Repairing a “smart” infrastructure: Sustainability orientations in tension between infrastructuring publics

photo project

The following text was written by Madison Snider, Research Fellow at Siegel Family Endowment, and reflects her presentation at our Closing Conference, “Repairing Technology – Fixing Society?” from 13-14 October 2022 in Luxemburg.


Those leading the charge toward innovation and investment in new “smart” infrastructure projects often have more power than those whose objective is the maintenance and repair of infrastructures across an institution. Despite interventions to reconcile this power disparity and include maintenance/repair-centered design insights into new infrastructure projects, technosolutionist innovation toward a particular definition of sustainability and its associated aesthetics are prioritized (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2015; Hall & Smith, 2015; Houston et al., 2016; Henke & Sims, 2020). Analysis of infrastructuring publics at a large research university in the United States in the process of becoming a “smart” campus illuminates a foundational tension in orientations to sustainability as drivers for technology innovation and subsequent disrepair. A technosolutionist sustainability orientation is closely aligned with the extraction of data from the environment as a means for knowledge creation toward informed policy-making. “Smart” energy systems increase the complexity of maintaining and repairing critical infrastructures. A maintenance/repair sustainability orientation hinges on the desire to keep things working, which includes supporting the labor this requires. Application of an infrastructuring public framework makes visible distinct value alignments in tension between infrastructuring publics, leading to an invisibilization and devaluation of repair and maintenance needs.



The findings presented are the product of two years of ethnographic research on a large public university in the western United States. The data were collected as part of a three-year NSF-funded research project investigating the communication and collaboration practices of operations and maintenance (O&M) and information technology (IT) teams within an increasingly datafied built environment (i.e. a university campus). Expanding from this project, the author pursued additional interviews with maintenance/repair professionals including window washers, building services managers, and custodians. The analysis brings together in-depth interview data with participant observation field notes from construction meetings spanning multiple projects on campus, and ongoing strategic meetings between O&M and IT professionals. Additionally, this analysis benefits from the insights gleaned from in-depth interviews with leaders in O&M, IT, and design and construction teams. The data collected for this analysis is the culmination of over 170 hours of observation and 31 interviews.

Infrastructuring publics, as defined by Dantec & DiSalvo (2013), are collectives that take part in the creation and maintenance of the sociotechnical resources that enable and continue the life of an infrastructure. In the context of a large public university, the number and variety of infrastructuring publics are vast, and consideration of all possible publics is outside the scope of this analysis. However, infrastructuring publics are used here as a framework for making sense of the interconnectedness of user/occupant groups with a stake in the built infrastructures – including “smart” infrastructures – being impacted by rapid datafication of the built environment through the introduction of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and systems.

From this analysis two distinct orientations toward sustainability emerged and are conceptualized as infrastructuring publics. Practices of repair in the processes of introduction and maintenance of emerging technologies expand both what ties each infrastructuring public to the university and what makes these publics distinct, and perhaps in tension with one another. In the context of sociotechnical change in the datafication of campus, a relational understanding of what success in this process can and should be, paired with evidence for maintenance and repair toward these ends, becomes an analytical framework for understanding the process better.


Results and discussion

“Smart” infrastructuring as a work value reflects the values of technosolutionism that favor “smart” technology introduction and increasing datafication of the built environment as the driver of change to collective relationships with the built and natural environment, work, and social life. Environmental and economic sustainability as a work value reflects a dual interest in minimizing energy resource consumption on campus for environmental and economic benefits, and this often – though not necessarily – involves “smart” infrastructuring as a solution. Infrastructural maintenance as a work value focuses on the sustained operability of “smart” and non-“smart” infrastructures and places value on maintaining infrastructures that already exist over adding new things. These distinct value alignments create tensions between infrastructuring publics within the institution, leading to the eventual invisibilization and devaluation of repair and maintenance needs.

The preference of institutional leadership for continual new infrastructure construction even as older infrastructure fell into disrepair constrained the possible activities for both building teams and maintenance/repair teams moving forward. The lack of power that maintenance/repair teams had over the construction of their own workplaces is perhaps not surprising. How many of us have much say in the construction of our workplace? However, what is notable is the ways in which this socio-economic system was substantiated in the communication of what makes a project successful. It is not just a matter of numbers. The strains on labor in maintenance and repair for the built environments on campus would be an issue if new buildings were being constructed with a similar level of technological complexity as the existing infrastructure on campus. However, the labor issues were augmented by the fact that not only were these projects increasing the overall square footage of maintenance/repair teams’ responsibility; they were also more technologically complex because of the integration of networked systems that were touted as “smart” and/or “green.” These words indicated to the maintenance/repair teams that the new infrastructure project included new networked sensors and systems that required special knowledge for maintenance and repair. The rationale for prioritizing this type of infrastructure even as existing and sometimes historically significant buildings fell into disrepair is in line with the market logic of technosolutionism and data extractivism. “Smart” and “green” buildings, and all their rooms, halls, and even bathrooms, become new sites for the extraction of data to be monetized, analyzed, and visualized. On its own this might not be enough to rationalize the added complexity, but when communicated as a means for achieving sustainability goals, it became much more compelling for the institution, the donors, and the larger community of users/occupants. Many existing buildings were also being retrofitted with some of these same networked systems, but retrofitting is often more complicated and costly as it requires existing and new infrastructures to be integrated, a laborious and technically complicated process.

Prestige and public relations have a considerable influence on this and certainly also on many other sustainability efforts. Most of the building projects referenced by participants in in-depth interviews and participant observations were ongoing or had been completed in the past five years. “Smart” and “green” design of new buildings on campus resulted in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certifications, national architectural awards, and a deluge of positive press for the university, as well as the construction teams and contractors involved in the projects. However, maintenance/repair teams who often only learn about the building’s components and the impact on their responsibilities after handoff were left scrambling to integrate the building’s needs into their already strained workload. The amalgamation of aesthetic and technosolutionist design decisions resulted in inefficiencies, safety concerns, and disrepair – all of which, in time, will lessen the sustainability or environmental impact of the infrastructure.



This analysis illuminates distinct orientations to sustainability and the tensions that arise between these orientations. These findings set the stage conceptually and empirically as a meta-analysis of an underlying phenomenon within the current political economic context of the university and beyond. Cases from the field, including the design of a “smart” water reuse metering system and exterior solar fins, illustrate the differences between infrastructuring publics constituted by user/occupant groups across the institution in terms of their relationship with new technology, their values and expectations for data extracted from these technologies, and their orientation to maintenance and repair. “Smart” design choices are made in a context of siloed communication between workers tasked with maintenance/repair and those who commission, design, and deliver new infrastructure to the institution. This power disparity, communicatively constructed, has implications not only for the maintenance/repair workforce that is increasingly overburdened and underfunded but also for the institution and the larger community of users as critical facilities fall into disrepair. The eventual disrepair of facilities contradicts the overarching objectives of innovation and sustainability-driven decision-making.

The findings support the need for infrastructuring work and sociotechnical system-building to engage with stakeholders beyond the decision-making and power-wielding designers and members of executive leadership, and to focus on those who are maintaining and repairing these spaces and systems. Investigations into the sociotechnical impacts of “smart” infrastructures have largely left out the perspectives and experiences of those who maintain and repair them. The findings go beyond highlighting the value of maintenance/repair labor and evidence the necessity of a maintenance-/repair-oriented sustainability approach so that “smart” systems can make good on their promises to create more efficient energy systems.



This research was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF #1932769, “SaTC: CORE: Medium: Knowledge Work and Coordination to Improve O&M and IT Collaboration to Keep Our Buildings Smart AND Secure”).


Works cited 

Dantec, C. A. L., & DiSalvo, C. (2013). Infrastructuring and the formation of publics in participatory design. Social Studies of Science, 43(2), 241–264.

Hall, T., & Smith, R. J. (2014). Care and repair and the politics of urban kindness. Sociology, 49(1).

Henke, C. R., & Sims, B. (2020). Repairing Infrastructures: The Maintenance of Materiality and Power. MIT Press.

Houston, L., Jackson, S. J., Rosner, D. K., Ahmed, S. I., Young, M., & Kang, L. (2016). Values in repair. Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1403–1414.

Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2015). Making time for soil: Technoscientific futurity and the pace of care. Social Studies of Science, 45(5), 691–716.