What is Infrastructure?

By Alex Marshall

Alex Marshall, an award-winning journalist, is a Senior Fellow at Regional Plan Association in New York and is the author of the new book The Surprising Design of Market Economies.

Oct 31, 2012 | Smart Cities | 0 comments

Times change and the language people speak change with them. The word “infrastructure” is bandied about a lot now, and the concept is a useful one. It’s generally used to describe the physical systems that hold us together and underlie our economy and ways of life.

Believe it or not though, the word is a relatively new one, not being used much even among professionals before the 1980s, according to scholars. It was before that time a term mostly used by the military to describe essential installations. It gradually crept into first professional and then public discourse.

Although I like its meaning, I don’t much like it as a word because it’s jargony and what I would call high falutin’. I like better the older term, “public works.” Another nice term you come across in older writing is “internal improvements.” You see that a lot in early history about the United States, as the founders discussed how and whether to build things like canals and roadways

As far as I can tell, we label as “infrastructure” the essential systems we do collectively, in common. It’s roads, bridges, water works and transit lines that are built and paid for by the public. Stepping back a bit, it’s also the private systems that are built with public help and oversight, particularly power and telephone lines.

Stepping back a bit further, I think it’s fair to describe as “infrastructure” our educational systems and legal systems. These our essential systems as well that we do in common.

And here’s the big rub: why not talk more openly about what is the proper and best design of all these essential infrastructure systems? Because they can vary.

The Surprising Design of Market Economies by Alex MarshallThat’s what I do in this new book of mine, The Surprising Design of Market Economies, that came out in September. I talk about how all these essential systems were built up, and try to start a conversation about how we can build them differently. I talk about the interesting history of corporations and intellectual property, as well as transportation and many services we take utterly for granted, such as policing. Did you know that paid professional police forces were largely unknown in cities before about 1850? Adopting them was preceded by a long and healthy public debate as to whether they fit with a democracy.

If you care about cities, or just about public life, it’s good to understand these essential systems, and to realize that the way we build them is up to us.

I’m going to talk about my new book in San Jose at 6:30 pm, Nov. 27th at the urban planning group SPUR. Love to see you there. You can get information about it here.

I’ve been talking about the ideas from my new book in several publications. You can read an op-ed I had about National Corporations in The New York Times, and one about public works in Bloomberg View, and another in Bloomberg View about why there’s no such thing as a free market.

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

How Stormwater Infrastructure Balances Utility and Placemaking

How Stormwater Infrastructure Balances Utility and Placemaking

I see the outcomes of Duke Pond as a representation of the importance of the profession of landscape architecture in today’s world. Once obscured by the glaring light and booming voice long-generated by building architects, landscape architects are steadily emerging as the designers needed to tackle complex 21st century problems. As both leaders and collaborators, their work is addressing the effects of rising sea level on coastal cities, creating multi-modal pedestrian and vehicular transportation systems to reduce carbon emissions, reimagining outdated infrastructure as great urban places, and as with the case of Duke Pond, mitigating the impacts of worsening drought.

The 7 Forces of Artificial Intelligence in Cities

The 7 Forces of Artificial Intelligence in Cities

AI has enormous potential to improve the lives of billions of people living in cities and facing a multitude of challenges. However, a blind focus on the technological issues is not sufficient. We are already starting to see a moderation of the technocentric view of algorithmic salvation in New York City, which is the first city in the world to appoint a chief algorithm officer.

There are 7 primary forces determining the success of AI, of which technology is just one. Cities must realize that AI is not the quick technological fix that vendors sell. Not everything will be improved by creating more algorithms and technical prowess. We need to develop a more holistic approach to implementing AI in cities in order to harness the immense potential. We need to create a way to consider each of the seven forces when cities plan for the use of AI.

I Am The River, The River is Me: Prioritizing Well-being Through Water Policy

I Am The River, The River is Me: Prioritizing Well-being Through Water Policy

In New Zealand, persistent, concentrated advocacy and legal cases advanced by Māori people are inspiring biocentric policies; that is, those which recognize that people and nature, including living and non-living elements, are part of an interconnected whole. Along the way, tribal leaders and advocates are successfully making the case that nature; whole systems of rivers, lakes, forests, mountains, and more, deserves legal standing to ensure its protection. An early legislative “win” granted personhood status to the Te Urewera forest in 2014, which codified into law these moving lines:

“Te Urewera is ancient and enduring, a fortress of nature, alive with history; its scenery is abundant with mystery, adventure, and remote beauty … Te Urewera has an identity in and of itself, inspiring people to commit to its care.”

The Te Urewera Act of 2014 did more than redefine how a forest would be managed, it pushed forward the practical expression of a new policy paradigm.

Share This