Mary Lawhon
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Gloria Nsangi Nakyagaba
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Infrastructure beyond the modern ideal
Thinking through heterogeneity, serendipity, and autonomy in African cities
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While the imaginary of modern infrastructure remains prevalent in many places, it is increasingly coming into question, being replaced by other ways of imagining, building and governing infrastructure. In this chapter, we first consider what exactly is ‘modern’ about the ‘modern infrastructure ideal’ and how this relates to ongoing concerns with modernity as an imaginary of the world that is. We then examine two cases of infrastructure that work beyond modernity, teasing out some of the logics that shape how they work. In Kampala, we show how a new sanitation technology handbook works to legitimise onsite sanitation, offering users a decision-tree through which to consider a range of sociotechnical options. While there is homage paid to user heterogeneity, the handbook primarily focuses on the implications of environmental and technological heterogeneity. In South Africa, we consider the opportunities that arise through infrastructural labour that operates beyond modern conditions and the ways in which waste picking enables autonomy and serendipity. Broadly, we suggest the limitations of uniform services in contexts where nature, homes and residents are heterogeneous and the limits of standardised jobs for everyone in contexts where unemployment is high and individual socioeconomic conditions are unpredictable. Our argument here is not to romanticise already existing infrastructure, but instead, to contribute to teasing out an alternative imaginary that might shape ways of thinking beyond modern infrastructure. We call this a ‘modest’ imaginary, and suggest serendipity, autonomy, and heterogeneity play an increasingly important role in infrastructural configurations in an uncertain world.

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