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Title: Infrastructure autopoiesis: requisite variety to engage complexity

Infrastructure systems must change to match the growing complexity of the environments they operate in. Yet the models of governance and the core technologies they rely on are structured around models of relative long-term stability that appear increasingly insufficient and even problematic. As the environments in which infrastructure function become more complex, infrastructure systems must adapt to develop a repertoire of responses sufficient to respond to the increasing variety of conditions and challenges. Whereas in the past infrastructure leadership and system design has emphasized organization strategies that primarily focus on exploitation (e.g., efficiency and production, amenable to conditions of stability), in the future they must create space for exploration, the innovation of what the organization is and does. They will need to create the abilities to maintain themselves in the face of growing complexity by creating the knowledge, processes, and technologies necessary to engage environment complexity. We refer to this capacity asinfrastructure autopoiesis. In doing so infrastructure organizations should focus on four key tenets. First, a shift to sustained adaptation—perpetual change in the face of destabilizing conditions often marked by uncertainty—and away from rigid processes and technologies is necessary. Second, infrastructure organizations should pursue restructuring their bureaucracies to distribute more resources and decisionmaking capacity horizontally, across the organization’s hierarchy. Third, they should build capacity for horizon scanning, the process of systematically searching the environment for opportunities and threats. Fourth, they should emphasize loose fit design, the flexibility of assets to pivot function as the environment changes. The inability to engage with complexity can be expected to result in a decoupling between what our infrastructure systems can do and what we need them to do, and autopoietic capabilities may help close this gap by creating the conditions for a sufficient repertoire to emerge.

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Award ID(s):
1934933 1444755 1931324 1931363
Author(s) / Creator(s):
Publisher / Repository:
IOP Publishing
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Environmental Research: Infrastructure and Sustainability
Page Range / eLocation ID:
Article No. 012001
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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