Infrastructure as a wicked complex process

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30 Scopus citations


Changing complexity in the increasingly integrated human, natural, and built systems within which our infrastructures are designed and operated make it necessary to examine how the role of engineering requires new competencies for satisficing. Several long-term trends appear to be shifting our infrastructures further away from the complicated domain where optimization and efficiency were the core approaches, to the domain of complexity, where rapidly changing environments and fragmentation of goals require fundamentally new approaches. While complexity in infrastructure has always existed in some form, making infrastructures agile and flexible for the Anthropocene will require us to acknowledge and work with the fact that infrastructure change now appears to be a wicked and complex process. Wicked complexity is the result of three competing forces that are inimical to rapid and sustained change of infrastructures in a future marked by acceleration and uncertainty: wicked problems, technical complexity including lock-in, and social complexity. The combination of these factors raises serious questions about whether rapidly changing demands, technologies, and perturbations (such as climate change, or cyber attacks) will affect our infrastructure’s capacity to provide services. What infrastructure managers need to do today is very different than in the past. Increased presence and polarization of viewpoints is becoming more common, where solutions are dictated not by technical performance measures but instead by “acceptable enough” to all parties. Adaptive management practices and associated competencies that have proven successful in managing complex socio-ecological systems may provide some guidance for how to manage infrastructure change. These competencies are i) promoting a shared understanding of what infrastructures can do, ii) managing infrastructures as systems with changing demands, iii) emphasizing experimentation over conventional approaches, and, iv) restructuring education and training for a complexity mindset that emphasizes what can be over what is, and relies on satisficing, not optimization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number21
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2019


  • Anthropocene
  • Infrastructure
  • Wicked complexity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Ecology
  • Geotechnical Engineering and Engineering Geology
  • Geology
  • Atmospheric Science


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