Peaks, sites, and cycles – DEMAND Summer School 2015 (14-16 July 2015)

Understanding the temporal and spatial dynamics of energy and mobility demand is an important issue in the social sciences, and could, in more practical terms, contribute to reducing and managing peak loads in energy and mobility. But how can such an understanding be reached?

The DEMAND center, an interdisciplinary group of researchers based at Lancaster University (UK) with many affiliations and collaborations both within and outside of the UK, organized the Summer School ‘Peaks, sites, and cycles’ from July 14 to 16, 2015. The aim of the workshop was to assess the ability of various concepts and methodologies to enable an understanding of the dynamics of energy and mobility demand. Taking as their starting point that energy is of profound importance in terms of accomplishing various social practices, the researchers at the DEMAND center argue that “social practices and energy demand are shaped by infrastructures and institutions”, which form systems that “reproduce interpretations of need and entitlement, and of normal and accepted ways of life.” []

These premises can be aligned with several questions that were of great importance during the Summer School: “how and why do patterns of daily life vary across space and change over time? In what ways do technologies, interfaces and infrastructures co-constitute these patterns? How are assumptions of time and space imagined and incorporated into future visions, strategies and policies?” [] As I argue at greater length below, the work of the well-known French scholar Henri Lefebvre proved to be pivotal in the discussion on the peaks, sites, and cycles that make up the patterns, or rather ‘rhythms’, of everyday life.

Disclaimer: in the following, I will reflect on my own participation in the aforementioned Summer School by aligning my experiences with some other ideas pertaining to infrastructures that have emerged in my recent work on smart cities and smart metering. This blog post isn’t meant as an exhaustive report of the DEMAND Summer School, but rather a highly personal way of making sense of an intense and inspiring exchange of ideas.

The politics of infrastructures

An important component of the Summer School was the ability of concepts and methodologies to dislodge more established notions pertaining to energy consumption. Social practices cannot be explained by referring to some pre-existent domain of ‘society’ that precedes social interactions. Like an Odyssean Siren, my work as a Science and Technology Studies (STS) researcher has tempted me to elaborate on this at greater length here.

A basic tenet in STS is that societies do not consist of “elements that are a priori and intrinsically social, technical, economic, or cultural.” (Bijker 1995, 249) Rather, all of these elements exert some effect within ‘sociotechnical ensembles’, which form a “seamless web”. (Ibid.) Thus, the modernist dualism of a mechanical nature versus society constructed ex nihilo is rejected. In the work of Bruno Latour, sociotechnical ensembles (or ‘assemblages’ as he would probably prefer) are forged by the most powerful actors in an actor network. As a result, Latour’s work has been criticized due to its ‘Machiavellistic’ tendencies, since ‘might makes right’. Still, this need not be the end of politics, but rather the starting point for elaborate studies of infrastructures of paramount importance to energy and mobility that are currently in place and often left unquestioned. The very success of such infrastructures renders them more and more invisible, until the lid flies of the proverbial Pandora’s box, or when a researcher pries open said box.

Leaving energy and transport infrastructures unquestioned renders their impact on society opaque. There’s a more general aspect of infrastructures that deserves some elaboration in this respect. According to Latour, society persists through mediation in the form of technologies, which are understood rather loosely as both ‘hard’ technological artifacts, and ‘soft’ technologies such as technological standards and organizations. This leads me to a strange conundrum: infrastructures are both an expression of societies, since they are established by those powerful enough to construct infrastructures, and technologies (taken in the loose sense indicated above) that underpin societies, since they are of paramount importance in creating the flows of data, materials, and people that co-construct societies. Although the relationship between Latour’s work and infrastructures requires more elaboration, I’d like to push on by arguing that power relations shape infrastructures and the interactions that take place by means of them. I prefer writing ‘by means of infrastructures’ rather than ‘on infrastructures’, since the latter phrasing implies a free flow of information on infrastructures understood as innocent carriers of information, materials, or people. It’s important to focus on how power impacts infrastructures, for example by amplifying some voices whilst drowning out others, or enabling certain interactions whilst preventing others.

What could a more political approach to infrastructures look like? A Latourian politics aims not so much at undoing society, but rather attempts to build stronger and better connections between the actors of which human societies are composed. Latour proposes an ongoing process of ‘collective experimentation’ in order to build political infrastructures that are trusted by members of society whilst being under scrutiny at all times. Similarly, tracing the various ways in which power relations permeate infrastructures, or showing how power flows through infrastructures rather than unconditionally embracing infrastructural technologies as self-explanatory or empowering, could be a starting point for a politics of infrastructures. Studying networks in such a manner can be empowering, since it creates different imaginaries through which these infrastructures can be understood differently.

Keeping this in mind and referring back to the intent of the Summer School stated above: what concepts and methods are up to the task of understanding infrastructures and the dynamics of energy and mobility enabled by such infrastructures in a more ‘political’ manner?

The rhythmicity of everyday life

In some ways, an advantage of studying today’s ubiquitous digital infrastructures is the availability of data related to such infrastructures. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as ‘pure’ or ‘objective’ data. Such an understanding of data would be difficult to align with my previous remarks on ‘seamless webs’ and ‘sociotechnical assemblages ‘. Rather, data is crafted through the impact of social practices, data protocols, institutions, etc. In other words, attempts to understand data apart from its means of generation, and how it is subsequently processed and mobilized in order to ‘predict’, ‘monitor’, and ‘understand’ certain phenomena, fail to take into account the practices through which data is endowed with meaning.

On the first day of the Summer School, Giulio Mattioli (University of Leeds, Institute for Transport Studies) discussed some of the challenges of quantitative analysis of event-based data (collections of ordered sequences of events, where each sequence has a particular start time and end time) for understanding patterns of behavior related to transport and energy. Although event-based data provides fine-grained categorization of activities, allows for the detection of meaningful activities, and delivers richness of information, there are also limitations to this kind of data. Important information, such as the make and model of vehicles, may not be available, and the level of detail, the period of time covered, and the sample size may imply further limitations. A further problem is introduced by the more and more pervasive standardization of categories used for data collection and analysis, which are difficult to circumvent. In sum, event-based data yields some understanding, but leaves out details on the level of the individual or household, which is where energy consumption can be greatly reduced or optimized.

Sumei Wang (National Chengchi University, Taiwan) discussed a different way forward in her talk on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and their impact on the daily rhythms and time management of mothers in Taiwan. Although ICTs have contributed to the acceleration of society and changed work-home boundaries as well as time regimes, they did not appear to have changed power relations between men and women in Taiwan. Especially Taiwanese mothers have a ‘juggling lifestyle’, where daily rhythms are subject to the temporal structures of the workplace and the routines of other families. In this context, ICTs play an important role for Taiwanese mothers in terms of maintaining connections with the outside world and their struggle to get some time of their own. A central problem of the general acceleration of life and society is coordination: ICTs effect a ‘speeding up’ everyday life, which requires individuals to coordinate by creating personal space-time trajectories by means of ICTs. Thus, they make their lives in the accelerated societies in which they find themselves work. However, if everyone follows space-time trajectories of their own choosing, the problem of coordination increases further.

Manchester, UK (July 2015)

Manchester, UK (July 2015)

Tim Schwanen (University of Oxford, Transport Studies Unit) elaborated on Lefebvre’s rhythmicity as a means of coming to terms with the complexity of cities and the actions of urban dwellers pertaining to energy and mobility demand. Lefebvre’s notion of ‘rhythmicity’ and ‘rhythmanalysis’, most systematically explored in Lefebvre’s book ‘Rhythmanalysis’ (2004), can be understood as an onto-epistemology and methodology for understanding everyday life. Underpinning Lefebvre’s work is an ontology of process: everything is rhythm or rhythmic, and rhythms interact and align with each other. Lefebvre’s work is a political project through and through, and argues linear rhythms have become more important at the expensive of the cyclical rhythms in modernity and industrial cities. For Lefebvre, the linear is synonymous with repetition, monotony, tediousness, the mechanical, technology, and capitalist society. The more cyclical view of everyday life that Lefebvre wishes to advance emphasizes difference, freshness, novelty, the organic, biology, and ‘nature’.

Rhythm, used in an epistemological and methodological sense, can overcome dualistic thinking: instead of understanding everyday life as linear, mechanical, and discrete, rhythmanalysis invites more cyclic, organic, continuous views of everyday life. Lefebvre’s project is inevitably partial and situated, and must be extended and updated if it is to be deployed in studies of everyday life in the contemporary city. In Lefebvre’s own words:

“No ear, no piece of apparatus could grasp this whole, this flux of metallic and carnal bodies. In order to grasp the rhythms, a bit of time, a sort of meditation on time, the city, people, is required.” (Lefebvre 2004, 39)

Lefebvre’s essay on rhythmanalysis that was discussed during the Summer School is a highly personal reflection of Lefebvre’s own experiences, and includes detailed descriptions of what he sees whilst looking out of the window of his apartment in Paris. For Lefebvre, There’s a special role for the observer who aligns herself with Lefebvre’s notion of rhythmicity:

“No camera, no image or series of images can show these rhythms. It requires equally attentive eyes and ears, a head and a memory and a heart. A memory? Yes, in order to grasp this present otherwise than in an instantaneous moment, to restore it in its moments, in the movement of diverse rhythms.” (Lefebvre 2004, 45)

The body becomes a referent or perhaps even a metronome, though in Lefebvre’s work the body remains universal and unmarked, devoid of gender, race, and cultural background. Observation of different rhythms relative to one’s body induces reflection on past, future, and elsewhere. Everyday life may appear opaque for the observer, working through the suggestions and perspectives provided by rhythms, though this is ultimately a way to grasp power relations that lurk beyond the apparent self-explanatory aspects of everyday life that are often taken for granted:

“Just as beyond the horizon, other horizons bloom without being present, so beyond the sensible and visible order, which reveals political power, other orders suggest themselves: a logic, a division of labour, leisure activities are also produced (and productive), although they are proclaimed free and even ‘free time’. Isn’t this freedom also a product?” (Lefebvre 2004, 42)

In fact, the vast majority of rhythms are taken for granted, especially when they seamlessly fit together. They usually only become apparent when they start to break down. For example, through mobile communication technologies we’ve become more and more enmeshed in a hidden infrastructural layer that we typically don’t ‘see’ or interact with directly, as Alan Wiig (Temple University) eloquently argued during the second day of the Summer School. Infrastructure is not so much disappearing but intangible or impalpable.

However, rhythmanalysis can help to make sense of power relations and their effects on everyday life, even if they are relatively inaccessible to the typical observer:

“Observation and meditation follow the lines of force that come from the past, from the present and from the possible, and which rejoin one another in the observer, simultaneously centre and periphery.” (Lefebvre 2004, 46)

The observer appears at center stage, not as someone who has an eagle eye view of the city, but more like a mole, patiently and persistently digging in an attempt to make sense of what is encountered along the way.

Rhythmanalysis of peaks, sites, and cycles

Lancaster, UK (July 2015)

Lancaster, UK (July 2015)

If the point of rhythmanalysis is to re-imagine everyday life and furnish the future with new possibilities, how can it be applied to the study of peaks, sites, and cycles? Schwanen elaborated on smart meters and energy peaks and looked at them through a ‘rhythmic lens’. The implementation of smart meters is governed by linear rhythms, since it is dominated by the quantitative logic of clock time, and an economic logic of rational consumers who are primarily motivated by monetary pricing and simply need to be informed better. However, the effects of smart meters on energy consumption are likely to be messier and more heterogeneous than expected. Smart meters become part of highly complex interrelated rhythms composed of the behavior of different consumers, different situations at home, etc. When all of this gets abstracted away, it is possible to come up with a nice and elegant representation of what smart meters are (supposedly) able to do.

More generally, Schwanen argued, the rhythmicity of everyday life is approached in the top-down, quantitative, and linear manner that Lefebvre criticizes. However, the role of the state in Lefebvre’s work remains somewhat unclear. Capitalism, state, and culture may be dominant forces, but both remain fairly abstract and causal mechanisms that go woefully unexplained. Decades of neoliberalisation have changed the role of the state to the point where new explanatory mechanisms may be needed. What is more, linear rhythms may provide a basis on which individuals may display different behavior. In other words, the linearity that can be attributed to policy instruments and technological devices in a Lefebvrian framework may not end up coercing consumer behavior in a straightforward manner.

As much as rhythmanalysis can be problematized (the abstract body of the observer, the heterogeneous effects of ‘the state’ and technology), I think one should keep in mind the profound provisional character of Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysis, as indicated above, which is in effect a ‘call to arms’ for observers and an invitation to pursue a profoundly ethnographic agenda. The Summer School’s final presentations by Catherine Grandclement and Magali Pierre (EDF R&D) and Tony Whiteing (University of Leeds, Institute for Transport Studies) provided ample inspiration in this sense.

Grandclement and Pierre showed how assumptions related to smart metering can be contested by looking at how individual consumers and households incorporate smart metering into their everyday practices. As argued above, the common rationale behind the smart meter assumes a rational consumer that simply needs to acquire more information in order to behave in a more efficient and energy-conscious manner. However, smart meters, but also charging stations for electric cars, are located on the interface between consumer service and public infrastructure, leading to careful balancing between private consumption and collective provision that turns out differently from case to case. The boundaries between individual consumers and collective infrastructures are only settled provisionally, and how boundaries are drawn between them reflects different, sometimes competing, interests. How such boundaries end up being ut in place leads to various ideas about energy (is it a resource or a public service?), private and public space and responsibilities, and the roles that consumers and the industry should fulfill.

Whiteing reflected on peaks, sites, and cycles in logistics. Passenger movements differ in important ways from freight movements. In personal transport, peak problems, when unmanaged, have disadvantageous consequences that are typically dealt with by means of pricing practices. However, far less is known about peaks in freight movement and ways to manage them. Pricing may not really be a solution in this area. Freight transport peaks occur further in advance of the demand peaks that cause them, which is due to planning and stockholding activities and the long elapsed supply time. For example, peaks for producing Christmas goods occur many months earlier. Some freight operators use peak pricing to alleviate some of the pressure, although competitive behavior between major players reduces its effectiveness. Large global players seem willing to increase capacity as a competitive strategy. Such a predominantly logistical approach is problematized by the fact that freight demand is highly marketing-led. Marketing departments compete head-on in an environment where sales volumes and market shares are all-important. The online shopping sector is still growing fast and business models are still evolving, making future scenarios somewhat uncertain. With the advent of online shopping, retailers know that demand is likely to be peaked and that hardly any money can be made in the delivery process, but no one will want to turn business away. Online platforms are a relatively novel way to compete for retailers, but at the cost of profit margins. Parcel companies need volume to fill their networks, but may be charging too little. For sure, delivery companies are working on waver-thin margins and there’s no way to predict how the dust will settle for the parties involved.

Concluding remarks

Rhythmicity provides a valuable instrument to understand the relatively opacity of infrastructures and peak demands in energy and transport. Infrastructures are an important part of present-day societies that are rendered invisible by their success and left unquestioned, and deserve to become subject to scrutiny. Incorporating rhythmanalysis in my own work on smart cities and smart metering is a very tempting scenario, yet would require a more ethnographic orientation in doing policy studies that is unorthodox in some circles. Although top-down and more technocratic approaches to energy and transport demand still turn more heads, rhythmanalysis provides an alternative with tremendous potential. Through its potential to deliver disruptive imaginaries about energy and transport networks, I believe rhythmanalysis has the ability to contribute to the process of collective experimentation that I outlined above.


Bijker, Wiebe E. “Sociohistorical Technology Studies.” In Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Sheila Jasanoff, Gerald E. Markle, James C. Petersen and Trevor Pinch. 229-56. Thousand Oaks, CA [etc.]: Sage, 1995.

Lefebvre, Henri. Rhythmanalysis. Londen, New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.