A Human-Centered Approach to the Prioritization of Critical Infrastructure Resilience

Posted: July 13, 2017 at 2:15 pm

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Susan Spierre Clark, RENEW Institute, University at Buffalo
Thomas P. Seager, School for Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Arizona State University


The current approach to infrastructure prioritization by the U.S. involves the identification of 16 critical infrastructure (CI) sectors, including the lifeline sectors of water, energy, transportation, and communications, that are considered vital to the U.S. because the incapacity or destruction of these systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.[1] The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other lead agencies employ a risk-based approach to prioritize assets within each sector based on the likelihood of threats and infrastructure vulnerabilities, as well as the potential consequences the nation would face if it were to fail.  However, this approach to critical infrastructure identification is too broad, given that not all 16 sectors can be protected at any cost. Moreover, the sector-based approach has resulted in inconsistencies among risk assessment tools, areas assessed for vulnerability, and the detail of information collected for each sector that has inhibited integration and coordination for prioritization efforts.[2] By organizing around distinct sectors, it also misses important dependencies and interdependencies in the infrastructure supply chain.

The view of resilience provided by the federal government emphasizes the physical condition of the infrastructure rather than the quality of services provided, and from this view, organization around sectors with similar physical characteristics is sensible. However, this emphasis is problematic in so far as infrastructure is not an end unto itself but must be judged (in effectiveness) relative to its purpose, which is to provide services to the public. While confounding infrastructure resilience with physical condition can help plan maintenance schedules that keep performance standards high relative to known hazards, it is likely to fail when confronted with surprise.[3] A more complete resilience approach would instead recognize the importance of infrastructure’s extensibility or adaptive capacity for maintaining functionality in the face of surprise,[4] including the capacity of any sectors to substitute for, reinforce, or pose a threat to other sectors.

The inevitability of failure in interdependent and complex infrastructure systems requires a recognition that not all system functions or components can be protected at all times. Therefore, criticality is a value-based decision because there are significant differences in what matters to who, when, and at what scale.[5] The problem is that there is no agreement across infrastructure sectors and networks on what sectors or components are most essential to prioritize during a crises.[6] Thus, a key impediment to infrastructure resilience is the lack of preferential objectives for utilizing scarce resources towards desired outcomes.[7] Here we summarize ongoing research that employs human development theory as a lens for viewing critical infrastructure to inform the prioritization of infrastructure in a way that represents human values and capabilities.

Infrastructure for Human Capabilities

The purpose of critical infrastructure to provide basic services to people and society. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) recognizes the relationship between resilience and human development (i.e., human well-being). In their view, resilience underpins any approach to securing and sustaining human development by stressing the role of people’s capabilities, or available choices, in minimizing adverse consequences from shocks and persistent threats. In other words, the more capabilities or freedoms people have, the better their capacity will be for responding to and recovering from adverse events.[8]

The philosophy of human capabilities, known as the Capabilities Approach (CA), is the foundation for the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI), which is a widely used multi-dimensional metric for achievements in human development.[9] The HDI includes three key human development end points: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable, and a decent standard of living. Although these dimensions represent essential human capabilities required for human development and human resilience, the UNDP does not explicitly relate these outcomes to the infrastructure systems that enable them nor mention the physical state of infrastructure. From this perspective, it is the ultimate services or capabilities that infrastructure provides that is important for achieving system resilience.

Employing the CA in the context of critical infrastructure suggests that formal rights and freedoms are necessary but insufficient for enhancing human capabilities. The approach emphasizes the importance of conversion factors, including infrastructure, which are required for people to exercise their rights and realize their freedoms. Just as using a bike for mobility requires access to a road or a bicycle lane, getting an education requires curriculum and teachers, the freedom of speech requires access to a newspaper, cell phone, or social media, and living a healthy life requires access to health care, hospitals, water, and nutritious food. Thus, from a capabilities perspective, the most critical infrastructures should be understood as those that are vital for protecting or providing essential human capabilities. Thus, knowing which human capabilities are most valued is important for identifying which infrastructure services support those capabilities.

Fortunately, Martha Nussbaum,[10] an American Philosopher and one of the pioneers of applying the CA to human rights and justice, provides a list of ten capabilities that she claims are important because the activities and freedoms they enable are central to a life that is truly human (Table 1). She defends these capabilities as being the moral entitlements of every human being on earth and that the list specifies the minimum entitlements that a citizen should be guaranteed by their governments. Nussbaum formulates the list at a general, legislative level and advocates that the translation to implementation and policies should be done at a local level, taking into account local differences.

Table 1. An abbreviated summary of Nussbaum’s list of central human capabilities

Human Capability Being able to…
life live to the end of a human life of normal length
bodily health have good health, nourishment and shelter
bodily integrity move freely from place to place, be secure against violent assault, and choice in matters of reproduction
senses, imagination, and thought use the senses; being able to imagine, to think, and have adequate education
emotions have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves
practical reason engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life
affiliation live for and in relation to other human beings
other species live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and nature
play laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities
control over one’s political environment participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the rights of political participation, free speech and freedom of association
control over one’s material environment hold property (both land and movable goods) and seek employment on an equal basis with others

The capabilities Nussbaum lists clearly depend on infrastructure systems. Moving freely from place to place requires transportation systems, good health and living a life of normal length requires access to healthcare, engaging in critical thinking demands a quality education, relating to other human beings requires communication systems, and today, freedom of speech and freedom of association demand not only communication systems but also information technology. Nevertheless, prioritizing some capabilities, and the infrastructure that support them, remains a challenge, especially because Nussbaum and others argue that dimensions of human development should be nonhierarchical because what seems most important to an individual will change over time, depending on the situation and context.[11] Also, due to the interdependency of infrastructure systems, there are many infrastructure sectors that in part, support the capabilities that are highly valued.

Towards Understanding the Complexity of Human Needs

To facilitate prioritization of critical infrastructure we employ Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation.[12] Better known as ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’, the well-known theory suggests that all people are motivated by basic needs and that most people seek to fulfill needs in a particular order (see Figure 1), with the most urgent survival needs first, followed by less urgent needs that are important for one’s satisfaction and happiness. According to the theory, when one need is satisfied, it ordinarily loses its motivational power and is replaced by another need that is not satisfied.

Figure 1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

Although often interpreted and illustrated in a rigid pyramid form, Maslow acknowledges that his hierarchy has a degree of fixity, in that some people will be motivated by needs in a different order. He also discusses how the hierarchy does not usually occur in a step-wise fashion as the pyramid implies. He says a more realistic description of the hierarchy is decreasing percentages of satisfaction as one moves up the pyramid. According to Maslow, human physiological needs are like vitamins: having one vitamin does not reduce the need for other vitamins, just as all of our needs are individually required and contribute synergistically to our well-being.[13]  That is, just because we have water does not fulfill our need for food, or shelter, or love, or esteem. What the theory tells us, however, is that having our most fundamental needs met (or at least sufficiently satisfied) allows people to focus on achieving higher order needs.

Although the approaches are fundamentally different, both conceptions of human well-being recognize the multi-dimensional nature of what most people value in life. The approaches can be integrated by conceptualizing Nussbaum’s list of capabilities as preconditions that are required to fulfill needs on Maslow’s hierarchy. Further, the supporting infrastructure systems are conceptualized as conversation factors that allow resources and entitlements to transform into capabilities. Integrating the CA and Maslow’s Hierarchy together allows us to rank order infrastructure sectors already recognized by DHS, according to their role in supporting the most basic of human needs as summarized in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Nussbaum’s central capabilities (center) and supporting critical infrastructures (left) mapped onto Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (right)

Figure 2 suggests that during a crises, it is the capabilities and human needs at the base of the pyramid that must be prioritized before those at higher tiers because they are essential for survival and coping with threats in the short-term. In other words, people’s need for water, food, and emergency services must be prioritized first, while less urgent needs can be at least temporarily sacrificed. In a more general sense, it also offers a more holistic proactive approach to resilience that stresses the importance of social and ecological infrastructure, which are not sufficiently represented in the U.S. government’s approach to critical infrastructure resilience. Moreover, framing the importance of infrastructure around the ultimate services they enable reinforces a cross-sectoral or supply chain view of infrastructure systems, where the most critical assets within each sector would be those that are considered essential for the delivery of our most basic human needs.


Reframing critical infrastructure prioritization around services that systems provide, rather than physical characteristics that sectors share, represents a paradigm shift in the way critical infrastructure is currently understood, and could consequently have significant implications for the way we design and manage infrastructure. Prioritizing services would mean understanding resilient infrastructure in terms of its ability to maintain functionality of those services, even when faced with surprise events. Consequently it demotes the importance of prediction and prevention of failure among vulnerable systems, and instead focuses primarily on protecting those systems that we consider most valuable. We think that a service-based approach will ultimately remove barriers to infrastructure resilience by providing a way to systemically prioritize infrastructure based on the collective values of the public. This type of approach will also consolidate efforts and resources towards the resilience of a few essential services, which are both important for disaster recovery as well as overall human wellbeing.


[1] Department of Homeland Security (DHS), National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP): Partnering for Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience, (Washington, DC: DHS, 2013), https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/NIPP%202013_Partnering%20for%20Critical%20Infrastructure%20Security%20and%20Resilience_508_0.pdf.

[2] United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), Critical Infrastructure Protection: DHS List of Priority Assets Needs to Be Validated and Reported to Congress, Report to Congressional Requesters, Mar. 2013, http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/653300.pdf;  GAO, Critical Infrastructure Protection: DHS Action Needed to Enhance Integration and Coordination of Vulnerability Assessment Efforts, Report to Congressional Requesters, Sept. 2014, https://www.gao.gov/assets/670/665788.pdf.

[3] David L. Alderson and John C. Doyle, “Contrasting Views of Complexity and Their Implications for Network-Centric Infrastructures,” IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics-Part A: Systems and Humans 40, no. 4 (2010): 839-852, http://faculty.nps.edu/dlalders/docs/AldersonDoyle-tsmca-July2010.pdf.

[4] David D. Woods, “Four Concepts for Resilience and the Implications for the Future of Resilience Engineering,” Reliability Engineering & System Safety 141 (2015): 5-9, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276139783_Four_concepts_for_resilience_and_the_implications_for_the_future_of_resilience_engineering.

[5] Wendy Steele, Karen Hussey, and Stephen Dovers, “What’s Critical about Critical Infrastructure?” Urban Policy and Research 35, no. 1 (2017): 74-86, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08111146.2017.1282857?journalCode=cupr20.

[6] Jena Baker McNeil and Richard Weitz,How to Fix Homeland Security Critical-Infrastructure Protection Plans: A Guide for Congress,” The Heritage Foundation (2010), http://www.heritage.org/homeland-security/report/how-fix-homeland-security-critical-infrastructure-protection-plans-guide.

[7] Thomas P. Seager, Susan Spierre Clark, Daniel A. Eisenberg, John E. Thomas, Margaret M. Hinrichs, Ryan Kofron, Camilla Nørgaard Jensen, Lauren R. McBurnett, Marcus Snell, David L. Alderson DL, “Redesigning Resilience,” In I. Linkov & J. M. Palma-Oliveira, eds., Risk and Resilience (New York: Springer, 2017).

[8] United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2014: Sustaining Human Progress-Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience, (New York: United Nations, 2014), http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/human-development-report-2014.

[9] Amartya Sen, Commodities and Capabilities, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, (New York: Anchor Books, 1999); Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, The Quality of Life, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Selim Jahan, “Measuring Living Standard and Poverty: Human Development Index as an Alternate Measure,” University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute, 2002, http://www.peri.umass.edu/fileadmin/pdf/gls_conf/glw_jahan.pdf.

[10] Martha Nussbaum, “Capabilities as Fundamental Entitlements: Sen and Social Justice,” Feminist Economics 9, no. 2-3 (2003): 33-59, https://philpapers.org/archive/NUSCAF.pdf.

[11] Sabina Alkire, “Dimensions of Human Development,” World Development 30, no. 2 (2002): 181-205, https://www.unicef.org/socialpolicy/files/Dimensions_of_Human_Development.pdf.

[12] Abraham Harold Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review 50, no. 4 (1943): 370.

[13] Abraham H. Maslow, “The Instinctoid Nature of Basic Needs,” Journal of Personality 22, no. 3 (1954): 326-347.

Write to the Editors at ciprpt@gmu.edu