Between Proposing and Opposing a European Electricity System: Towards a New Understanding of Large Technical System-Building

Speaker: Dr Vincent Lagendijk # Maastricht University

26th Sep 2016

15:30 - 17:00

Crystal MacMillan Building, Staff Room, 6th floor

Over the last few decades, scholars have provided extensive insights into how infrastructural systems have been envisioned, planned, and responded to alleged societal needs. Starting with the seminal Networks of Power of the late Thomas Hughes, a flurry of studies has built his Large Technical Systems (LTS) approach. This went along with increasing scale of analysis, from Hughes’ city systems to European systems (e.g. the work of Högselius as well as Lagendijk), which exposed the growth of systems connected to socio-political and economic visions.

Most Europeans gladly make use of these energy networks on a daily basis. Many of them, however, do not like to have these infrastructural systems constructed through their local communities. While historians extensively studied the construction of such systems over the past decades, and while recognising their contested nature, they have largely neglected to study the local dimensions of these infrastructures. Yet standoffs between planners and protesters are a main obstacle in infrastructure-building.

How did local protest emerge, and develop over time? What effects did this protest have on the construction and operation of such systems? How did these forms of opposition affect the identity of local protesters? These are not just historical questions, but also speak to current-day policy issues. This paper proposes to study local protests against energy infrastructures in Western Europe from a historical perspective, in order to assess what influence these forms of opposition had on system-building, but also on the self-identity of local communities.

The paper claims that protests against infrastructures have two main effects. First, it challenges the perceptions of system-builders, and opens up avenues for alternative trajectories, different technological solutions, or even prevent construction altogether. In that way, local protest thus co-shape the overall system design, performance, and governance. Second, the protests lead to a redefinition of local identities, in two potentially diverging ways. Protest might reinforce a local sense of community, e.g. by revaluing the local landscape and culture. At the same time, local protests often link up with similar movements elsewhere, nationally or even globally. The aim to move towards a new understanding of infrastructure-building, that takes protests into the system-building equation.

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