Infrastructure and Democracy _ Issues in Science and Technology.htmlInfrastructure and Democracy


Christopher Jones

David Reinecke

If Donald Trump follows through on his promise to invest in infrastructure, he should prioritize broad access and learn from previous efforts where public engagement enhanced social outcomes.
The recent bitterly contested election revealed little common ground between the major parties. Yet President-elect Donald Trump and his opponent Hillary Clinton had at least one shared priority: both agreed that America’s infrastructure was in urgent need of revitalization. Indeed, the nation’s roads, bridges, ports, sewer systems, and more are old, crumbling, and decaying. The American Society of Civil Engineers 2013 “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” pronounced an average grade of D+ for the nation’s technological backbones with an estimated $3.6 trillion needed by 2020. To make matters worse, Americans are currently devoting less per capita investment to infrastructure than at any time since World War II.
How should the necessary revitalization be pursued? Most analyses of infrastructure consider success to be defined by technological sophistication: bandwidth of broadband Internet connections, gigawatts of electricity produced, or ton-miles of rail traffic. Better infrastructure is simply more infrastructure. Such measures of success are too limited. We argue the most important definition of success for infrastructure is how well it enables all Americans to participate in the nation’s social and economic life. Access is the hallmark of great infrastructure.
Though invisible and taken for granted (at least until they break), infrastructures form the foundation for everyday social and economic life. No individual could start a small business selling products across the country without roads, harbors, or rails. No community that lacks safe drinking water can enable its members to improve their quality of life when their health care costs increase and they are forced to miss work. And with the increasing move of political discussions to online forums, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be an engaged civic participant from the wrong side of the digital divide. To be a full-fledged citizen able to achieve the American Dream requires access to infrastructure.
Yet the history of US infrastructure development shows that broad access for all classes and groups of society was typically achieved through the activities of disenfranchised citizens, not the benevolence of private operators or the foresight of policy makers. Framing their demands in terms of rights and the public good, average Americans pressured corporations through regulatory bodies, broadcast their grievances in the media, organized politically, and even built alternative systems of their own. Infrastructure may be good for democracy, but democracy has usually been necessary to create good infrastructure.
To illustrate these points, we explore three case studies over the past 150 years: ra

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