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Invisible infrastructure

Exploring maintenance and repair in a tech-dependent society

Research

By Jeff Green

It’s often hidden — and sometimes even invisible — but most of us can’t live without it.

It’s the high-tech infrastructure we’ve come to depend on to keep our lives running smoothly: from fibre-optic cables to sophisticated laboratory equipment to heating and cooling systems. We’re a society that depends on critical equipment and expensive machinery 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

The Ends of Repair

But what happens when it stops working or needs repairs?

Jennifer Murray, Dr. Charles Mather and Dr. Josh Lepawsky are part of The Ends of Repair workshop.
From left, Jennifer Murray, Dr. Charles Mather and Dr. Josh Lepawsky.
Photo: Chris Hammond

A small group of researchers and community colleagues will explore that topic during a two-day workshop this week called The Ends of Repair.

Relative invisibility

“It’s more of a thinkshop,” explained Dr. Josh Lepawsky, professor, Department of Geography, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, who is organizing the discussions with fellow geography professor Dr. Charles Mather.

“What we are interested in exploring is why activities that are so fundamental to keeping everyday life humming along nevertheless seem nearly invisible,” Dr. Lepawsky added.

“Rarely do they appear as topics of serious scholarly inquiry, yet maintenance and repair activities are estimated by some to account for as much as one-third of all spending on equipment and structures annually. This begs the question of their relative invisibility.”

‘Critical’ research

Supported by the Scholarship in the Arts program, Dr. Lepawsky says getting like-minded colleagues together is “all too rare,” but he considers it “absolutely critical for sharpening the conceptual issues of research programs in their earliest phases of articulation.”

“Repair and maintenance is ultimately just good stewardship of our resources.” — Jennifer Murray

He and Dr. Mather’s research areas include sustainable communities and regions as well as globalization, economy and resources. They draw on work that’s part of an interdisciplinary field known as science and technology studies. Dr. Lepawsky says maintenance and repair are now emerging as serious topics of interest to researchers around the world.

“One of the things that we will be doing in the workshop is to explore the many different contexts where the idea of maintenance and repair may be important,” added Dr. Mather.

“For example, can we think of nature conservation as a form of repair and maintenance? And what new questions are raised when we think of conservation as a process of repair and maintenance?”

Up close and personal

In addition to the discussions, the group will also get a chance to see some of the facilities which support research infrastructure at Memorial.

Jennifer Murray, professional engineer and electronics division manager, Department of Technical Services, will lead an interactive tour of some Electronics Division shops. These facilities provide design, maintenance and repair services for equipment used in research and research-based learning at the university.

Ms. Murray says it’s important for the university community to be aware of the specialized services necessary at a large institution like Memorial.

“Repair and maintenance is ultimately just good stewardship of our resources,” she told the Gazette, “but it takes individuals with the right skills, training and experience to do it effectively.”

In the end, Dr. Lepawsky is hoping to shed more light and interest on the important role of maintenance and repair.

“Given how critical maintenance and repair are to daily reality ticking over smoothly into the next day it seems odd that not much attention in the social sciences or in other disciplines has been devoted to understanding their fundamental importance.”


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