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Democratising infrastructure? Energy democracy and decentralisation in South Africa

Bush House North East Wing, Strand Campus, London

15 Jan Cape Town South Africa Part of Human Geography seminars

Speaker: Dr Jon Phillips (University of Cambridge)

Abstract: Where infrastructure is understood as the material basis of social relations, academics are often implicitly concerned with how infrastructure can be democratised. Yet, the relationship between democracy and infrastructure is poorly understood.

We consider infrastructural perspectives on democracy and democracy perspectives on infrastructure. Scrutinising common assumptions that equate infrastructure decentralisation with democratisation, we assess the implications of distributed electricity generation for democratic control of energy infrastructure in South Africa.

First, we describe the revaluation of the electricity grid and the democratic implications of how ‘entrepreneurial electric cities’ govern through decentralised infrastructure. Second, we describe the new political subjects of a material form of energy democracy, shaped by the governmental powers of entrepreneurial electric cities as infrastructural gatekeepers.

Our analysis describes how infrastructure is re-embedded in state-society relations through the tools that govern its decentralisation, such that it is important to account for institutional, deliberative and material forms of democracy together. We conclude by considering the prospects of a material democratic politics that not only places technology in the hands of people and businesses but transforms the socio-material relations of infrastructure.

*If you are external to King's and would like to attend this event, please contact the event organiser directly.

About the speaker

Dr Jon Phillips is a University Lecturer in the Centre of Development Studies and PhD Course Director for Development Studies for 2019/20. He is interested in relationships between society and environment, which guide his research on the production of resources and the governance of energy in the developing world.

He has explored these themes through doctoral study of the offshore oil industry in Ghana, postdoctoral research on urban energy politics in South Africa, and projects on carbon finance and energy governance in India and Kenya, respectively.

His research aims to demonstrate the contingency of inequitable systems of energy and resource governance, which are at least partially open to change through alternative systems of technology, knowledge and power.

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