Above and Homepage: These screen grabs were taken from Google Earth on 21st August 2013 and show where detailed satellite imagery of Papua New Guinea ends. This is also where the Ramu Highway leaves the edges of Madang, a town on Papua New Guinea’s north coast, and enters the Begasin Hills, one of the field-sites for this project. The edges of the satellite image coincide with the edges of Madang’s electricity grid and mark the point at which public health infrastructure becomes less accessible.       

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Our ideas about infrastructure are changing.

Across global contexts of wealth, economic growth and chronic poverty the connection of people to infrastructural grids – both literally (to wires, cables and pylons) and metaphorically (to planned, national systems of service provision) – is no longer seen as a sustainable or achievable model for delivering health and energy.

The idea of being, living and sustaining life ‘off the grid’ has become immensely influential, mobilising people, driving policies, shaping politics and attracting finance.

From spaces of alternative living in Scotland, to spaces of social entrepreneurship in India, to spaces of state fragility in Papua New Guinea we find the proliferation of de-centralised models for accessing health and energy that are not premised on the connection of people to grids but on the capacities of their social networks.

Confronted with fiscal and ecological crises the question of what off grid infrastructures for health and energy look like and how they work is of increasing significance.

Wealth, Growth and Poverty

Between September 2013 and February 2015 this Economic and Social Research Council funded research project at the University of Edinburgh brings together two social anthropologists (Jamie Cross and Alice Street), a digital theorist (Chris Speed) and a geographer (Stephanie Terreni Brown) to build up three visual case studies of health and energy infrastructure in three radically different places that are constructed, imagined and experienced as off the grid.

By comparing ‘off the grid’ living in contexts of wealth (Scotland), growth (India) and poverty (Papua New Guinea) this project seeks to encourage academics and policy makers to consider what can be learnt in the UK from other global contexts and to transcend traditional boundaries between the social and economic study of developed and developing countries.

Relational Infrastructure

This is an empirical starting point for theorising all infrastructures as relational (that is, as the complex of historic interactions and exchanges between people, technologies and the material environment that structure and sustain human life) and for exploring what kinds of relationships may constitute future infrastructures for health and energy.

What makes relational infrastructures resilient or fragile? Are they fair or do they perpetuate inequalities? How does life ‘off the grid’ remain dependent on grids for transportation, telecommunications, and governance? What can our case studies tell us about how infrastructures operate in times of crisis?

For further information, contact:

Jamie Cross

Alice Street