On a fresh, but sunny Tuesday morning in late January, the UI team with colleagues from Geography conducted a series of visits to three controlled environment sites in Sheffield. The aim of this ‘infralab’ was to develop the first step of a process designed to produce a critical social science agenda on controlled environments which is a core theme of the UI’s ongoing work. The three objectives were: firstly, to stimulate collective understanding of how controlled environments might be viewed, problematised and discussed; secondly, to examine the potential for identifying shared questions, concepts and approaches to the researching of controlled environments that may form the basis of a programme of work; and thirdly, to identify the next steps involved in taking this agenda forward.

The team visited the Winter Gardens, one of the largest glasshouses in the UK and home to more than 2,500 plants from around the world, before moving next door to explore the steel and glass atrium and the behind-the-scenes infrastructure of the Mercure Hotel. The infralab concluded at the University of Sheffield’s Sir David Read Controlled Environment Facility, a world-leading climate controlled plant growth centre.  At each site, the technical specialists provided a guided tour of the facility – within the controlled environment and then inside the ‘hidden’ infrastructures and systems that create and manage the environment. They explained the socio-ecological conditions the controlled environment has to create for plants and humans, and the different criteria used for these. Technical systems, facilities and infrastructure were shown to illustrate the production, maintenance and management of environments and the main issues involved in stabilising conditions. Through questions and discussion, the team was able to begin to tease out some of the key tensions and challenges involved in matching the needs of the environments and those of their users.

Three key issues that emerged and recurred throughout the sites were. First, was the particular combination and articulation of technological systems and human labor in the creation and maintenance of the spaces. Building management systems, automated sensors and monitoring equipment, and advanced lighting and temperature controls are used to configure air flow and pressure, heat and water provision, but equally at various times, technicians need to adjust and override these systems by opening valves, cleaning ducts and pipes, or even just watering the plants. Second, the difficulty in sealing the spaces off or in keeping the outside from infiltrating these insides. All kinds of techniques and controls were in place to filter circulation and flows and to maintain precision and efficiency, but these were regularly challenged by various movements (of people), fluctuations (air pressure, temperature) and impurifications (pests, unwelcome substances). Third, the extended rationales and logics for control and management of these spaces.  These environments are not just closed ecologies but have to perform other functions at the same time, whether it is configuring a space of leisure and consumption, an exemplar demonstration site, or units of high-value scientific research and knowledge production.  Drawing upon the insights developed in the infralab the next stage of the work involves the production of a research agenda on controlled environments in the urban domain.

Exploring the Winter Gardens:

Photo: Rachel Macrorie