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Northwestern University

How Infrastructure Shapes Our World

Author and engineering professor Deb Chachra challenges students to rethink infrastructure design

Growing up near Toronto, close to a power plant and Niagara Falls, Deb Chachra was acutely aware of her access to essential resources such as water and energy.

This was especially poignant when she visited her parents' family home in India in the 1980s during summer vacation. During a time when electricity demand far exceeded the available supply, her family had running water for one hour in the morning and evening, and energy blackouts were a common occurrence in the afternoons. 

Chachra’s awareness of the utilities that underpin our lives extends beyond personal appreciation. Author of How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems that Shape Our World (Riverhead/Torva, 2023) and professor of engineering at Olin College of Engineering, Chachra studies and teaches on infrastructural systems, including water, electricity, transportation, and communications.

Chachra’s work focuses on the historical and socioeconomic context in which these systems were developed, the harms — both environmental and societal — that have occurred, and the ways systems can become circular, minimizing waste, and maximizing resource efficiency. 

During her April 11 talk “How Infrastructure Works” at the Ford Engineering Design Center, Chachra sounded a call to action to engineering students: We need to rethink how we design and build infrastructure to minimize harm and maximize benefits for all. 

“We do not have to recapitulate the way we built these systems. We now have the opportunity to rebuild these collective systems to be equitable, sustainable, and resilient in the face of climate change.” Chachra said. “But to do this, we must fix our hearts. This is the work. This is going to shape your life as an engineer and as a designer for at least the next few decades." 

Chachra’s talk took place as part of a visit to Northwestern Engineering through the school’s Art + Engineering Initiatives, which provide Northwestern students, faculty, and staff with opportunities to explore the intersections of creative thinking and making. Chachra has been part of similar initiatives as part of the faculty team for Sketch Model, Olin College’s innovative, Mellon Foundation-funded initiative that builds relationships between artists and engineering faculty and students. In addition to her talk, Chachra led an interactive infrastructure walk through the Ford building, where she discussed the interconnections between physical infrastructure and the social, creative, and care networks that sustain and transform the world we live in. 

During her presentation, Chachra highlighted historical infrastructure examples, including the New York City water system. Initially, the 19th-century system faced setbacks, notably private provision Manhattan Company, led by Aaron Burr—the former vice president of the United States best known for shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel—that was highly profitable despite poor water distribution through substandard pipes. This led to the publicly funded construction of a dam and aqueduct and the beginning of New York’s municipal water supply that continues to serve the city’s population to this day, in a pattern repeated all over the world.  

“People have repeatedly figured out that if you have societal cooperation to build these systems, you will have healthier communities,” she said.

As these systems expanded, they disproportionately distributed harms and benefits. For instance, Chachra noted that highways, particularly in urban areas, were often routed through Black communities. Similarly, to construct the reservoir for a hydroelectric generating station at Niagara Falls, the New York Power Authority went to the Supreme Court to break a federal treaty obligation and take land from the adjacent Tuscarora Indian Reservation.

“These networks were largely built out with this mindset that ‘we’re going to bring these resources to us,’ but these same systems can just as easily displace the associated harms onto others, and often did,” Chachra said. “In every infrastructural system that I looked at, there was a story of inequity.” 

Chachra concluded by urging a mindset shift toward more equitable and sustainable approaches to infrastructure development. There is a world of possibility, Chachra said, that becomes possible if people recognize our planet has a constantly renewed supply of energy from the sun, but it’s a closed system for materials. However, we need to understand the context in which our systems were built — and redesign them such that we minimize harms and increase benefits for all.

“Resources come from somewhere, and they have to go somewhere. We can’t just use materials and dump them,” Chachra said. “We need to figure out how to close these loops. We need to make systems locally appropriate, locally situated, and beneficial for everyone.”

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