Infrastructure in the Anthropocene

The changing nature of infrastructure in an accelerating, increasingly uncertain, and increasingly complex world

Infrastructure Tripartite

Infrastructure systems include governing and educational institutions, in addition to the physical assets.

Physical Assets

The core technologies that make up the backbones of modern infrastructure have persisted for decades, in some cases a century. The rigid nature of these assets is at odds with accelerating and uncertain environments.

Governing Institutions

Infrastructure governance with its actors, rules, processes, and norms were designed for twentieth century services. The institutions that manage infrastructure must have the requisite complexity of the environment their systems are operating in.

Educational Systems

Educational systems including universities and training must adapt to the changing conditions, requirements, and nature of infrastructure.

An Accelerating and Uncertain Environment

In framing the challenges for Infrastructure in the Anthropocene, we focus on several accelerating and uncertain variables.

Cyber Technology

The coupling of cyber technologies with physical assets is accelerating, creating a new paradigm for what infrastructure are and how they should be managed.


Demands for infrastructure services are changing as societal and cultural preferences change.


The uncertainty and non-stationarity in future climate is inimical to the certainty based approaches that dominate infrastructure design.


Aging infrastructure combined with the other forces are likely to create new challenges for how infrastructure are financed.


Infrastructure decisionmaking is increasingly at the center of ideological polarization, making consensus on how infrastructure should change increasingly challenging.


Infrastructure are increasingly battlefields in asymmetric warfare strategies that emphasize whole society conflict.

Selected Products

We have been exploring the changing nature of infrastructure through writings and research efforts. These writings explore the changing nature of physical assets, governance institutions, and educational systems.

  • April 2020

    Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure
    doi: 10.1080/23789689.2020.1762045

    Mikhail Chester and Braden Allenby - Modern infrastructure have been a relatively stable force for decades, ensuring that basic and critical services are met, without significantly changing their core designs or management principles. At the dawn of the Anthropocene it appears that accelerating and increasingly uncertain conditions are likely to result in a paradigm shift for infrastructure, where the environments in which they operate are changing faster than the systems themselves. New approaches are needed in the education, management/governance, and physical structures that constitute infrastructure systems that can respond in pace.

  • April 2020

    Issues in Science and Technology

    Braden Allenby and Mikhail Chester - COVID-19 is a classic engineering problem that the United States has botched. Here’s how to reform the system in order to build in efficient resilience against both the current public health crisis and future ones.

  • April 2020

    American Society of Civil Engineers

    Mikhail Chester and Braden Allenby - The rapid progression of COVID-19 is revealing challenges for infrastructure as the institutions that manage and deliver critical and basic services are having to respond to changes in demand and new operating conditions.

  • April 2020

    Journal of Industrial Ecology
    24(2), pp. 271-275, doi: 10.1111/jiec.13006

    Mikhail Chester - The competencies needed to manage the increasingly complex landscape of human and natural systems in the Anthropocene are going to be very different than those that we have trained for in the past. Industrial ecologists should confront the question of what competencies are needed to contribute to the climate adaptation discussion and how existing capabilities can be positioned to support new science.

  • April 2020

    Nature Climate Change
    doi: 10.1038/s41558-020-0741-0

    Mikhail Chester, B. Shane Underwood and Constantine Samaras - Characterizing infrastructure vulnerability to climate change is essential given the long asset lives, criticality of services delivered and high costs of upgrading and maintaining these systems. Reconciling uncertainty from past infrastructure design decisions with future uncertainty of climate change will help prioritize limited resources to high risk assets.

  • February 2020

    IEEE Access
    8, pp. 28301-28310, doi: 10.1109/ACCESS.2020.2971960

    Mikhail Chester and Braden Allenby - The accelerating integration of cyber technologies into physical infrastructure systems has radical implications for the operation, management, and vulnerabilities of our critical systems. Viewing the embedding of smart technologies in infrastructure as simply an interconnectedness of systems is insufficient. The acceleration of the coupling may represent a profound shift in the relationships between humans and their services.

  • January 2020

    Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure
    doi: 10.1080/23789689.2019.1708179

    Alysha Helmrich and Mikhail Chester - As climate change is emerging as a major challenge for man-made systems in the coming century, there has been significant effort to understand how to position infrastructure to adapt and deliver services reliably. Particularly, the climate is changing faster than the expected lifetime of critical infrastructure, resulting in situations well beyond the intended design conditions of a stationary climate.

  • December 2019

    Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

    Braden Allenby - “Infrastructure” is a broad term for the physical and institutional systems that support human communities at all scales, from physical systems that have been necessary since the beginning of human urbanization, such as Rome’s road and water infrastructure, to newer forms that reflect cutting edge technology, such as 5G wireless systems. All infrastructure combines two functions. One is explicit: a road carries traffic, for instance, and water pipes carry water. The more subtle one is an enabling function, as all infrastructure also supports other technologies and more infrastructure. Electric infrastructure, for example, performs the explicit function of generating and distributing power; more importantly, it enables electrified housing, industrial production, and information and communications technology.

  • May 2019

    7(21), p. 21, doi: 10.1525/elementa.360

    Mikhail Chester and Braden Allenby - Changing complexity in the increasingly integrated human, natural, and built systems within which our infrastructures are designed and operated make it necessary to examine how the role of engineering requires new competencies for satisficing. Several long-term trends appear to be shifting our infrastructures further away from the complicated domain where optimization and efficiency were the core approaches, to the domain of complexity, where rapidly changing environments and fragmentation of goals require fundamentally new approaches.

  • April 2019

    Journal of Industrial Ecology
    23(5), doi: 10.1111/jiec.12848

    Mikhail Chester, Samuel Markolf and Braden Allenby - For centuries, man‐made infrastructure has been viewed as separate from natural systems. Yet in the past few centuries, as the scale and scope of human activities have dramatically increased, there is accumulating evidence that natural systems are becoming increasingly, and in some cases entirely, managed by humans. The dichotomy between infrastructure and the environment is narrowing, and natural systems are increasingly becoming human design spaces.

  • Spring 2018

    Issues in Science and Technology, 34(3)

    Braden Allenby and Mikhail Chester - The growing impact of human activities on all the Earth’s systems requires a concomitant change in the way we design and manage the built environment.

  • January 2018

    Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure
    4(4), pp. 173-191, doi: 10.1080/23789689.2017.1416846

    Mikhail Chester and Braden Allenby - As technologies rapidly progress, there is growing evidence that our civil infrastructure do not have the capacity to adaptively and reliably deliver services in the face of rapid changes in demand, conditions of service, and environmental conditions. Infrastructure are facing multiple challenges including inflexible physical assets, unstable and insufficient funding, maturation, utilization, increasing interdependencies, climate change, social and environmental awareness, changes in coupled technology systems, lack of transdisciplinary expertise, geopolitical security, and wicked complexity. These challenges are interrelated and several produce non-stationary effects.

Project Coordinators

Infrastructure in the Anthropocene efforts are led by Professors Chester and Allenby with support from many talented researchers at ASU.

Mikhail Chester
Braden Allenby