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On the need for system alignment in large water infrastructure: Understanding infrastructure dynamics in Nairobi, Kenya

Pär Blomkvist
Department for Industrial Economics and Management, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden par.blomkvist@indek.kth.se

David Nilsson
Department for Philosophy and History, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden david.nilsson@abe.kth.se

ABSTRACT: In this article we contribute to the discussion of infrastructural change in Africa, and explore how a new theoretical perspective may offer a different, more comprehensive and historically informed understanding of the trend towards large water infrastructure in Africa. We examine the socio-technical dynamics of large water infrastructures in Nairobi, Kenya, in a longer historical perspective using two concepts that we call intra-systemic alignment and inter-level alignment. Our theoretical perspective is inspired by Large Technical Systems (LTS) and Multi-Level Perspective (MLP). While inter-level alignment focuses on the process of aligning the technological system at the three levels of niche, regime and landscape, intra-systemic alignment deals with how components within the regime are harmonised and standardised to fit with each other. We pay special attention to intra-systemic alignment between the supply side and the demand side, or as we put it, upstream and downstream components of a system. In narrating the history of water supply in Nairobi, we look at both the upstream (large-scale supply) and downstream activities (distribution and payment), and compare the Nairobi case with European history of large infrastructures. We emphasise that regime actors in Nairobi have dealt with the issues of alignment mainly to facilitate and expand upstream activities, while concerning downstream activities they have remained incapable of expanding service and thus integrating the large segment of low-income consumers. We conclude that the present surge of large-scale water investment in Nairobi is the result of sector reforms that enabled the return to a long tradition – a 'Nairobi style' – of upstream investment mainly benefitting the high-income earners. Our proposition is that much more attention needs to be directed at inter-level alignment at the downstream end of the system, to allow the creation of niches aligned to the regime.

KEYWORDS: Water development, infrastructure, developing countries, development policy, Large Technical Systems (LTS), Multi-Level Perspective (MLP), Kenya