Robert Lee

What is infrastructure? That seems like a simple question, right?

I’ve always thought I understood what it meant, the typical, textbook/dictionary definition. Infrastructure is, from a noun. 1. The basic, underlying framework or features of a system or organization. 2. the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or area, as transportation and communication systems, power plants, and schools. 3. the military installations of a country.

That definition still fits, but if you read each of these, do you see anything missing? We see a purpose of infrastructure but what is left out is who that purpose serves and how that infrastructure is accomplished. It is certainly not magic that a road appears, and we all know it is not easy to get high-speed internet, water delivered to our house, sewage removed from our house safely, and electricity, which we know is essential in today’s world.

We need all these things. So, some have begun to think more broadly about infrastructure and how to construct a society that supports the development and implementation of those three components of the definition: framework, facilities, and military. That means we look at the people's side of the definition.

I think we all can agree none of the things mentioned happen magically, so someone, somewhere, has taken action to make them happen. That’s where the idea of “human infrastructure” becomes viable. We have seen the incredible disruption to our social networks with the current pandemic and its effect on people. Returning to, we find this definition: "The term human infrastructure is used to refer to the aspects of the facilities and systems of a place that affect and involve its people. The human infrastructure of a place – such as a country or city – is often understood to involve things like healthcare, child care, education, and job training."

When we see a pothole in the road or an electric line down, we have been trained to understand those are elements of infrastructure that are broken. Using the human infrastructure definition, we can look at our schools closing and teachers leaving their positions as an equivalent type of broken. When we need our staff to get to work, but they can’t find a day care that is open or has room for our kids, it is broken. When our health care system is overrun and people are literally committing suicide because of the stress of their job, it is broken. When our military needs troops to be ready, no matter what, then we invest in their health and welfare providing for them and their family. After all, what good is a tank or fighter jet, or even a drone, if the human infrastructure is absent?

If we want a functioning society where we have skilled workers, educated public, facilities and systems that function well or effectively, then this whole idea of human infrastructure starts to make sense. Do I know how a water treatment facility operates? No, I don’t, but someone – thankfully! – does. Do I know, or do you, how to guide a ship through the Panama Canal? Or a barge up the Arkansas River? No, but someone does and, guess what, someone else trained them. Someone teaches their children, or if too young for school, keeps them safe at a daycare.

There is much debate about spending lots of money on infrastructure and general agreement that the spending is an investment in the future. We need clean, safe water, electricity, roads and railways and waterways. High-speed internet has become a new necessity. All of that is not achievable without people. Let’s make that investment in both hard infrastructure and human infrastructure. It’s the smart thing to do!

Robert Lee is a retired social worker with interests in history and politics. He lives in Tahlequah.

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