As a consequence of the U.S. effort to increase infrastructure security and resilience, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other U.S. federal agencies have identified 16 critical infrastructure sectors that are considered vital to the nation’s well-being in terms of economic security, public health, and safety. However, there remains no articulated set of values that justify this particular list of infrastructure systems or how decision-makers might prioritize investments towards one critical sector over another during a crisis. To offer a more integrated and holistic approach to critical infrastructure resilience, this research employs the capabilities approach to human development, which offers an alternative view of critical infrastructure that focuses on the services that infrastructure provides rather than its physical condition or vulnerability to threats. This service-based perspective of infrastructure emphasizes the role of infrastructure in enabling and supporting central human capabilities that build adaptive capacity and improve human well-being. We argue that the most critical infrastructure systems are those that are essential for providing and/or supporting central human capabilities. This paper examines the DHS designation of criticality from a capabilities perspective and argues for a capabilities basis for making distinctions between those systems that should be considered most critical and those that might be temporarily sacrificed. A key implication of this work is that an across sector approach is required to reorganize existing critical infrastructure efforts around the most valuable infrastructure end-services.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)339-352
Number of pages14
JournalEnvironment Systems and Decisions
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2018


  • Capability approach
  • Critical infrastructure
  • Human development
  • Infrastructure criticality
  • Infrastructure services
  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science


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