Infrastructure in the Anthropocene

Humans are rapidly approaching a period of destabilization that requires new thinking and competencies for how we approach infrastructure into the future.

Infrastructure appears to be caught between the past and the future, and when it comes to these obdurate systems, the present is not a good place to be. Technological evolution is accelerating, politics and society are fragmenting, climate and the natural world are changing, and infrastructure (at least in the developed world) is in dire need of modernization. As countries around the world deploy new infrastructure, the initiatives largely perpetuate the physical forms that we’ve seen for decades and reflect the same financing structures, management structures, and relationships with the surrounding natural environment as in the past.

Today’s design principles seem to reflect those of the last century, when the types of services we demanded of our infrastructure were stable—just like the climate and the technological conditions under which infrastructure had to be reliable. But stability is no longer the norm. Furthermore, many forces critical to infrastructure design and performance (such as climatic conditions, advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, and, less obviously, security protections from today’s conflicts) appear to be changing in unpredictable ways. The inflexible and long-lasting nature of infrastructure is directly at odds with these dynamic forces.

Evidence has been accumulating for decades that we are at the dawn of major shifts in the relationships among humans, social systems, the environment, and technology. This has profound implications for how we design and manage infrastructure, which for a long time policymakers and the public have been mostly able to ignore. But no more.

Hyperconnectivity and the embedding of new technologies into legacy systems, artificial intelligence managing how we understand and demand services from infrastructure, and destabilizing climate extremes represent just a few of the emerging realities that infrastructure managers will face. The rate at which we are deploying new technologies embedded within infrastructure appears to be outpacing the infrastructure itself. A single roadway intersection may have experienced a progression of control systems that started with a traffic officer, progressed to loop detectors, became traffic cameras with image recognition, and is now driven by cloud-based systems such as Google Maps.

Several trends are emerging that affect how we think about and manage infrastructure into the future. First, while change has occurred across social, environmental, and technological systems over the history of humankind, the acceleration of change appears ready to take off: technological development in the coming century is expected to be greater than the past several thousand years. This has profound implications for the planet and human-managed systems.

Second, “nonstationarity,” meaning that past trends are no longer good predictors of future conditions, has emerged as an important concept in climate science. This concept can also be applied across a number of systems that affect infrastructure.

Third, infrastructures and the systems that support them have in many ways become so complex that their emergent characteristics—that is, what we expect them to do when perturbed—are no longer predictable.

Fourth, infrastructure has become a battleground between adversaries in new forms of war that pose huge challenges but are not yet perceived, much less understood, by either the public or infrastructure managers. Yet the training that educational institutions deliver for future infrastructure managers focuses mainly on elements of the system and their predictability (tools for a complicated, not complex, system).

These forces are combining to create conditions of unpredictability that are inimical to the approaches that we’ve used to design and manage infrastructure in the past. As these forces emerge concurrently, they represent an environment of destabilization that requires new thinking and competencies for how we approach infrastructure into the future.

For infrastructure designers, managers, and even users, it’s time to rethink the relationship with the core systems that serve as the backbone for virtually every activity and service that society demands. It’s time to come to grips with the reality that the complexity of infrastructure is exploding, that emerging and disruptive technologies are accelerating in ways that are antithetical to current infrastructure’s core design principles, and that education on these issues is insufficient. New accelerating and interactive forces are defining what infrastructure can and should do, and how it should function on a planet dominated by human systems. To understand these accelerating forces and complexity, it’s helpful to start in the past.

A Brief History of Infrastructure

Humans have been changing the Earth for millennia. The development of agriculture some ten thousand years ago reflected drastic technological, cultural, economic, and social change, and over time supported a significant jump in global human population from perhaps a million to hundreds of millions of people. It also affected natural systems, from water and land use patterns to biodiversity, to patterns of nutrient and material flows, including those of many metals. It began a process of urbanization that has continued to characterize the human species—and change the planet in numerous ways.

But it was the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the 1700s, and concomitant changes in integrated and coevolving human, natural, and built systems, that marked the real emergence of the Anthropogenic Earth. The shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural lifestyles transformed local and regional systems and generated new patterns of resource consumption and energy and waste flows; but the magnitude of those impacts increased exponentially with the Industrial Revolution.

The result over a period of a few short centuries was the terraforming of the planet. Not only did human systems—from economics to technology to culture—change in unpredictable and fundamental ways, but the dynamics of virtually all major natural systems were increasingly affected by human activity. The Industrial Revolution fostered a rapid acceleration in the growth of energy and water use, environmental impacts of all kinds, human population levels and urbanization, economic growth, technological complexity, and the built infrastructure to support it all. These patterns show little signs of slowing.

This acceleration includes not only global population growth, from roughly 450 million people in 1500 to over 7.5 billion today, but also economic growth. Between 1500 and 1800, the global economy grew by a factor of almost three, but between 1500 and today, it has grown by a factor of 12, and much of that growth has been uneven. Per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) grew from 1500 to today by a factor of 10. And with these population and GDP explosions came exponential growth in technologies, resource use, infrastructure, and environmental impacts.

Such growth rates, which are continuing, imply dramatically expanded interactions between human and natural systems, frequently based on fundamentally new technology systems such as railroads, electricity, and the internet. They also explain the shift from a planet where humans are but one species among many to a world increasingly shaped by the activities of, and for the purposes of, a single species. In such a world, natural cycles and systems transmute from exogenous conditions into infrastructure components.

The growth experienced during this Industrial Era can be framed from a complex adaptive systems perspective. Economies grew and reorganized naturally, and infrastructure grew to support those activities. Energy is sometimes used as the core resource to describe the economic growth of complex adaptive systems. Early humans had few technologies to harness the abundance of fossil and renewable energy around them. The development of technologies and specializations that grew rapidly during the agricultural era and exploded during the industrial era to access and better use energy resulted in increasing complexity in human societies. Agricultural societies relied largely on free solar energy; in the Industrial Era society transitioned to fossil fuels.

Ultimately, as the cost of local energy escalates, economic activity switches to less energy-intensive services and relies on manufacturing and resources from other countries. Throughout these transitions, infrastructures are designed and deployed to provide services that are driven by these activities, many of which rely on the direct consumption of resources (energy, water, materials, etc.). Where abundant resources exist, infrastructure is often “grown” to consume them. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution and subsequent global economic and human population growth reflects the greater availability of energy, which is both an infrastructure and a resource issue. Thus, for example, in the United Kingdom water power was the original energy source in the early Industrial Revolution, but it was rapidly augmented, and then replaced, by fossil fuel use—first coal and then petroleum.

Looking at the processes of growth of complex adaptive systems through the lens of resource exploitation and the managing of unintended consequences has led some scholars to hypothesize about the inevitability of collapse. Nonetheless, although the environmental and energy implications of industrialization and global development have encouraged such dystopian scenarios, economic and demographic growth is a mixture of human institutions and cultural factors; environmental and resource issues and constraints; and interdependent, coevolving technological and economic factors. It is not clear what “collapse” means in the context of such evolving systems.

For example, it is now accepted that the “fall of Rome” was not the collapse of Western civilization at the hands of barbarian tribes, but a shift in form that enabled the subsequent rise of modern civilization. Infrastructure systems are complex precisely because single-domain determinisms and ideological certainties fail; in the end, it is not the belief system, but whether the infrastructure works, that marks an engineering and institutional success. And, especially in the future, the ability to integrate across human, natural, and built systems, with all the concomitant complexity, requires a fundamental shift in how we view the relationship between human and environmental systems.

The rapidly increasing pace of technological change, human culture, and built environments, coupled with their interactions with natural systems, has produced novel and highly complex emergent behaviors that require us to think differently about infrastructure. This complexity is the result of rapidly coevolving human and natural systems. The changes in technological, human, built environment, and natural systems, and the complex outcomes they produce are not intentional. Changes in climate, biodiversity, nutrient cycles, and microbial evolution are unplanned dynamics, the result of technology, policy, and cultural shifts that have been accumulating for generations. But given the emergence and global scale of environmental challenges, the notion that infrastructure should be limited to local engineered systems must be challenged.

Reflecting this shift to a planet dominated by human impacts and activities, scientists have proposed the term “Anthropocene,” from the Greek for “human” (“Anthropo-”) and “new” (“-cene”), as an appropriate name for the current geologic period. This is not a new idea: while the term was popularized in an article in 2000 entitled “The ‘Anthropocene,’” the concept underlies earlier texts such as Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth (1956) and The Earth as Transformed by Human Action (1993). Indeed, as early as 1873 the Italian priest, geologist, and paleontologist Antonio Stoppani used the term “anthropozoic era.”

The challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene require the development of new institutions and frameworks that are beyond today’s traditional disciplinary structures and reductionist approaches. Our current infrastructure institutions compartmentalize knowledge and emphasize disciplinary expertise with a focus on components. In contrast, the anthropogenic Earth will be characterized by rapidly evolving technologies, human and natural systems, and information access. This will require us to develop new capabilities to analyze, design, engineer, construct, maintain, manage, and reconstruct infrastructure. The increasing complexity and rates of change require new approaches and sophistication for infrastructure. Sustainable engineering and associated domains; industrial ecology and associated methodologies such as life-cycle assessment and materials-flow analysis; systems engineering; adaptive management; as well as relevant parts of the urban planning and sociology of technology are each positioned to support this complexity.

The institutions and engineering disciplines that today are responsible for infrastructure are still appropriate for many challenges. In Infrastructure in the Anthropocene, we use the term “infrastructure” to encompass a plurality of parts (both physical and institutional) that provide services that enable human capabilities. The discussion largely focuses on infrastructures as physical systems. The competencies for designing and building a bridge, jet turbine, or microchip are successfully taught and practiced across engineering. However, when it comes to complex and integrated systems, our infrastructure institutions and training are ill-prepared.

At the beginning of the Anthropocene our systems are becoming increasingly integrated, complex, and defined by a greater number of stakeholders with competing priorities. We find ourselves with little training or capability to perceive or parse such systems to design, build, operate, refurbish, or retire infrastructure. This inability is tied to complex governance, fiscal, and educational systems (to name a few) with substantial inertia over time. Codes, conventions, processes, and procedures get developed and are embedded in legal processes and instruments that take considerable time and effort to change. Moreover, different groups (professional associations, government bureaucrats, engineering firms, and university courses) are invested in particular ways of doing things. The complexity of the effects of engineered systems is becoming apparent, even if we don’t have the training to fully understand it.

Transportation infrastructure development, for instance, must consider shared, electric, and connected vehicles; power infrastructure, new battery storage technology and rapid advancement of renewables; and water infrastructure and climate change. Additionally, considerations for social equity, cultural impacts, aging populations, terrorism, and the increasing connectedness of hardware and embedding of software must be included.

As natural systems increasingly become design spaces for infrastructure, new approaches are needed for planning, constructing, operating, rehabilitating, and decommissioning infrastructure. As the scale, scope, and technologies of human activities have accelerated, the reductionist approach when assessing the relationship between infrastructure and the environment is no longer acceptable.

We posit that fundamental challenges to managing infrastructure exist in both education and design, arguing that in the short term training should include competencies in complex systems, big data, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity. In the medium term new approaches are needed that emphasize agility and flexibility. And in the long term we must embrace the complexity inherent in the infrastructure-environment interface and evolve our infrastructure institutions to embrace this complexity.

This was an excerpt of the first chapter of Mikhail Chester and Braden Allenby’s new book. Click here to order The Rightful Place of Science: Infrastructure in the Anthropocene.