What is Infrastructure?

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The Invisible Grids When we say "infrastructure" we refer to an enormous invisible grid - the networks of all kinds which cooperate to produce the standard of living enjoyed in developed countries and the richer cities of the developing world.

Infrastructure is the prize of modernity. Although we do not realize it consciously, every time we turn on a light switch of a faucet, quadrillions of dollars of industrial investment made over several centuries spring into service.

If you visualize the American national electricity supply systems for a moment, you probably imagine the physical hardware of the grid first. But all of those power stations and electrical cables have to be maintained. In fact, highly skilled maintenance crews work around the clock to maintain every aspect of the electricity system.

Then the power stations themselves need to be fed. Each one requires fuel, perhaps coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear fuel, and so on. More infrastructure, like pipelines carries some of those fuels. Other fuels are carried by general purpose transport systems, like roads, rail, or delivered to ports by ships.

Then there are the financial services requires to efficiently move the money to purchase these fuels, and to hedge the risks associated with constructing a power plant in a future where both fuel prices and electricity demand are uncertain. Without the financial infrastructure in the form of commodities markets and banking we could not run the national grid.

Finally there are the appliances that run off the standard power that flows to the socket.

All of this is infrastructure of separate kinds.

Infrastructure Around The World Of course, this is how the developed world does infrastructure. Around the planet infrastructure looks very different.

In America, until only very recently, most people lived in a very much simpler environment. Fuel, in whatever form, frequently coal or simple cord wood was delivered by tradesmen. Light was kerosene or whale oil. The simple tools of life might be an axe, a pot belly stove, and a clean river or well.

Life is not so different to that around the world. For the poor and rural population, infrastructure might be a paved road and a well, and everything else is simply absent.

Take electrical light for example. A light that is good enough to read by turns out to have some interesting effects. In some areas, rural electrification is seen as being a vital part of educational initiatives because children who work or help their parents much of the day can study at night if they have light, but without it, they cannot learn. In other areas, people have observed a drop in birth rates associated with electrification.

Infrastructure can be seen as one of the foundations of society.

Generations of Infrastructure There are basically three classes of infrastructure in common use around the planet at this time: pre-industrial or agrarian infrastructure, industrial infrastructure, and post-industrial infrastructure. You can recognize these forms by their very characteristic patterns of deployment, and particularly financing.

Pre-industrial infrastructure is simple tools and nature itself. Firewood and a clean river are the infrastructure of the pre-industrial period. Wood stoves of various kinds, simple machines like ploughs, and of course the well are all pre-industrial infrastructure. Lieutenant colonel T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) describes the centrality of the well infrastructure to the desert campaign he fought in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. No amount of statistical analysis reveals the truth as clearly: the wells are life itself. Infrastructure is ancient.

Industrial infrastructure was the fruit of the Victorian era. Efficient material distribution and stable markets, coupled with innovations like steam and, later, electricity enabled the construction of factories which produced services like clean water or electrical power. The critical hallmarks of industrial age infrastructure are the pipes and wires that distribute the services to customers, and the billing systems which pay for those services. These capital management features are critical to the problems of infrastructure in distressed environments. Instability makes this style of infrastructure near-impossible to deploy.

Post-industrial infrastructure is still being defined. The economies of scale which paid for power stations are being reduced by systems like combined heat and power (CHP) home energy systems, and efficient solar and wind power. Science has discovered new ways of purifying drinking water. Rising transportation costs push supply and demand closer together, while the networks create new options for supply chain management and integration even for basic services like electricity supply. Few industrial infrastructure systems will remain in 100 years time.

This content is released into the public domain by it's author, --Vinay Gupta 14:04, 27 September 2007 (PDT)