Past-proofing Infrastructure Futures: Usable Histories of Urban Technology Today

THESys Project

About the Project


In increasingly urgent debates about climate, environmental and societal crises, talk of the future is drowning out consideration of the past. The value of history as a compass for societal orientation is being all-too-readily overlooked. The proposed research project uses the case of infrastructure to demonstrate how history can be used as an experiential resource to help navigate the multiple crises we are facing today. It contends that the valid call to future-proof infrastructure systems needs to draw on a sound, critical and inclusive understanding of the past if it is to be effective: a process characterized here as ‘past-proofing’ infrastructure futures.


The project combines three strands of scholarship – on usable pasts, on the history of technology and on urban infrastructures as historically mediated sociotechnical entanglements – to produce a conceptually grounded, methodologically innovative and empirically rich analysis of usable histories of urban technology, drawing on usable past initiatives worldwide for inspiration and grounding the applied research in one city: Berlin.


The overarching purpose of this project is to generate knowledge on how the past can be mobilized, critically and productively, to help shape transformative pathways for urban infrastructure systems of energy and water, using Berlin as an empirical case study and site for knowledge dissemination.

The project pursues four core objectives:

  • first, to develop a robust, nuanced and inclusive understanding of the concept and practice of usable pasts, based on a wide-ranging review of academic literature, projects and networks,
  • second, to analyse and refine methods for elucidating and disseminating usable pasts,
  • third, to co-generate usable infrastructure histories for Berlin in close partnership with infrastructure professionals, policymakers and knowledge intermediaries and
  • fourth, to initiate and consolidate a global research network on usable pasts.


The project is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) from December 2023 to November 2025 (grant no. MO 1057/14-1).

Project Team

Timothy Moss, Principal Investigator, IRI THESys, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Pauline Münch, Science Communicator, IRI THESys, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Project Partners

The project team will interact continuously with practitioner partners to ensure the project’s feasibility in delivering truly usable pasts to providers, policymakers and users of urban infrastructure services. These partners have been selected by their nodal functions for urban and infrastructure expertise in Berlin. They are:

  • City Museum of Berlin (Stadtmuseum Berlin),
  • German Museum of Technology (Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin – DTM),
  • InfraLab Berlin, a multi-utility platform that represents the city’s leading energy, water, waste and transportation utilities,
  • Centre of Competence for Water Berlin (Kompetenzzentrum Wasser BerlinKWB).


  • Short films on researching Berlin’s infrastructure history
  • Digital tour of infrastructure sites in Berlin, revealing their past and present relevance
  • Moss, T. (2021): Technikgeschichte für heute: Formate der Wissensvermittlung. Technikgeschichte 88(4), 385-390. 10.5771/0040-117X-2021-4-385.

Stadtforum Berlin Wasser

Stadtforum Berlin – a long-standing multi-stakeholder platform for discussing urban development issues organized by the Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development – is dedicating its current series to the topic of infrastructure. The opening event on 27 November was about the city’s water infrastructures and their transformation to support Berlin’s ambition to become a “sponge city”, retaining and reusing water locally. One of the ‘dialogue stations’ was on the value of history in unpacking the relationship between urban development and water infrastructures. THESys member Tim Moss provided an illustrated input to this debate, reflecting on different kinds of ‘usable pasts’ of Berlin’s water infrastructures, and joined the final plenary discussion. Future Stadtforum events will likely address infrastructures of energy, health and social care.

On YouTube: Stadtforum Berlin. Wasser. In aller Kürze.

Project Website