Infrastructure Breakdowns and Organization: Exploring the Sociomateriality and ‘Becoming’ of Infrastructure by Dr Thijs Willems
Date : 13 Nov 2018
Time : 12:00 - 13:30
Venue : Asia Research Institute, Meeting Room
AS8 Level 7, 10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260
National University of Singapore @ KRC


Dr Connor Graham, Asia Research Institute, and Tembusu College, National University of Singapore


Breakdowns in infrastructures are usually thought of as disrupting an organized order: when the train refuses to start, the railroads do not deliver their services; when the servers are down the Internet cannot be used. In academic literature as well as in the media, much attention is given to these breakdowns. This seminar challenges a core assumption on breakdowns by questioning whether they indeed disrupt the orderly nature of infrastructures. Perhaps infrastructures are better thought of as not being opposed to breakdowns but, more fundamentally, as emerging from and resulting in breakdowns: small ruptures and cracks are always already occurring and, likewise, the system is always already in a state of repair. The question then becomes how infrastructures are sociomaterial phenomena that are in a state of ‘becoming’. Such a processual approach illuminates the complexity of infrastructures: they are at once organizing a social order while simultaneously being organized as they are shaped by imaginations of modernity, speed, and efficiency. The seminar explores these ideas by drawing on an ethnographic study on the Dutch railways. It studies various kinds of breakdowns and its consequences, ranging from a simple delayed train to railroad suicides and complete system disruptions. It then proceeds to aim and understand the sociomateriality and ‘becoming’ of infrastructures in the context of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative. Analyzing the smart city through an infrastructural lens reveals not only how becoming ‘smart’ is dependent and deeply constituted in the organization and construction of digital and non-digital infrastructures but, moreover, how these infrastructures in turn organize and shape citizens and organizations alike in producing what it imagines to be ‘smart’.


Thijs Willems is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. He is an organizational ethnographer who is broadly interested in the meaning of work in sociotechnical organizations. His dissertation focuses on how diverse actors in the Dutch railway system deal with breakdowns. It unravels the tension between managerial aims to reduce the complexity of the system and the ways in which employees through diverse practices and narratives embraced and coped with this complexity. His dissertation ‘Monsters’ and ‘Mess’ on the Railways shows the paradoxical nature of organizing sociotechnical systems: reducing complexity creates complexity. Currently, Thijs Willems studies how digital technologies that are part of the 4th Industrial Revolution change the nature of work in the context of Singapore. He positions parts of his research in Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative. While these digital technologies are often discussed as necessary to ‘keep up’ with other global institutional and economical transformations, they simultaneously contribute to imaginations of a future workforce. This ‘smart’ workforce is imagined to be disembodied, immaterial, and unfolding in a decontextualized environment in which all contingencies are believed to be excluded.


Admission is free. We would greatly appreciate if you click on the "Register" button above to RSVP.

Contact Person(s)
Minghua TAY