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Broken World Thinking: How infrastructure and invisible work can impact innovation

Broken BridgeIn a recent episode of ‘Last Week Tonight’, John Oliver describes physical infrastructure as “anything that can be destroyed in an action movie.” He continues to explore and critique the crumbling infrastructure of the United States by humorously reflecting on the failures of dams, roads, and bridges. He then asks, “How are things so bad?” Oliver answers his own rhetorical question with a montage of video clips of ribbon cutting ceremonies. He then quips, “Infrastructure is like Legos. Building is fun, destroying is fun, but a Lego Maintenance set would be the most boring…toy in the world.” Similarly, Susan Leigh Star begins her paper “The Ethnography of Infrastructure” by writing: “This article is in a way a call to study boring things.”

When it works, infrastructure is unremarkable, and the processes and people who maintain it are invisible. However, as Steven J. Jackson writes in his chapter “Rethinking Repair,” “broken world thinking” can help us to understand better the “real limits and fragility” of our worlds and to consider the work of repair.

Innovation and disruption have become buzzwords in the past decade. With the advent of smaller and faster technological components, start-ups and established companies alike have promised to improve (even revolutionize) our lives with wearables, appliances, apps, and the Internet of Things. Unlike maintenance and repair, innovation and disruption are perceived as interesting, exciting, and “sexy.”

Sinking ShipBut if we begin to practice “broken world thinking,” we quickly realize, as Jackson notes, breaking is “generative and productive.” Here, Jackson asks us to look at Edward Burtynsky’s photographic series entitled “Shipbreaking” to consider how photographs of end-of-life vessels might help us to conceptualize and make visible the process of breakdown. Thinking about maintenance and repair as well as end-of-life dismantling and recycling may, in fact, be more revolutionary than innovation or disruption.

Consider, for example, how “broken world thinking” can benefit product design. What if the person (or team) who invented a new technology collaborated with the person (or team) who would one day repair the same technology? What if the innovation stakeholders and the infrastructure stakeholders collaborated closely with the end users? What if every new product designed by a technology company was designed in such as way as to factor in what happens to the product after planned obsolescence?

What if, as Jackson asks, we “build new and different forms of solidarity with our objects (and they with us)?”

A focus on infrastructure as well as the invisible work of maintenance and repair may not immediately result in increased revenues, but it may very well result in better products, more thorough fixes, more loyal customers, and a more robust product lifecycle. Today, for many reasons and in many industries, the bond between the craftsperson and the object has been broken. In some instances, the bond between the user and the object, though, has strengthened to such an extent that people consider certain technologies to be extensions of their self-identities, even suffering physical withdrawals when some devices are lost or inaccessible.

Thinking about infrastructure and the invisible—boring—work of repair is, arguably, not only a potentially more fruitful approach but also a more caring and humane one.