Erich Wolff

Is an informal approach to infrastructures possible?

PhD candidate

  • Erich Wolff


Erich Wolff's research aims at investigating if infrastructures could be delivered through a new perspective, more open and flexible, guided by the goal to embrace and accommodate informality, instead of following the standard approach that is generally based on rejecting and vilifying it. Volatile human dynamics, population growth and service disruptions experienced by informal communities push the built environment disciplines to a time of environmental constraints intertwined with unprecedented urban expansion. Even though different approaches to deal with informal urban growth have been exhaustively tested, there seems to be no consensus on how to provide improvements to living conditions in contexts of informality without disrupting the dynamics that characterise diverse and adaptive self-made occupations. Incremental approaches, increasingly valued in architecture, seem to provide important lessons, but are eminently unsuitable when it comes to infrastructure provision under informal conditions because of spatial, social, technical and environmental constraints. In the search for solutions, the principles of Open Building and the ideas of Soft Systems recommend that the built environment should balance stability and change while managing distributed agency among individuals. As precedents suggest, fostering human inventiveness and distributing agency is possibly the best way of incorporating tactics into strategic infrastructure provision and can be achieved by creating infrastructures that give space for human dynamism while supporting living conditions effectively. Agents responsible for providing infrastructural services, therefore, must share the perspective that infrastructure should act simultaneously as a functional system and as an informal backbone that incorporate existing natural and human dynamics. This research looks at infrastructure conceptually and pragmatically to defend that purely top-down approaches should be reshaped by soft and open systems that balance agency in different levels and consider users as active agents capable of developing their own built environment.