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What do we mean by infrastructure?

Author: Florian Schaefer

Most of us will think of the road, rail and air networks that take us from place to place, and perhaps the power stations and grid lines that bring us the energy for our daily lives. Some will also envision those hidden infrastructures that, as the well-worn cliché has it, we only notice when they fail: the data cables that connect us to each other, as well as the networks for water, sewage, oil and gas. Still others will add familiar hubs of public life such as schools, hospitals, universities, sports facilities, libraries, parks and community centres. Social scientists may offer additional distinctions, such as those between hard infrastructure, or physical structures, and soft infrastructure, i.e. the supporting institutions that allow hard infrastructure to function (Turner and Johnson 2017).

However, alongside this everyday understanding infrastructure sit wider and deeper concerns. Uncovering these requires a multi-facetted political economy analysis. Infrastructure is inextricably embedded in, and intertwined with, our political and economic systems. It consists of structures and practices that mirror, refract, and crystallise the possibilities and inequalities inherent in these systems. Roads, bridges, and power lines structure both the physical world and social space. Infrastructure encodes relationships of both power and cooperation. It provides access to some and denies entry to others. At REDEFINE we therefore take infrastructure as a multifaceted lens through which to view international developmental processes in action.

Concrete dreams: infrastructure and development

Building and maintaining efficient and sustainable infrastructure is a key requirement for economic development to take place. Workshops, factories, and offices need power, people have to be able to get to their place of work, and producers need to be able to transport their goods to places of consumption and exchange. In theory, investment in well-conceived and executed infrastructure projects creates jobs in the short run and leaves societies with useful installations in the medium and long run. Conversely, inadequate, unsafe or missing infrastructure will hamper economic activity and can make people’s lives a misery.

Despite these well-known facts there has been pervasive underinvestment in infrastructure of most kinds in many countries, both rich and poor. For low- and middle-income countries as a group, the World Bank, while acknowledging that any such estimate is problematic on a number of fronts, suggests that investments of between $640 billion and $2.7 trillion (or between 2.0% and 8.2% of GDP) are required every year to 2030 to supply adequate infrastructure to those societies (Rozenberg and Fay 2019). In high-income countries, which have vastly greater stocks of accumulated infrastructure when compared to poorer countries, decades of neglect fuelled by small-state ideology and most recently austerity in the wake of the global financial crisis have created vast investment needs as well. For instance, in Germany public investment is not keeping pace with the decline of aging physical infrastructure, in particular with regard to roads and schools, and substantial additional investments would be needed just to preserve the value of the current stock of infrastructure (Bardt et al. 2017). In the state of North Rhine-Westphalia alone official estimates suggest that 573 bridges, many over 40 years old, will need to be replaced imminently at a projected cost of around €7bn (Kölner Stadtanzeiger 2019).

China presents an exception to these trends. Infrastructure investment in China has grown rapidly since the early 2000s and Chinese firms and financial institutions, both state-owned and private, are making substantial investments in infrastructure abroad. The most prominent manifestation of this is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which has seen billions invested in new transport infrastructure across Asia, Europe, and beyond. While BRI projects have been welcomed in many countries starved of infrastructure investment, the programme has also generated charges of influence-seeking, corruption, and waste. While the BRI is frequently presented as a clear example of Chinese grand strategy, a closer analysis suggests that the programme is much less centralised and coordinated than might appear (Jones and Zeng 2019). The programme is therefore a perfect example of the difficulties inherent in developing methodologies to adequately capture the complexities of large-scale international infrastructure development.

Thinking about infrastructure: states, networks, and assemblages

While infrastructure development is vital for all societies, the ways in which infrastructure is planned, financed, constructed, and maintained are not politically neutral. States, and other large hierarchical organisations such as corporations, have a well-documented tendency to impose their needs upon the built environment. Corporations will frequently prioritise profitability over other concerns, while states may structure environments to conform to developmental visions that centre on visual order, administrative legibility, and access for state security forces (Scott 1998). Large-scale infrastructure and megaprojects in particular are often used as visible manifestations of state and corporate power, from the much-televised Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to the glittering skyscrapers of Shanghai’s Pudong or London’s Isle of Dogs.

The connection between state power and infrastructure is often thought of in terms of territory. Political geographers use this term to mean a political technology that comprises “techniques for measuring land and controlling terrain” (Elden 2010: 811). States can use infrastructure to secure power within their own territories, for instance by making it easier to control terrain. The construction of Haussmann’s boulevards in 19th-century Paris are a well-known, if controversial, example of such practices. More contemporary examples include the creation of new juridical spaces within state territories, such as special economic zones or in-land border controls, and the projection of state power into the spaces of other states to make new bordered spaces across state boundaries. Examples of the latter include the transnational regulation – and deregulation – of global finance (Sassen 2013). Such claims and projections rely on myriad forms of both hard and soft infrastructure to function.

Social scientists have developed a wide range of models, and metaphors, to analyse the hyper-complexity of these spatial practices (Lefebvre 1991) and the infrastructure that enable or inhibit them. Two prominent ones are the assemblage and the network. Assemblage thinking sees infrastructure development as conditioned by complex webs of actors and indeed things. These webs, or assemblages, lack a defined centre, are temporary in nature, and have indistinct and shifting contours. For a typical infrastructure project such an assemblage may consist of policy makers (at various levels of the state), corporate employees (at various levels of seniority and across multiple firms), construction and service workers, local residents, trade unionists and community activists, as well as plans, documents and presentations incorporating conflicting aims, strategies and ideologies. Assemblage thinking provides a flexible and agency-centric view that focuses attention on how actors come together and achieve – at least temporarily – the coherence necessary to achieve wider goals. However, they have also been criticised for a lack of focus on power relations, which tends to ‘flatten’ the webs of actors.

Network approaches maintain the metaphor of a web consisting of multiple actors with conflicting goals but see these webs as inherently structured by relationships of power. Not all actors have access to the same resources, be they political, financial, or ideological, and so some actors are able to shape the condition by which others may become part of the network. Network approaches can be applied to investigations across multiple geographical scales to generate explanations that draw on complex and interacting causal processes. At REDEFINE, we use such approaches to analyse the drivers of Chinese investments in European infrastructure, to lay out the multi-scaled modalities of such projects, and to understand their outcomes and implications. To answer the question what infrastructure is, we need to trace out how infrastructure comes into being and the interests it serves along the way. We will describe our methodological approach in more detail in future post, so watch out for that.


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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
The Open University
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