LATTS’s stories: Exploring the infrastructuration of organizations, cities and societies

by Olivier Coutard, Valérie November

LATTS is a multidisciplinary research centre exploring the emergence and evolution of the complex sociotechnical systems that support, or “infrastructure”, modern societies, with a particular interest in networked infrastructures: the systems handling the material and informational flows upon which societies increasingly rest. For doing so, LATTS researchers have privileged a mesoscopic approach centred on relevant organizations: the sociotechnical organizations operating these systems and the productive, territorial or political organizations dependent upon these systems. Collectively, they have cultivated a spatial orientation; i.e. a specific interest for the organization of space and the management of spatialized organizations. Over the years, LATTS developed distinctive sociotechnical understandings of the processes at play, through ad hoc combinations of science and technology studies (STS), sociology of organizations, political science, human geography and history.

Technical systems, infrastructures, territorialities: from the production of space to a sociotechnical perspective on contemporary societies

Created in 1985, LATTS (Laboratoire Techniques, Territoires et Sociétés; or, Technologies, Territories and Societies) is a multidisciplinary humanities and social science research centre, which brings together sociologists, political scientists, historians and « spatialists » (geographers, planners, architects…) studying the complex sociotechnical systems upon which the large productive, territorial or political organizations in current (and past) societies rest. LATTS results from the integration of two groups: one group based in the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (ENPC, allegedly one of the oldest civil engineering schools in the world, created in 1747) studying engineers and their role in organizations (firms, public administrations, public utilities) and the other based in Université Paris 12 (now Université Paris-Est Créteil) studying urban management with a particular emphasis on networked infrastructure systems (water, energy, transport, telecommunications…).

The initial ambition of LATTS was to provide novel understandings of both the spatialization of productive activities (through a combination of economic geography and sociology of firms) and the production of (especially urban) spaces. The centre’s founders (Henri Coing, Gabriel Dupuy and Pierre Veltz) aimed at moving beyond, or beside, the then still largely prevailing neomarxist approach (Lefebvre, Castells, Godard). A foundational choice was to research these processes through the study of relevant organizations. It allowed to develop, so to speak, a mesoscopic perspective on spatial and urban change, distinct both from “macroscopic”, structuralist approaches just mentioned and from “microscopic”, interactionist approaches centred on the actions of, and relations between, individual actors. This choice was indeed fully consistent with LATTS’s strong connection to an engineering school. And indeed, since its inception, LATTS has been interested in the deeds and the (changing) worlds of engineers and engineering, in particular networked infrastructures: the complex sociotechnical systems handling the material and informational flows upon which modern societies increasingly rest. 

This interest for the organizations operating the sociotechnical mediations essential in and for modern societies fuelled from the start the attraction of LATTS researchers toward the then emerging STS community. Indeed they shared, and still share, with other STS scholars a number of convictions: they take technology seriously, but they do not consider that society is determined by allegedly autonomous scientific and technological progress; they believe that technologies are socially shaped, and at the same time they are convinced that technologies in use (Edgerton 2006) produce social effects (much) beyond the particular contexts in which they were initially developed, and they agree that « the material world is not a simple reflection of human will, and (…) one cannot make sense of the history of technology if the material world is seen as infinitely plastic and tractable. » (MacKenzie et Wajcman, 1999, p. 24). In short, they believe that society and technology coevolve; they can be regarded as soft technological determinists. 

The relevance of this sociotechnical positioning was comforted over the years by the increasingly complex forms of technicization at play within contemporary societies. In fact, as a result of these evolutions, humanities and social sciences have demonstrated a growing interest in the technological, the material and, relatedly, the ecological dimension(s) of the world.

In this context, STS research and debates within the STS community offered, and still offer today, valuable intellectual resources, epistemologically, theoretically, methodologically, and even politically. In particular, along with many other STS scholars, LATTS researchers have:

  • Postulated that, in order to account for the social significance of complex sociotechnical systems beyond generally oversimplifying conventional understandings (and even ideological discourses), it was necessary to “open the black box” of technologies and analyse in detail the practices associated with them. Even though it is obviously not a necessary condition to study technology, it is worth noting here that a majority of LATTS researchers were initially trained as engineers, and some as architects, hence possessing an early acquired familiarity with the internal working of (some) technology;
  • Challenged prevailing conceptions that technological change, especially pertaining to large technological systems, should result in unmediated, systematic and uniform effects on social activities, societies and space. In particular, they have documented the variegated configurations of the dynamic relations between infrastructure systems and the territories they serve, emphasizing the crucial mediating role played by stakeholder organizations (state or local administrations, public or private utility companies, etc.) in shaping these relations;
  • Been particularly concerned with the political dimension of technologies and technological change, by examining, for example: which social interest support which technological options; who are the winners and losers of a specific “technological choice”; what the attention to the politics of technological choices helps us understand about society (as well as about technology); how the “effects” of a technological choice are produced and what are the political implications of the mediation processes at play; and, from a more reflexive perspective, what possibilities of action and intervention are made possible by the type of “sociotechnical knowledge” produced. 

This meso sociotechnical perspective has been preserved until today. LATTS researchers are convinced that the study of the emergence and evolution of the complex sociotechnical systems that support, or “infrastructure”, our increasingly interconnected but uncertain, unequal and informalized world remains highly relevant. And they are convinced that this study requires evidence-based and comparative research aimed at revealing the combined influence of institutional arrangements, tools and instruments, and variegated forms of knowledges on effective practices. 

This sociotechnical perspective has been applied to the study of the changes that affect the functioning of urbanized areas, public administrations or manufacturing or service-oriented organizations, and it is gradually extended to the study of evolutions in everyday practices. In the remainder of this short piece, we would like to illustrate how this perspective has allowed LATTS researchers to develop specific approaches and to produce novel insights on the organization of space and the management of spatialized organizations. Indeed, this “spatial concern” is probably what is most characteristic in LATTS’s contribution to the STS community.


Residential Seminar in June 2017, Buttes de Chaumont, Paris. Photo Valery Barré

The spatialities of large technical systems

LATTS has a long tradition of research on large technical systems (LTSs) and a large number of LATTS researchers and doctoral students have been involved in this undertaking. LATTS’s specific take on LTSs has been to explore the mutual relations between the development and management of LTSs on the one hand and the organization and functioning of territories, as well as processes of spatialization, on the other. 

Early work on these issues within LATTS emphasized the dialectical and dynamic relation between the institutional spaces defined and delimited by political bodies (states, local governments) and the living spaces largely produced by technical networks or infrastructures; in what variegated ways this relation affects modern forms of territoriality (a term by which we mean, broadly speaking, how societies are organizing in space); and how variations in this relation could be accounted for by studying the work of the organizations concerned. In doing so, LATTS researchers have early on reconceptualized “local” contexts as, in fact, cross-scalar (“from local to global”) and at the same time shaping and shaped by the development of networked infrastructure systems. On a more generic level, they have emphasized the mutual reinforcement over time (since the early nineteenth century) between the development of networked infrastructures and the growing importance of networked forms of territoriality, i.e. forms of spatial organization increasingly resting on relations in space based on (distant) connections rather than, or in combination with, relations based on spatial proximity. They have criticized still influential discourses emphasizing (spatially) structuring effects of transport infrastructures, which assume that improved accessibility necessarily results in enhanced economic development, and discourses emphasizing despatialization effects of telecommunications networks. 

LATTS researchers have also sought to account for the diverse forms of development, governance and management of infrastructure systems, showing that they result from national or local community-specific combinations of knowledge, history, institutions, and forms of economic development and sociopolitical organization. They have challenged “endogenous” models or understandings of the development of these infrastructure networks, which assumed the overarching influence of a drive for ever-increasing interconnection and the systematic prevalence of the “most efficient” technologies. 

More specifically, LATTS researchers have contributed to studies of the networked city and networked urbanism; and to the understanding of the contemporary urban as having to do with the size, density and diversity of connections rather than solely with the size, density and diversity of population and activities as the conventional wisdom held. This in turn has important implications on the conceptualization of urban powers, inequalities, and on the understanding of the urban condition more generally. LATTS researchers and doctoral students have contributed to the debate raised by the very influential splintering urbanism thesis (Graham and Marvin 2001), challenging its over-generalizing character, and discussing the methodological causes and the debatable normative implications of this over-generalization. They have explored the urban “beyond” the networked city. And they are actively exploring, more generally, the urban politics of the contemporary transformations of infrastructures, the rise (or rebirth) of small-scale networks or facilities, the resulting hybridization of incumbent sociotechnical systems, and the growing influence of forms of urbanization alternative to the modernist networked city. 


Residential Seminar in June 2017, Buttes de Chaumont, Paris. Photo Valery Barré

Urban risks and infrastructures: a multi-scale, multi-risk approach 

Risk and crisis studies have been developed within LATTS relatively early on, but they have gained momentum since the early 2010s with the start of several collective research projects and the hiring of several postdocs and doctoral students. Together, these projects aim to revisit urban and environmental issues through risks and vice versa. Studying the technical worlds generated by risks and crises and the tools and mechanisms implemented by relevant actors to measure risks and manage crises allow us to think about these questions in novel ways. ‘STS glasses’ allow to capture risks beyond the conventional categories applied to them (natural, technological, social, environmental), to take into account their diverse spatiotemporal dynamics, to explore the role played by dedicated sociotechnical devices in risk and crisis management, and finally to account for the involvement and influence of heterogeneous actors (public authorities, inhabitants, private actors, etc.) involved in capturing and objectifying risks (Daston and Galison 2007). It also allows to think about risks and crisis as infrastructuring, i.e. shaping materialities, technologies and societies.

The EURIDICE project (Équipe de recherche sur les risques, dispositifs de gestion de crise et des événements majeurs; or, Research group on risks, crisis management and major events), for example, developed in collaboration with the Paris police department (préfecture de police) aimed at the observation and analysis of the management of both planned events (COP21, the EU Sequana exercise, Euro 2016) and unplanned events (the Paris attacks of 13th November 2015, Seine flood damage, oil crisis). The research crucially depended on building a lasting relationship of trust with police authorities in order to be able to observe in situ and in real time the work involved in coordinating all stakeholders in crisis management situations. The observation of a crisis management exercise (EU Sequana) about the Seine’s rising and receding floodwaters over two weeks, which brought together 87 private and public stakeholders, became the subject of a book (November & Creton-Cazanave, 2017). It shows the long process of producing a common world. The book’s originality lies in the fact that each chapter was co-written with crisis management professionals who had taken part in the exercise. 

More generally speaking, risk studies within LATTS can be grouped under three main themes:  

  • Researching the spatial footprint of risks. Although it may appear obvious that most risks have spatial effects and that they affect areas (in their political, economic as well as social dimensions), it is less often acknowledged that (urban) spaces also generate risks. And the performativity of risks, their capacity to transform spaces, is also often overlooked. These issues and their interrelations are explored under this theme.
  • Understanding risks as public problems. Analysing the measures taken to assess, monitor or manage risks and crises reveals the details of the tensions and frictions that occur within and between the concerned organisations and stakeholders. A research on the monitoring devices in safety and security systems in the railway sector showed that the main problem is not one of the (dangerous) accumulation of information but rather the processes of knowledge selection and data segregation effectuated by these systems. In other projects, crisis management exercises are analysed as a specific device of governmentality, and researchers examine the capacity of these exercises to transform over time the organisations or institutions that carry them out or stage them. Still other projects are focused on the governmental organisation of major crises and are analysing the French interministerial crisis unit. 
  • Exploring and codeveloping risk and crisis management tools. Some projects are focused more closely on the coordination tools set up in certain organisations in order to help elucidate the tensions/limitations/solutions these organizations try to resolve. For instance, LATTS researchers collaborate with actors to establish dynamic mapping tools responding to the requirements of the various public and private partnerships.
  • Within these different themes, some researchers are researching risk and crisis issues by studying the activity of professionals affected (architects, safety engineers, insurance companies experts, crisis management professionals…), while others focus on the perspectives of citizens, users or residents. 


Community Life 

LATTS has around 80 members, 30 of whom are permanent researchers. Community life here takes several forms: once a year, LATTS organises a 1-2 day residential seminar (off-campus) aimed at both team building and group work on a common theme (cf. photo of a recent residential seminar in Buttes-Chaumont, Paris). The most recent theme addressed collectively concerned infrastructure and resulted in an edited book (Chatzis et al. 2017) covering sectors as diverse as bridges, airports, water and electricity grids, submarine communication cables or IT server farms. Authors navigate between ‘smart’ infrastructure systems and longer-established ones (those originating in the first and second industrial revolutions), and some chapters study what happens to traditional infrastructure in the digital age. This diversity allows the authors to explore in greater depth what different infrastructure systems have in common and to discuss the relevance of extending the notion of infrastructure to other fields (e.g., telemedicine, architectural projects or crisis management organizations). It also allows to highlight some more generic developments, particularly with regard to the assertion of individuals within modern infrastructural landscapes, and the intrinsically political dimension of infrastructure that usually tends to remain overshadowed, in the same way that infrastructures generally tend to be buried and kept out of sight. 

A one-day conference was recently organized to celebrate LATTS’s 30th anniversary, based on a dialogue between former and current researchers of the centre. The conference was a great success with over one hundred participants. LATTS PhD students and recently arrived researchers were able to present their ideas to the laboratory’s founders and old members. Over time, empirical objects have shifted, research questions have evolved, and the relationships between technologies, territories and societies components are explored anew… but the original blend appears robust. 

Finally, let us note that LATTS members lecture in several Master programmes, mainly in urbanism, sociology, political science and geography. Among these courses, a typically STS-oriented masters course has been organised by LATTS since 2013 for the ENPC engineering students; entitled Mapping controversies in science and technology, it was developed in relation with the FORCCAST project launched by Bruno Latour a few years ago, which brings together teaching experience in controversies from around the world. 




Daston L and Galison P. (2007) Objectivity. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Edgerton D (2006) The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900. London: Profile Books.

Graham S and Marvin S 2001. Splintering urbanism: networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition. London : Routledge.

MacKenzie D and Wajcman J (1999) The social shaping of technology. 2nd ed. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Chatzis K, Jeannot G, November V and Ughetto P (Eds.) (2017). Les métamorphoses des infrastructures, entre béton et numérique. Bern: Peter Lang

Forccast (Formation par la cartographie des controverses à l’analyse des sciences et des techniques)

November V. and Créton-Cazanave L. (Eds.) (2017). La gestion de crise à l’épreuve de l’exercice EU SEQUANA, Paris: La documentation française.