The relation between human needs and desires on one hand, and the structures that give rise to both human possibilities and constraints to tackle these needs and desires on the other, is a rather intriguing one. This intriguing relation is particularly evident in the large scale provision of infrastructure services in urban spaces. Urban infrastructures represent structured constellations of people, material things, norms, regulations, and practices among others, that enable societies to tackle some of their basic and even more complex needs and desires in the long run. Because of this inherent connection to societal needs and desires, infrastructures seem to be inherently needful themselves – in the full ambiguity of the term. On the one hand, infrastructures are full of demands, technical requirements, and practical constraints, which means that these structures need constant maintenance to ensure their proper functionality. On the other hand, infrastructures are also rendered necessary by virtue of the essential services they provide to society.
Although urban infrastructures are exceptional examples of inherently needful structures, this particular form of needfulness seems to pervade all organizational forms of human sociality. My work takes a philosophical perspective on human action and technology to explore the close relationship between human needs and desires, the demands and requirements of the built world, and the forms of organization that hold both humans and the built world together. It does so by drawing on the philosophical works of Jean-Paul Sartre and his theoretical thoughts on practical ensembles.
In his later work Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre concerns himself with the situation of historical individuals and the claim that these individuals are both products and (re-)producers of their socio-culturally and materially structured situation. He combines considerations about goal-directed human action with thoughts about the way in which said action inscribes itself into the material world in the form of technological things and structures. Sartre claims that the thusly materialized action acts back on humans whenever they interact with technological things and structures. Based on his thoughts about the intricate relation between action and technology, Sartre concludes that history itself must be understood as a material process in which individuals form larger constellations with other humans but also with non-human things and structures in order to tackle their needs, desires, demands, and requirements. These constellations are what Sartre refers to as practical ensembles. Sartre makes some assumptions about the formation, reinforcement, transformation, persistence, and disruption of these practical ensembles.
By exploring Sartre‘s practical ensemble framework, my work provides insight into the underlying structures of societal constellations, as well as the possibilities and constraints that result from the relation between human action and technology. In applying the practical ensemble framework to urban mobility, my work uncovers various forms of structured interactions between humans, things, and built structures that all interplay in order to contribute to a larger form of organization.