Perspectives and Implications for the Development of Information Infrastructures

Perspectives and Implications for the Development of Information Infrastructures

Panos Constantinides (Frederick University, Cyprus)
Indexed In: SCOPUS
Release Date: May, 2012|Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 372
ISBN13: 9781466616226|ISBN10: 1466616229|EISBN13: 9781466616233|DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-1622-6


In the same way that infrastructures such as transportation, electricity, sewage, and water supply are widely assumed to be integrators of urban spaces, information infrastructures are assumed to be integrators of information spaces. With the advent of Web 2.0 and new types of information infrastructures such as online social networks and smart mobile platforms, a more in-depth understanding of the various rights to access, use, develop, and modify information infrastructure resources is necessary.

Perspectives and Implications for the Development of Information Infrastructures aims at addressing this need by offering a fresh new perspective on information infrastructure development. It achieves this by drawing on and adapting theory that was initially developed to study natural resource commons arrangements such as inshore fisheries, forests, irrigation systems, and pastures, while placing great emphasis on the complex problems and social dilemmas that often arise in the negotiations.

Topics Covered

The many academic areas covered in this publication include, but are not limited to:

  • Challenges in information infrastructures
  • Commons perspective
  • Development of information infrastructures
  • Integrated, standardized cities
  • IT governance
  • IT Research and Theory
  • Knowledge Management
  • Longitudinal research
  • The infrastructure ideal
  • Urban Planning

Reviews and Testimonials

Clearly, this book by Panos Constantinides is timely and of great importance to researchers and practitioners in contemporary economies and societies. It is comprehensive in addressing the wide scope of development of information infrastructures and thoughtfully considers their consequences for individuals, organizations, and governments in the 21st century. Students of multiple disciplines including information systems and philosophy of technology will find this book relevant to their studies at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

– Michael Barrett, University of Cambridge, UK

Table of Contents and List of Contributors

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In the same way that infrastructures such as transportation, electricity, sewerage, and water supply are widely assumed to be integrators of urban spaces (Graham & Marvin, 2001), information infrastructures such as national health information networks and online social networks are assumed to be integrators of information spaces.

Interest in information infrastructure development grew with the advent of the Internet and the popularization of computing technologies (Gross, 1986), and was later further promoted through government-led plans towards the creation of national and international information infrastructures (NTIA, 1993; Bangemann et al., 1994). 

Information infrastructures have since been conceptualized as pyramidal IT portfolios towards better investments for strategic business-IT alignment (Weill & Broadbent, 1998), open, heterogeneous information systems (Hanseth, 2001), or as ecologies of distributed and often conflicting social and technological systems (Bowker & Star, 1999). Despite this variation of perspectives, most researchers tend to agree that an information infrastructure emerges in time through negotiations between diverse groups and individuals directly involved in its development. 

These negotiation processes have been called “the deal-making processes” between stronger and weaker stakeholder groups (Weill & Broadbent, 1998), “involved socio-technical negotiations” (Monteiro, 2001), and “practical politics” (Bowker & Star, 1999). Recent research (Sahay et al., 2009) has highlighted the different sets of actors (both small and large) whose negotiations are significant to understand the how and why of configuring information infrastructures–i.e. their ability to adapt, interconnect, co-evolve, and integrate. In this research, it is argued that actors have little choice but to align their new information systems with the existing institutions’ agendas, practices, and routines (also see Braa et al., 2004; Chilundo & Aanestad, 2005). 

Despite these developments concerning the importance of negotiations in the development of information infrastructures, it has been argued that further work is needed to better understand “why and how negotiations occur” (Sahay et al., 2009, pp.402). In particular, there is a need to understand how contradictions and contestations around the development of an information infrastructure actually become negotiated.

This need is particularly evident now with the advent of Web 2.0 and new types of information infrastructures, from online social networks such as Facebook, Flickr, and Second Life, to free and open source software (FOSS) development platforms, and blogs, wikis (e.g. WikiLeaks), and smart mobile telephony development platforms (e.g. Android). 

These new information infrastructures, like their more conventional predecessors (e.g. enterprise resource planning systems), necessitate a more in-depth understanding of the various rights to access, use, develop, and modify information infrastructure resources, but also of rights to regulate the former, and of rights to own parts of the information infrastructure itself. It is, thus, argued that efforts to understand how contradictions and contestations around the development of an information infrastructure actually become negotiated need to take into consideration the various rights that different stakeholders claim to have on the infrastructure. 

This book aims at addressing this need by offering a fresh new perspective on information infrastructure development. It achieves this by drawing and adapting theory that was initially developed to study natural resource commons arrangements such as inshore fisheries, forests, irrigation systems, and pastures–while placing great emphasis on the complex problems and social dilemmas that often arise in the negotiations.

This book was initially inspired by studies in urban planning and infrastructure development toward the binding of scattered geographical time-spaces, while highlighting the complex socio-political and socio-technical entanglements involved (Coutard, 1999; Graham & Marvin, 2001; Hughes, 1983; Sassen, 2001). 

In a highly cited book, Thomas Hughes (1983) described the processes of developing large electrical networks in the early 20th century, reflecting and making tangible the power and politics of the spaces within which technologies are developed, implemented, and used. Hughes argued that technology gains “momentum” both by becoming institutionalized in social values, and by the very affordances of its materiality–the possibilities of use it carries in its capabilities. In doing so, technologies “embody, reinforce, and enact social and political power” (Hecht & Allen, 2001, pp.3). Such historical studies of infrastructure later gave way to various sociotechnical approaches to understanding the evolution of large technological systems (Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1987) and laid the foundations for an understanding of technology as “both socially constructed and society shaping” (Hughes, 1987, pp.51).

The field of science and technology studies (STS) has extensively explored the development of information infrastructures (Bowker, 1994; Bowker, Timmermans et al., 1995; Bowker & Star, 1999; Hanseth et al., 1996; Hanseth & Monteiro, 1997; Star, 1999; Star & Ruhleder, 1996). In this field, information infrastructures are thought to support work practices through a vast array of community services and resources (collaboratories and centers, data and code repositories, best practices and standards development, etc.). Two main issues are associated with the development of information infrastructures: first, the tension between efforts to keep the infrastructure open and shared vs. efforts to regulate their use by an expanding community of users (cf. Hanseth 2001; Star & Ruhleder, 1996)–i.e. in the sense of a public or quasi-public good (Bowker et al., 2010)–and second, the challenges involved in controlling the scalability of an information infrastructure vs. acknowledging the processes of “drift” and of unintended consequences (Ciborra, 2001; Hanseth et al., 2006; Sahay et al., 2009). 

In seeking ways to better understand these two issues, it became clear that the development of information infrastructures was best approached as a problem of collective action. The term “collective action” refers to joint action by a number of individuals to achieve and distribute some gain through coordination or cooperation (Hardin, 1982). Research in the development of information infrastructures is overflowing with such collective action problems including conflicts between richer and poorer business units engaged in a “deal making process,” because of the mismatch between the costs and benefits of receiving different parts of the information infrastructure (Weill & Broadbent, 1998); as well as the politics of deciding the standards and classifications of work supported by an information infrastructure (Bowker & Star, 1999; Hanseth et al., 1996; Hanseth et al., 2006).

Research into collective action problems was initiated with Mancur Olson’s (1965) now classic Logic of Collective Action and later popularized with Gareth Hardin’s (1968) thesis on the “tragedy of the commons.” A commons is a set of resources, which are collectively owned or shared between or among a community or a group of communities (Ostrom, 1990). The commons contains public and private property, over which different communities have certain rights (Ostrom, 1990). Potential collective action problems in the use, governance, and sustainability of a commons are thought to lead to social dilemmas such as free-riding and overconsumption (Baland & Platteau, 1996; Ostrom, 1990; Wade, 1994). In turn, recommendations are made where external authorities impose a different set of institutional rules and property rights to manage these dilemmas toward socially optimal actions for the sake of public interest. Some scholars recommend local-based, private property as the most efficient form of ownership, whereas others recommend centralized government ownership and control (see Hess & Ostrom, 2003 for an extensive discussion).

It is this need to define appropriate property rights toward socially optimal actions that eventually led researchers and policy makers to suggest an alternative form of commons development–an approach which could also be relevant and useful for the development of information infrastructures. 

It has been argued that, over the last two decades, the logic of collective action is becoming more heterogeneous and multilayered, derived not from a single core structure such as the state, but from networked interdependencies across global markets (Castells, 2010). These networked interdependencies have reconfigured the traditional bureaucratic organization of collective action to a blended action model based on a network of communities of practice that draw on expert as well as local, experience-based knowledge (Snyder & Briggs, 2003; Ostrom, 1999). This shift in the logic of collective action points to processes of “empowered participatory governance”–that is, processes that devolve decision-making power across different stakeholders (Fung & Wright, 2003).

Perhaps the most interesting example of participative, empowered, collective action in recent years has been the open source software movement (Benkler, 2006). Free and open source software is an approach to software development, whereby many individuals contribute to a common project, with a variety of motivations, while sharing their respective contributions without a single person or entity asserting rights to exclude either from the contributed components or from the resulting whole. In order to avoid having the joint product appropriated by any single party, participants usually retain copyrights in their contribution, but license them to others on a model that combines a universal license to use the materials with licensing constraints that make it difficult, if not impossible, for any single contributor or third party to appropriate the project. 

At the same time, however, the success of open source software, and other such social production examples, does not mean that collective action entails purely consensual or conflict-free action. Collective action benefits from divergent as well as convergent thinking. There is evidence, for example, that the proliferation of participatory approaches to managing infrastructures for water and other vital resources worldwide has led to many unstructured negotiations, misunderstandings about the meaning of consensus, and a fear of sharing power (Susskind & Hoben, 2004). Creating alternative (i.e. participatory, community-led) processes of infrastructure development that are not only popular, but by definition challenge the status quo in important ways is far more daunting a problem than advancing a particular policy position or winning approval for a particular project. Beyond the structural conflicts over the material properties of an infrastructure and its value, there is a classic “tragedy of the commons”: there are varied experiences of the benefits and costs of the infrastructure because of the uneven use of the infrastructure by users of varied wealth, political power, location, and skills (Castells, 2010).

This book draws on the ideas discussed above to develop a commons perspective and theoretical framework for understanding the development of information infrastructures. It is argued that the commons perspective, with its emphasis on collective action problems as negotiated through different property rights, supports a more detailed analysis of why and how negotiations around information infrastructure development occur.

By placing greater attention to the dynamics of power and resistance in the development of information infrastructures, the commons perspective aims at yielding significant theoretical and practical insights into how attempts at control and regulation are always challenged by those who are subjected to control. Issues of agency, the mutually productive relationship between domination and resistance, and the creation of institutional arrangements can be understood only with greater attention to micro-politics (e.g. definition of property rights and governance structures). Such a shift in focus can also help address the criticism that scholars of information infrastructure development have, for the most part, ignored how users can shape attempts by outside agents such as the state or private companies to intervene into their work practices and modify existing patterns of infrastructure use (see Bowker & Star, 1999). The key point here is to analyze why and when different stakeholders respond in particular and differentiated ways to new strategies of institutionalized power by scrutinizing their historical structural locations and the extent to which they are already privileged or marginalized by new strategies of power.

The contribution of the commons perspective is illustrated in two empirical case studies. The first one focuses on the development of a regional health information infrastructure in Greece during the years 1997-2006. This case study was conducted in joint with Michael Barrett and involved empirical data collection over five field work phases (January 2003, July 2003, January 2004, September 2005, July 2006), each lasting between two and four weeks. During these field trips, a total of 65 interviews were conducted with senior management and engineers at CreteTechi, the research and development institute behind the development of the infrastructure, healthcare professionals and administrators at nine primary healthcare centers and three hospitals, and senior officers at the Regional Health Authorities of Crete. During these fieldtrips, we also conducted observations of the use of different IT applications at various sites, while contrasting those observations to project reports and white papers in relation to key events in the project timeline. The second case study draws on a secondary analysis of publicly available data on the development of the English National Program for IT (NPfIT). Specifically, this case study draws on publicly available data presented before the Committee of Public Accounts (CPA) assigned to examine the progress made by the English Department of Health in implementing the NPfIT (HC, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c, 2009). The findings from these two case studies are compared and contrasted to findings from other such similar infrastructure projects in the USA, Canada, Australia, Norway, India, and developing countries.

In addition to these empirical case studies, the book provides illustrative examples of information infrastructure development through the commons perspective in other domains, including industry-wide airline reservation systems such as American Airlines SABRE, global FOSS development platforms, online social networks such as Flickr and Second Life, but also global investigative journalist networks such as WikiLeaks.

Who was this book written for?
The discussion around the aforementioned case studies and illustrative examples offers both theoretical insights and practical recommendations for action. Thus, the book is relevant to researchers and policymakers alike. 

Researchers will find the comprehensive review of the literature on information infrastructure development of great value (Chapters 1 and 2). They will also value the commons perspective as a fresh new theoretical approach to understanding the negotiations around information infrastructure development and, in particular, how claims to ownership become appropriated and with what implications for different stakeholders and the technology itself (Chapter 3). The book also identifies opportunities for further research, to which the commons perspective can be applied, and which researchers will find stimulating and worth pursuing (Chapters 8 and 9). Finally, researchers will find the questions posed in Chapter 10 around their role in information infrastructure research of great use and relevance, as they pursue new research opportunities. 

Policymakers will also enjoy reading the discussion in Chapter 3 around the commons perspective, but they will value the discussions on the two case studies in Chapter 4 and 5 even more. The two case studies provide empirical evidence on the development of information infrastructures in actual practice. These discussions are followed by a synthesis of the key findings, outlining the successes, challenges, and failures observed in the two case studies, that policymakers will find of great value and relevance to their own practical settings (Chapter 6). Finally, Chapter 7 offers a comprehensive discussion of a set of principles for IT governance, derived from the commons perspective and the findings from the two case studies (with links to the information infrastructure literature), that policymakers could apply in other settings.

In addition to the two main readers listed above, this book could also be of use to instructors of graduate and postgraduate courses in IT strategy and governance, but also IT project management. Chapters 1 and 2 offer great introductory material to the study of information infrastructures or large-scale systems. Chapters 4 and 5 offer in-depth case material that could be used in class for discussing strategic lessons learned emerging from the two empirical settings. Finally, Chapters 6 and 7 offer material that could be used to explore principles of IT governance and project management. 

The book is organized into three sections and ten chapters. The book starts with a Section on Theory (Chapters 1-3), where the theory used in the book is explained in detail. This is followed by a Section with Case Studies (Chapters 4-7), where the theory is applied in empirical settings. Finally, the book concludes with a Section on Further Research (Chapters 8-10), where opportunities for further research using the theory and findings in the book are explored. A brief description of each of the chapters follows.

Chapter 1 provides a historical review of studies on infrastructure development and urban planning. This chapter is an introduction to the whole book, as it poses the key questions explored in the rest of chapters, including what is an infrastructure, how infrastructure development has been approached by government agencies and private companies and/or partnerships between the two, and what type of collective action problems have been most critical to infrastructure development.

Chapter 2 offers a critical review of the literature on information infrastructure by tracing the evolution of the concept of infrastructure into the concept of information infrastructure. The key objective is to describe in detail how different researchers have approached the concept from varied perspectives in their efforts to understand information infrastructure and its role in organizational transformation and practice. In particular, Chapter 2 organizes the literature according to two key broad perspectives, namely, the functionalist perspective, which seeks to develop management agendas towards increased strategic business-IT alignment, and the socio-technical perspective, which is not concerned with management prescriptions and more interested in the multilevel context of socio-technical processes of information infrastructure development. This organization of the literature aims at uncovering key themes in past and current research, while at the same time communicating the general positions of this book. Chapter 2 concludes with a summary of some key observations emerging from this critical literature review and identifies implications for the theoretical approach adopted in the rest of this book. 

Drawing on the key themes emerging from the critical literature review on information infrastructure research presented in Chapter 2, Chapter 3 discusses a theoretical framework to differentiate and further clarify the nature and type of negotiations that take place between various stakeholders involved in the development of information infrastructures. In particular, Chapter 3 draws on empirical research into commons arrangements such as inshore fisheries, forests, irrigation systems, and pastures with particular emphasis on the complex problems and social dilemmas that often arise in the negotiations. This discussion helps to explain why it is relevant and useful to approach an information infrastructure from a commons perspective. Chapter 3 concludes by highlighting the contribution of a commons perspective to understanding the development of information infrastructures. 

Chapters 4 and 5 draw on the theory discussed in Chapter 3, to discuss and analyze empirical data from two case studies, while also developing implications for further research. Specifically, Chapter 4 draws on empirical research carried out during the years 2003-2006 on the development of a regional health information infrastructure in Greece. The chapter starts by looking at the impact that European Information Society programmes have had on related initiatives in Greece and, in particular, the Greek national health sector. Subsequently, using the commons perspective discussed in Chapter 3, Chapter 4 examines the development of a regional health information infrastructure in Crete. Drawing on more recent evidence, the chapter concludes with an analysis of the consequences of the outcomes of the development of the health information infrastructure in Crete, for Greece, and more broadly, for European Information Society programmes.  

Chapter 5 draws on publicly available data on the development of the English National Program for IT (NPfIT) during the years 1998-2010. The chapter starts by tracing the historical evolution of policies used to bring the NPfIT into existence by examining broader political discourses in the English national health system toward improving the provision of public sector healthcare services. Then, drawing on the commons perspective discussed in Chapter 3, the following section provides an analysis of publicly available data presented before the Committee of Public Accounts (CPA) assigned to examine the progress made by the English Department of Health in implementing the NPfIT. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the consequences of these negotiations for the English NPfIT and other such national information infrastructure projects.  

Chapter 6 synthesizes the findings from the analysis of the two case studies. This synthesis leads to key theoretical implications while establishing stronger links between the literature on information infrastructures and traditional commons arrangements. 

Chapter 7 uses the discussion in Chapter 6 as a springboard to explore a set of commons-based principles for governing information infrastructures. Drawing on Ostrom’s (1990) original principles for commons arrangements, Chapter 7 discusses and analyzes alternative development strategies for the two case studies presented in Chapters 4 and 5 and analyzed in Chapter 6, by focusing on processes of empowered participation. These principles are also contrasted to current research on IT governance and more recent developments from commons studies. Chapter 7 concludes with implications for further research into IT governance through a commons perspective.

Chapters 8, 9, and 10 explore possibilities of applying the discussions in earlier chapters for further research on new information infrastructures. Specifically, Chapter 8 explores the particular attributes of new and emerging information infrastructures, and why it would be useful to approach those through a commons perspective. The discussion focuses on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) projects, examining what makes individuals and communities contribute code and ideas towards a FOSS product, but also how they negotiate and eventually agree on a set of institutional rules for structuring their collective action. The chapter also examines the emerging attributes of mash-up projects and the ways that, once again, individuals and communities design and structure their contribution. Chapter 8 concludes with some implications for further research on and around these new information infrastructures.  

Chapter 9 builds on parts of the discussion in Chapter 8 by exploring the challenge in governing the consequences of free-willed individual action against collective action and the sustainability of new information infrastructures. In particular, this chapter focuses on the consequences of allowing different users to freely choose–if indeed they are free, i.e. without any external influence–how to interact with others in the Web spaces offered by new information infrastructures. The WikiLeaks information infrastructure is used as an example to set the ground for examining how new information infrastructures generate a number of consequences for the freedom of individual users, and for those seeking to monitor and control infrastructure use. This discussion raises a number of ethical issues which are explored by drawing on Foucault’s (1984, 1991) notion of governmentality. The chapter concludes with some implications for further research on the ethical governance of information infrastructure development.  

Chapter 10 concludes the book with a critical reflection of the ethical role of researchers in understanding and acting on the consequences of new information infrastructures, as discussed in Chapter 9. Chapter 10 explores the role researchers can and should play in dealing with ethical and other issues emerging from research. In particular, the discussion draws on the notion of “phronesis”–the reflective development of prudent knowledge through ongoing action and reflection that is continuously shaped by and imbued with situated values and interests from a community of inquirers (Flyvbjerg, 2001, 2006). Chapter 10 concludes by proposing a set of practical recommendations that researchers could employ in conducting their own research on new information infrastructures


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i To preserve the confidentiality of the responses, all names in this research have been anonymized.

Author(s)/Editor(s) Biography

Panos Constantinides is Assistant Professor of Management Information Systems at Frederick University’s Business School. Before joining Frederick University, Panos held positions at Lancaster University`s Management School and the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, where he also earned his Ph.D. Panos has previously worked on research projects on the development and implementation of healthcare-related IT, in association with IBM (UK), BT Health (UK), Synbiotix (UK & Cyprus), and the Institute of Computer Science at the Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas (Greece). He is interested in the negotiation of collective action problems around the development of information infrastructures such as public and corporate IT networks, as well as Web 2.0 technologies. He is also interested in professional and research ethics.