The changing nature of infrastructure in an accelerating and increasingly uncertain world
Infrastructure systems include governing and educational institutions, in addition to the 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.
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 including universities and training must adapt to the changing conditions, requirements, and nature of infrastructure.
In framing the challenges for Infrastructure in the Anthropocene, we focus on several accelerating and uncertain variables.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Infrastructure in the Anthropocene efforts are led by Professors Chester and Allenby with support from many talented researchers at ASU.