of visualisations to accompany the research project's findings.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.lifeoffthegrid.net/ethnograms
 
Description Our Changing World Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A public lecture as part of the University of Edinburgh 'Our Changing World' lecture series to an audience of 300 people. I was approached by 6 audience members after the lecture to ask further questions about my work. On You Tube the lecture has been viewed by more than 200 people.

I have received several emails from members of the public and been invited to be interviewed for a local radio station.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HehA7XmUzHM
 
Description Supported Residency 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A supported residency on the Isle of Eigg involved three workshops with residents, a collaborative mapping workshop, a school-based print-making workshop, and an adult print-making workshop. These events sparked discussion afterwards about the role of maps as infrastructure, and contributed to the collaboration between myself and the artist.

After these talks the artist was keen to incorporate anthropological thinking and methods into future artistic projects. The residents of Eigg invited the 'Off the Grid' team to return to run a longer workshop on visualisation and anthropology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.thebothyproject.org/supported-programme/university-of-edinburgh-david-lemm/