Paper: Manila Improstructure

Paper: Manila Improstructure

Improstructure – an improvisational perspective on smart infrastructure governance

In this new paper, Katja Schechtner and myself look at appropriation in the power-grid of Manila. Inventions by residents, bricolage, and improvisational repair; tactics to combat power theft by electricity providers, and the efforts of local government to mediate the diverse interests and of the actors involved.

Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Manila and interviews with city officials, planners, residents and local activists, we develop the notion of  improstructure as a conceptual model for understanding infrastructure governance as an improvisational process of “call and response” in a network of diverse actors.

We apply this perspective to ongoing modernization efforts by the city of Manila and its utility companies, involving smart city technologies including sensor networks, drone mapping, and data analytics. We argue that despite the placeless and generic rhetoric surrounding these technologies, they constitute improvisational responses to local conditions. We conclude by formulating design principles for improvisational infrastructure governance, which are not limited to the Global South, but also apply in developed countries.

Published in Cities Journal

You can read the preprint here

New Monograph “Waste is Information” (MIT Press)

New Monograph “Waste is Information” (MIT Press)

Waste is Information - Infrastructure Legibility and Governance

By Dietmar Offenhuber, foreword by Carlo Ratti


Waste is material information. Landfills are detailed records of everyday consumption and behavior; much of what we know about the distant past we know from discarded objects unearthed by archaeologists and interpreted by historians. And yet the systems and infrastructures that process our waste often remain opaque. In this book, I examines waste from the perspective of information, considering emerging practices and technologies for making waste systems legible and how the resulting datasets and visualizations shape infrastructure governance. He does so by looking at three waste tracking and participatory sensing projects in Seattle, São Paulo, and Boston.


I expand the notion of urban legibility—the idea that the city can be read like a text—to introduce the concept of infrastructure legibility. He argues that infrastructure governance is enacted through representations of the infrastructural system, and that these representations stem from the different stakeholders’ interests, which drive their efforts to make the system legible. The Trash Track project in Seattle used sensor technology to map discarded items through the waste and recycling systems; the Forager project looked at the informal organization processes of waste pickers working for Brazilian recycling cooperatives; and mobile systems designed by the city of Boston allowed residents to report such infrastructure failures as potholes and garbage spills. Through these case studies, I outlines an emerging paradigm of infrastructure governance based on a complex negotiation among users, technology, and the city.

more at MIT Press
LA Noise Array

LA Noise Array

Offenhuber, Dietmar, Sam Auinger, Susanne Seitinger, and Remco Muijs. 2018. “Los Angeles Noise Array—Planning and Design Lessons from a Noise Sensing Network:” Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science, August. [pdf]

The urban soundscape is the result of complex interactions between activity and the built environment. It is multifaceted, changes constantly across space and time. The auditory space has a distinct shape and spatial structure. The soundscape is invisible, yet it has a profound impact on how we make sense of our environment.

Ambient noise is an almost universally accepted concern for public health. Among the scientific community as well as the general public there is a broad consensus that noise can be both annoying and unhealthy. Epidemiological studies have shown that populations exposed to night-time aircrafts and road traffic noise tend to suffer from elevated blood pressure. Beyond these general effects, parts of the population, including children and the elderly are especially sensitive to environmental noise. Frequency also matters. Many people are more sensitive to low frequencies, which are emitted by ventilation systems, vehicles, and electric machinery. However, low frequencies are generally underestimated in conventional noise measurements, which are the basis of most noise ordnances.

To enable a differentiated understanding of urban auditory phenomena requires a large number of simultaneous measurements, extended over time. Until now, such fine-grained measurements of ambient noise were not available. Point measurements conducted by cities and agencies are too sparse to allow an investigation of how the built environment and human activity influence the soundscape, and which policies, urban design measures are effective in addressing noise pollution. Attempts to address the lack of data through crowd-sourced measurements conducted by citizens using their smartphones are hampered by unsystematic data collection and inaccurate measurements.

In this pilot project, a collaboration with Philips Lighting and the city of Los Angeles, we use urban streetlights for measuring the urban soundscape at a fine-grained level, allowing for an in-depth analysis of the urban soundscape and supply evidence for policy measures.

Link to the project: 


Urban Radiance

Urban Radiance

A visual companion for the essay “Sticky data – context and friction in the use of urban data proxies.” published in Data and the City. ed. Rob Kitchin, Tracey P. Lauriault, and Gavin McArdlel. New York: Routledge. [pdf]

What have global data sets that estimate population density, economic productivity, measles outbreaks, rural poverty, resource footprints and electrification rates, urbanization and suburbanization, or average wages in common? They are all based on nighttime imagery of city lights captured by the Operational Line Scanner (OLS) sensor on the satellites from the US Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP).

What should later become the workhorse of geographers and economists was initially a completely accidental by-product: of a cold-war era military satellite program—launched in the 1950s by the US Air Force for estimating cloud cover and precipitation for reconnaissance missions. Army engineers discovered that the sensors were sensitive enough to capture the artificial radiance of cities during moonless nights without cloud cover.

In 1978, Thomas A. Croft published the first global composite of night-time images in the Scientific American. At that time, the image data had to be manually stitched together from analog films ejected in capsules from the satellite, which had to be laboriously recovered by the military. Today, the Black Marble data set has become one of the most popular motifs of space imagery.

While DPMS images are usually used to show regional differences, this project visualizes the temporal change in urban radiance from 1992 until 2015. It is the first interactive visualization of radiance time series data.

Link to project

Manila Improstructure

Manila Improstructure

The project investigates and documents the social and creative practices around the electricity grid and the street lighting system of Manila, Philippines.

Dietmar Offenhuber, Katja Schechtner, Julia Nebrija

In cooperation with TU Vienna, Urban Design Institute
Students: Anna Giffinger, Antonella Amesberger, Julius Alexander Fink, Konstantin Jagsch, Lisa Jindra, Matthias Dorfstetter, Michael Egger, Michael Wallinger, Sophie Wuerzer; Faculty advisors: Markus Tomaselli, Michael Surböck

Video: Antonia Amesberger, Michael Egger, Konstantin Jagsch, Dietmar Offenhuber

Manila Improstructure is part of the the third instance of the sensing place / placing sense series, investigating the pockets of informality inside the formal urban infrastructures that structure our daily lives. Not only in the megacities of the global south, life is characterized by a constant struggle with infrastructure. The electricity grid, logistics and supply chains, telecommunication networks — every system that is centrally planned and managed from above always requires some level of improvisation and tinkering from below in order to make the system work. These creative appropriations are, however, never part of the official representations of infrastructure; they are marginalized and difficult to observe. There is a misbalance between what we know about formal structures and what we can only infer about its informal practices. Infrastructure governance is a process of call-and-response, in which the physical aspects of infrastructure become a improvisational medium.

In a panel session at Ars Electronica 2015, we brought together experts who deal with questions of infrastructure and its role in everyday life.