Infrastructures and their failures: mobilizing various knowledges of risk
Department of Sociology University of Helsinki Helsinki, Finland
In recent years critical infrastructures like energy, water, banking, telecommunications and gas have increasingly become a Western collective security issue. Many governments and EU have taken major initiatives to protect their critical infrastructures from natural catastrophes, terrorism and various other hazards, as the disruption or destruction of infrastructures are seen as having a serious impact on citizens and the functioning of governments.
My paper introduces an ongoing PhD project on this subject. The project deliberates particularly concrete cases where the knowledge of infrastructure risks is mobilized.
My project uses participatory approaches to study mobilization of risk knowledge on two field sites: the control rooms of a Finnish electricity distribution company, and Finnish critical infrastructure protection seminars. The first field site, whose data I collected by interviewing and observing electricity reliability professionals in 2008, is used to address a question of risk practices: what are the varieties of professional skills for supplying a functioning infrastructure? My contention here is to illustrate the practical rules of thumb and professional judgments which are deployed in order to protect the electricity supply systems from disturbances. Electricity infrastructure systems cannot be made completely fail-safe, which also places demands on their disaster-resilience.
The second field site is used to address a question of preparedness: how do experts design systems and organizations that cope with failures which are very rare? Based on attending several infrastructure protection expert seminars between 2007 and 2008, I claim there is a widely shared preoccupation on the urgency of preparing for infrastructure risks. Contrasting the social scientific notions of rare risks being non-calculable and non-manageable, the seminars see a constant crafting of new tools for anticipating different infrastructure failures. Many tools in particular place emphasis on building both infrastructure users and operators a disaster-resilient and economic subjectivity.
My paper concludes that concrete mobilizations of risk tend to make divergent assumptions of what risks are and how they ought to be managed.
The PhD is part of the Academy of Finland -funded project Managing Insecurity in the University of Helsinki, Department of Sociology.