Infrastructure, What’s Communication Got to Do with it?

April 13, 2023

Energy, drinking water, and roads—all critical infrastructure—are the vital things we use daily but rarely think about until they are depleted, do not work, or are inaccessible. Likewise, internet services and data are forms of digital infrastructure that those of us with access often take for granted. But issues of equity around infrastructure and maintaining physical infrastructure that degrades over time often get overlooked.

Because most damage to these critical forms of infrastructure is out of sight, what can’t be seen is not a priority for politicians or considered a return on investment for taxpayers. It is so much easier to justify fixing a broken power line than spending the money to maintain it and replace it before it breaks. It is also easier to assume everyone has the same high-speed internet access that some of us enjoy instead of reaching out to adults and families in under-served communities to help them get access to essential digital infrastructure.

For those of us living in Austin, Texas, the start of 2023 began as it often does, with severe winter storms, floods, and power outages. In March, I received three different wireless emergency alert messages on my mobile phone; each warned me about impending thunderstorms and potential flooding. Since February, some people have been paying a bit more attention to those warnings after a ferocious winter storm left over half of the residents in Austin, the nation’s eleventh largest city, without electricity for nearly a week. It was the second time in two years that such storms crippled the city. I was among the fortunate ones. And I felt guilty. My electricity stayed on in February, but as I walked around my neighborhood, I began to understand why. On my street, power lines are buried underground and were unaffected, but two streets over, power lines were strung between tall poles with large oak trees hovering over them. Affluent communities often push back against tree trimming for aesthetic reasons; now the utility companies realize that is a huge liability when ice coats the trees and they fall on the power lines, forcing them to snap.

A large, old oak tree bows and breaks in an Austin, TX ice storm. Credit: Keri K. Stephens 

Bringing Together Communication Scholarship, Activism, Infrastructure

The Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act (also called the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal) was passed at the end of 2021. Today, billions of dollars are being invested to “rebuild America’s roads, bridges, and rails, expand access to clean drinking water, ensure every household in the country has access to high-speed internet, tackle the climate crisis, advance environmental justice, and invest in communities that have too often been left behind (White House, 2021)." Many of the goals of this Infrastructure Act are well aligned with some of the most meaningful scholarship and activism efforts in our field of Communication.

So where does Communication intersect with infrastructure? I believe our Communication scholarship can shape infrastructure advancements by bridging the technology and the consumer. For example, communicating about the need to conserve energy and water to avoid a catastrophic failure is both important and challenging, but it is the type of problem that should be informed by Communication research.

Often, I have said the most novel technologies mean nothing if we do not incorporate people’s feedback and needs in ways that can make them useful. Infrastructure consists of highly technical products and processes, and for decades, they just worked in the background. Today, however, people want transparency and will hold technical organizations accountable through public forms of communication like social media. We are also seeing infrastructure failures that reveal key justice and equity issues—including systemic marginalization—since the populations most often affected and at risk tend to be under-served and vulnerable to infrastructure failures.

Leveraging Our Communication Expertise

Notice that my examples and explanations so far reveal parallels with past challenges Communication scholars have tackled. We understand how difficult it is to reveal the hidden: we have decades of research in health, science, environmental, mass, and risk communication where we have used communication to help people become aware of their risk and to develop more understandable and appropriate messages. Our tradition of critical, cultural, and community-engaged scholarship has revealed inequities in access to safe and consistent infrastructure and has provided communicative approaches to create solutions with local communities that are most at risk. Communication technology scholars have studied warning messages and mobile technologies, and organizational scholars understand the big picture around involving groups and teams to expand the options we have to communicate with our audiences.

So, why aren’t legislators and utilities asking us for help? They should be! A huge problem is that they have not realized they need support with navigating in this space. Some of our most pressing vulnerabilities lie at the intersection of the built system and society; a place where communication is a valuable interface. I have spent nearly a decade conducting research on how communication impacts and can help people and organizations during infrastructure crises and disasters. I’m exploring ways to translate important communication approaches into highly technical fields that drive infrastructure. At first, I found myself so frustrated I wanted to scream from the back of room, “My field knows how to study this, let us help!” I read scholarship published outside of Communication and once again, I couldn’t believe science and engineering scholars were not reading and citing our work.

Now, I am using a different approach. I’m forming and joining interdisciplinary teams that are concerned about building trust with each other and that value expertise found in fields outside of their own. This work isn’t always easy, and it takes years for groups to develop this type of engagement, but the process and these goals are important if communication scholars want to work as equals with those in engineering and in technical fields of science. Or when they want to lead projects that address important societal concerns like how to best communicate about infrastructure.

There has been progress and change. Communication scholarship is starting to be valued. Focused on infrastructure, the National Science Foundation’s Strengthening American Infrastructure (SAI) program is one example. The Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate leads SAI in partnership with about 10 other interdisciplinary directorates. SAI focuses on human behavior and the vital role people play in developing and maintaining effective infrastructure across the nation. My team’s funded project brings together message design experts, cultural communication, communication, and technology, as well as civil engineers who specialize in water and energy. Members of this interdisciplinary team have been working together for the past three years to better understand the connection between infrastructure and Communication. We have studied past winter storms that caused infrastructure failures and examined the specific communication practices of power and water utilities.

I have also worked on several other teams, many supported by federal and state funding, to examine flooding, infrastructure, and communication. Flooding, which can be caused by different events, is the most frequent type of disaster. Some of the first projects funded from the 2021 Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act have been focused on building infrastructure to better protect people from floods. Some flooding-related infrastructure projects will focus on building and repairing material structures that work in the background, hidden from view. But others should be helping the public understand they could be at risk of being flood victims.

That is the case for those people at the center of my current work with rural and under-served communities. What has compounded the problem for individuals and families in these communities, I am finding, is a severe lack of digital infrastructure that limits their ability to access data and communicate with each another. Those communities also lack the data and people resources to write grants that can support their much-needed infrastructure development projects. One community I visited this year explained that they live without adequate internet service, and this includes local and county officials who are responsible for the safety of their residents during a flood and when infrastructures fail.

I am committed to ensuring that utilities and policymakers understand the value of Communication scholarship and practice to help them respond to infrastructure failures and advance systems that are accessible, equitable, and just. As Communication scholars and practitioners, we can work alongside our engineering and science colleagues to address bigger challenges than any discipline can do alone. Communication is not only integral to infrastructure, but it is an untapped source of resiliency that can make a sustainable difference in people’s lives.

Keri K. Stephens, Ph.D., is a Professor in Organizational Communication Technology, a Distinguished Teaching Professor, and Co-Director of the Technology, Information, and Policy Institute in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin.