Making sense of the global infrastructure turn

This is the final article in our series Making Cities Work. It considers the problems of providing critical infrastructure and how we might produce the innovations and reforms needed to meet 21st-century needs and challenges.

Originally published on The Conversation – April 7

The global focus on US President Donald Trump has largely been on his inflammatory rhetoric and relative inexperience. A less substantive body of commentary has considered his policy platform, including his economic policies.

Among the most prominent of these policies is a commitment to:

… [r]efocus government spending on American infrastructure and away from the Obama-Clinton globalisation agenda.

Trump is not the first to identify increased infrastructure as a strategic economic imperative. Across the globe governments are turning to infrastructure as an instrument of economic policy.

Australia has since 2007 operated an infrastructure agency to prioritise and plan infrastructure provision at the national scale. The UK, New Zealand and Canada have also established national infrastructure planning agencies.

In Australia, this “infrastructure turn” has eclipsed metropolitan planning as a means of intervening in cities.

Among global political and economic institutions, infrastructure has risen to prominence as a priority for national intervention and trans-national co-operation. Many agencies have called for increased spending on infrastructure.

The World Economic Forum, for example, has lamented that while estimated global demand for infrastructure exceeds US$3.7 trillion in investment value, only US$2.7 trillion is being provided. This leaves a US$1 trillion “infrastructure gap”.

The APEC Forum in 2013 established a multi-year plan on infrastructure development and investment. The G20 has established the Global Infrastructure Hub and the Global Infrastructure Connectivity Alliance to help with infrastructure investment. The World Bank helped set up the Global Infrastructure Facility in 2015.

What is driving this shift?

The reasons for the new focus on infrastructure are debatable. Four explanations offer possible insight.

First, at a simple material level, the focus on infrastructure reflects rapid urbanisation at the global scale. Millions more urban residents need water, energy, transport and telecommunications. But urbanisation does not in itself demand infrastructure.

A more systemic explanation is the use of infrastructure as a “spatial fix” for the contradictions of urban capitalism. At its most basic level, the agglomeration of economic activity in cities creates resource and congestion problems, which impede economic growth.

Capitalist economies seek to “fix” these problems with infrastructure investment that overcomes spatial frictions on flows of people, water, waste, energy and information. Under conditions of increasing urban complexity, infrastructure megaprojects appear more comprehensible and immediate “solutions” to urban problems than previous fixes using metropolitan spatial planning.

A further explanation is that infrastructure is being used as a sink for excess low-cost capital within the global economy. Such capital is otherwise unable to find sufficient destinations for productive investment.

Under such conditions, capital “switches” from productive investment into investment in the built environment. Infrastructure is the major component of this.

Finally, sustained weakness in the global economy has reduced the attractiveness of productive investment as a source of profit in favour of rents. We can thus observe the systematic emergence of “infrastructure rents” in the global economy – rentiers capture monopolies on particular infrastructure types.

Of these four explanations, the first is the most commonly presented. Yet it has perhaps the weakest explanatory power.

Critiquing the global infrastructure push

For critical urban social scientists, the global infrastructure turn poses a number of conceptual and methodological issues.

The first question is to test whether it’s specifically different from other forms of urban investment.

Cities have long been sites of physical building, including major developments and facilities. Yet the practices of global infrastructure involve mobilising capital, governments, information and production at a massive new scale via major international institutions and may be viewed as a distinctive urban phenomenon.

A second question is to understand how infrastructure has become a discourse in global policy. Global agencies almost universally view infrastructure as a beneficial phenomenon to be promoted. How this began and has been promulgated deserves greater investigation.

A third question is how infrastructure has become a field of specialist knowledge in its own right. And what implications does this have for understanding the role of infrastructure?

Infrastructure projects have developed their own language of financial appraisal, technical design and social and environmental impact. This then hampers democratic scrutiny of these projects.

The democratic problem

Finally, the politics of infrastructure demand attention. Infrastructure is often a site of political contestation, yet many infrastructure decision-making processes attenuate or repress democratic participation. The role of the state is often placed in tension, especially when private motivations drive infrastructure development.

There is a lack of transparency of interests – in terms of who benefits, both legally and surreptitiously, and who is affected or disadvantaged by infrastructure development. This is a clear problem that deserves greater investigation.

Large infrastructure projects have long fascinated politicians, governments and publics. Trump demonstrates the persistence of this fascination. Many view the need for infrastructure as an inevitable consequence of an increasingly urban world.

Yet the global turn towards infrastructure needs to be critically appraised beyond the utopian engineering rhetoric. We need to understand its causes and motivations, especially within the structural crisis of global capitalism and the efforts to resolve it.

We must also be attentive to the problematic aspects of the global infrastructure turn. The deployment of trillions of dollars in infrastructure investment necessarily demands clear democratic transparency and accountability. This applies not only to the money spent but to the effects on cities, societies, polities and the environment.

This article draws on a paper by the author in a new special issue of the international journal, Urban Policy and Research, on critical urban infrastructure. You can read other published articles in our series here.