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What is Infrastructure?

From shovels-in-the-ground to digital networks

December 19, 2019

The term “infrastructure” has traditionally referred to the roads, sewers, and other physical systems that connect different parts of a society and support its functioning. Often,  we talk of infrastructure projects as “shovels in the ground.” We picture construction workers and specialized machinery working to build and maintain connections and conduits.

Yet it’s more than just the physical we describe as “infrastructure.” These days, infrastructure can mean hardy connections of many types: physical, digital, and even informational.   

An aerial view of a highway at night gleams with the streaked lights of moving cars
People often think of roads and sewers when they consider infrastructure.

What is infrastructure?

Infrastructure refers to systems and facilities that support the activity of a society or an organization. The Latin word “infra” means “below”—therefore, infrastructure is the structure that lies below and provides a basic framework.

Infrastructure is often public. Public infrastructure is created, owned, and maintained by the government. 

Private infrastructure sometimes refers to private investment in public works. These relationships are also known as public-private partnerships. Since infrastructure generally has meant connection between disparate parts of a society, ‘private infrastructure’ often suggests business providing services on behalf of the government.

However, more organizations are using the term infrastructure to talk about the connections between different parts of their own operations. Corporations of increasing complexity are becoming more like large societies with specialized units. In this context, corporate infrastructure may mean foundational systems that support their operations.

The movement of activity across several sites is generally what is meant when talking physical infrastructure…but activity can move over several departments on the same physical site, when talking about intellectual infrastructure.

Network infrastructure refers to the hardware and software resources of a digital network that allows connectivity, communication, and operations across the network.

In each of these cases, the importance is not just the idea of the foundation, but also of connection of disparate areas. An infrastructure supports different types of work or activity to integrate.
 
A pin and thread board visualizes a network
Infrastructure connects disparate activities—it is network as well as systemic support.

Examples of public infrastructure

  • Transportation: bridges, roads, ferries, airports, etc.
  • Power and energy: the power grid; stations; solar, water or wind installations
  • Emergency services: police and fire stations, temporary emergency infrastructure
  • Education: schools and universities
  • Health: public hospitals
  • Politics: government buildings, courts of law
  • Recreation: community centers, parks, historical sites, national landmarks
  • Water: sewers, water processing, water supply, drainage
  • Communication: telephone and communications networks

Examples of private infrastructure

Many examples of private infrastructure are in public-private partnerships. For example:

  • Toll bridges: privately built and paid for by both users and government
  • Private ferry and shipping services
  • Public-private investment in port and dock facilities

Parts of network infrastructure

  • Network services: IP protocols, wireless protocols, DSL, satellite services
  • Networking hardware: routers, cables, switches
  • Networking software: operating systems, firewalls, security applications, network management software

Other uses

Since the term infrastructure just means the structure that lies below, it can added to all types of descriptors.
 
A group may have a “narrative-infrastructure”—the stories they tell that create group cohesion. A person may have a social-infrastructure. This would include the full network of people they interact with, not just a single friend.
Infrastructure brings specialized areas of an organization together. It creates complexity by integrating disparate elements.
 

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