Inverse Infrastructures

Update: The original post was from August 2017. Since then my colleagues and I have concluded that the term ‘inverse’ is perhaps problematic. Despite emphasising that it is not simply the opposite of conventional infrastructure, the confusion is expected to remain. Inverse also seems to imply sub-optimal or inferior. I recently came across another EDx course on Responsive Cities – so I prefer the term responsive infrastructure. I am drafting a post just for these terms…

I found out about the term “Inverse infrastructures” via an online course hosted by Edx:

NGIxThe Next Generation of Infrastructure 

It was AMAZING. Suddenly I had good words with scientific basis, when before I only had fluffy concepts and half-baked ideas like biomimicry. The course also has a wealth of resources, hopefully I can make my own highlights of these soon.

The course lecturers wrote a book, this post highlights some quotes. There’s so much good stuff I’ll have to read and reread a few times…

Inverse Infrastructures

Disrupting Networks from Below (2012)

Edited by Tineke M. Egyedi, Senior Researcher, Information and Communication Technology, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, Project Leader, ‘Inverse Infrastructures’ and ‘Standards and Flexible Infrastructures’ of the Next Generation Infrastructures Research Program, President of the European Academy for Standardization and Donna C. Mehos, Senior Researcher, Energy and Industry, Department of Technology, Policy and Management, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands


The notion of inverse infrastructures – that is, bottom-up, user-driven, self-organizing networks – gives us a fresh perspective on the omnipresent infrastructure systems that support our economy and structure our way of living. This fascinating book considers the emergence of inverse infrastructures as a new phenomenon that will have a vast impact on consumers, industry and policy. Using a wide range of theories, from institutional economics to complex adaptive systems, it explores the mechanisms and incentives for the rise of these alternatives to large-scale infrastructures and points to their potential disruptive effect on conventional markets and governance models.

* it is inverse, and not reverse infrastructure, it is very different than simply looking at infrastructure from the other side.

p3: Characteristics of inverse infrastructures:

  • user driven
  • self-organisation
  • centralised and decentralised governance
  • top down and bottom up

p26 “high system productivity at the edge of order and chaos”

I’ve only read the intro chapter and Chapter 9: Decentral Water Supply and Sanitation (Aad Correlje and Thorsten Schuetze).

p162 Urban water systems is equivalent to the small water cycle

p172 What had worked well on a smaller scale thanks to efforts to inform and sensitise users at the household level, failed when applied as a large-scale one-size-fits-all approach (Medilanski et al 2007)

Medilanski E, Chuan L, and Mosler HJ, 2007. Identifying the institutional decision process to introduce decentralised sanitation in the city of Kumming (China), Environmental Management, 39, 648-662.

p173 The cases above demonstrate that the available technological solutions for decentralised water and sanitation systems problems offer manifold possibilities for sustainable development of infrastructures based on an inverse approach. However, these systems can only be implemented successfully if the legal and institutional framework manages to accommodate the actors’ planning, construction, operation and maintenance practices.

p176 Income? How would central utilities cope?

But the widespread support for and use of decentral options may simultaneously put pressure on the functioning centralised water system. The central utility may experience financial problems or problems of over- or under-capacity, as a consequence. The lion-share of the cost of central systems is fixed, but when households economise on their water and sewage billls, the income of a utility falls. How do authorities manage these tensions between the centralised system that may break down in time and the sustainable decentral options?

p178 Johad success story

NGO: Tarun Bharat Sangk aimed to promote water conservation by (re)implementing both traditional and other technologies and knowledge. The johad revival has had significant effects, including rivers that carry water all year, the recovery of local flora and fauna and year-round agricultural production.

This case is a true success story of the renaissance of traditional and sustainable systems for water supply, introduced by local individuals and communities through bottom-up approaches, in absence of a centralised water supply and sanitation system and without active support of water authorities. Through control of their water resources, villagers have regained their livelihoods and independence. While such, water systems traditionally are built, owned and maintained by their users, this bottom-up renaissance occurred with the inspiration, incentives and knowledge that Rajendra Singh provided.

p179: Every infrastructural component that is constructed – inversely or not – within the water supply and sanitation system, is physically also part of the large hydrological cycle, and thus often influences the (local) functioning of the small cycle. This connection with larger cycles and their laws (natural and legal) govern functioning.

Some other interesting bits as I browsed the rest of the book:

p209: Notions of inverse infrastructures

“Nudge and tweak approaches”

Rather than creating a blueprint of the system design, more recent approaches focus on creating the right conditions and constraints for the system to move into the desired direction relatively autonomously.

p230: Table 12.2: Merits and demerits of top-down and bottom-up development










Top-down development

Easier synchronisation of outcomes and information sharing;

Increased interoperability via standards;

Easier project planning and management

Lengthy design and implementation process;

Decreased user acceptance;

Not taking into account local circumstances and requirements;

Not including innovations and best practices;

Difficult if there are many uncertainties to deal with

Bottom-up development

User driven, therefore customised to the local situation;

High user acceptance and commitment;

Self-selected ‘best’ practices

Increased fragmentation;

Duplication of efforts;


Little awareness of similar initiatives;

Difficult to foster simultaneously heterogeneity and take advantage of other initiatives;

Lack of interoperability

I like this table because it shows just how difficult bottom-up development is. But I think top-down is not suitable for highly complex, highly uncertain situations, and these are the majority of situations we are dealing with in this world these days. On the other hand, we can develop bottom-up more, and create hybrid models of development. I think it’s harder because we’re not used to it yet, and some things we just have to accept. But many others become easier over time, as we learn.

p244:Table 13.1: Inverse features.

The columns ‘design’ and ‘inverse’ approach are to be read as relative on a scaled characteristic.


Driven by

Investments (technology, effort)

Ownership infrastructure



Degree of homogeneity

Technology innovation

Coordination infrastructure development

Design focus on  (where relevant)

Outcome infrastructure development



Design Approach

Providers (government, large companies)

Providers (top down)

Defined (providers)




Classic; R&D-driven, by professionals

Hierarchical (top-down, formal institutions)

Content (blueprint of infrastructure)




Inverse Approach

Users (citizens, companies, government agencies, etc)

Users (bottom-up, local)

Can be defined or undefined (incl user, community and mixed ownership)


Small, may end up as large

Heterogenous, linked

User innovation, innovation by experts

Self-organisation (bottom-up), more informal institutions

Process (creating conditions for inverse development)

Less predictable, changing

Volunteers, self-employed or employed

Reciprocity-, & gift-based, non-financial self-interest, market-based.

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