Erich Wolff

Can infrastructure systems operate within social-ecological dynamics?

PhD candidate

  • Erich Wolff



The perception of ecosystems as closed, hierarchical, stable, and deterministic (…) has been replaced by the recognition that living systems are open, complex, self-organizing, and subject to sudden but regular periods of dynamic change that are, to some degree, unpredictable.

Nina-Marie Lister (2007)

This project originated from the interest in developing tools for site reconnaissance to support the design of adaptive infrastructure systems in flood-prone informal settlements. Literature suggests that ‘green’ or ‘nature-based’ technologies (systems that apply ecological processes to provide infrastructural services such as water treatment, flood mitigation and waste management) represent a unique opportunity to rethink infrastructure.

As early as in 2003, the UN Habitat revealed that traditional infrastructure provision practices were being widely reported as problematic under contexts of unplanned urbanisation for their lack of capacity to deal with evolving conditions. Grave environmental risks and limited databases impose significant challenges to design practices in the context of unregulated settlements. The situation is further aggravated by the uncharted phenomenon of climate change experienced globally. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends that institutions should find ways to dynamically manage the evolving constraints imposed to infrastructure under those circumstances.

Acknowledging uncertainty, thinkers have been increasingly advocating that design practices should be seeking for answers within the field of ‘ecological thinking’. Practitioners, however, still seem to struggle to incorporate wider social-ecological dynamics in the practice of architectural, urban and infrastructural design. Framing urbanised areas as social-ecological systems, this research is particularly interested in investigating how such infrastructures can be implemented in changing environments where components may be subject to significant environmental threats such as in floods.

To inform design, this research is engaging with multiple methods of ‘social-ecological site reconnaissance’ aiming to understand floods and how they shape ecological relationships in settlements in Fiji and Indonesia. The methods include:

  • mapping the architectural adaptations responding to existing environmental threats and opportunities including houses on stilts, agricultural fields and drainage systems;
  • analysing the ecosystem’s processes and flows within the site including phenomena such as the action of tides, erosion and eutrophication as well as flows of nutrients, water and waste;
  • identifying and systematically compiling evidence of previous flood occurrences including marks on walls and the location of debris;
  • promoting the community-driven documentation of high water levels through photography and real-time information sharing and
  • interviewing and ethnographically investigating the livelihoods as well as the strategies to mitigate and remediate the impacts of floods.