Introduction: Historical Review of Infrastructure Development

Introduction: Historical Review of Infrastructure Development

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-1622-6.ch001


This first chapter offers a historical review of the development of infrastructures as a prologue to the key themes that will be explored in the rest of the book. This historical review focuses, firstly, on the infrastructural ideal of the early industrialized world toward building integrated cities, and, secondly, on the “splintering” of this infrastructural ideal by disintegrating previously public-held monopolies to private sector involvement. These historical processes of infrastructural development are then further unpacked by approaching them through the problem of collective action. The chapter concludes by summarizing the key learning points from the history on infrastructure development.
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The term infrastructure has been used since 1927 to refer collectively to the roads, rail lines, electric supply and telecommunication networks, and similar public works that are required for an industrial economy, or a portion of it, to function (Oxford English Dictionary). In this sense, an infrastructure is responsible for “rolling out” basic power, water, sewerage, and communications services across geographical territories as public or quasi-public goods using systems of standardized services (Dupuy, 2000). These include: “universal service obligations” in Anglo-Saxon nations, “public service” regimes in France, “services of general interest” in the rest of Europe, and so on (see Offner, 2000). Thus, infrastructures are widely assumed to be integrators of urban spaces and “they are believed to bind cities, regions and nations into functioning geographical and political wholes” (Graham & Marvin, 2001, pp.8).

In this view, infrastructures have become “black boxed” (see Winner, 1980, 1993). That is, they have come to be treated by users as unproblematic and “closed” socio-technical artifacts that could be relied on without much thought or questioning. Once infrastructure services become “domesticated” and “normalized” (Rose, 1995), users rarely consider the huge socio-technical constructions or complex governance arrangements that lie beyond the end-user contact points, such as the light switch and the telephone. As Perry notes (1995, pp.2), when infrastructures “work best, they are noticed least of all”.

Infrastructures may “roll out” spaces of increased mobility and interconnection for some; however, they always involve the construction of barriers for others. Star (1999, pp.380) notes:

For the person in the wheelchair, the stairs and door jamb in front of a building are not seamless subtenders of use, but barriers. One person’s infrastructure is another’s difficulty.

In other words, there is a need to recognize how infrastructures “are inevitably imbued with biased struggles for social, economic, ecological and political power” (Graham & Marvin, 2001, pp.11). These biased struggles often require complex regulatory articulations between markets, national states and increasingly transnational bodies. In fact, broad fears of irresponsible accumulations of either political or economic power have shaped public policies to developing infrastructures. Due to recent increases in the liberalization of markets and investment flows such fears have led to the development of private approaches for infrastructure management in the United States of America (USA), Western Europe, and more recently in Asia (Curwen, 1999; McGowan, 1999). In many cases, public and private monopolies are being replaced by contested, profit-driven markets (Sassen, 2001).

This global wave of infrastructure disintegration through privatization has highlighted the collapse of urban social order simply because contemporary urban life has become increasingly dependent on a huge range of interdependent but, at the same time, contested, and dispersed infrastructures (Pawley, 1997; Suarez-Villa & Walrod, 1999). Such a dependency brings out greater possibilities of failure and disintegration of the infrastructures.

Business organizations are now required to function in an “always-on economy,” which depends upon a continuous support by various types of infrastructures, from water supply, electricity, and computer networking, among others. In turn, “for a large business online, the cost of a power interruption can exceed $1 million per minute” (Platt, 2000, pp.116). This shows the systemic qualities of infrastructures, whereby, through interrelated processes of social, political and institutional agency and entrepreneurship, infrastructures evolve to shape the entire technological fabric of society (Hughes, 1983; Summerton, 1994). Infrastructures tend to “warp” the natural and social spaces and times of our daily lives (Latour, 1993).

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