Environment Systems and Decisions

, Volume 38, Issue 3, pp 339–352 | Cite as

A capabilities approach to the prioritization of critical infrastructure

  • Susan Spierre ClarkEmail author
  • Thomas P. Seager
  • Mikhail V. Chester


As a consequence of the U.S. effort to increase infrastructure security and resilience, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other U.S. federal agencies have identified 16 critical infrastructure sectors that are considered vital to the nation’s well-being in terms of economic security, public health, and safety. However, there remains no articulated set of values that justify this particular list of infrastructure systems or how decision-makers might prioritize investments towards one critical sector over another during a crisis. To offer a more integrated and holistic approach to critical infrastructure resilience, this research employs the capabilities approach to human development, which offers an alternative view of critical infrastructure that focuses on the services that infrastructure provides rather than its physical condition or vulnerability to threats. This service-based perspective of infrastructure emphasizes the role of infrastructure in enabling and supporting central human capabilities that build adaptive capacity and improve human well-being. We argue that the most critical infrastructure systems are those that are essential for providing and/or supporting central human capabilities. This paper examines the DHS designation of criticality from a capabilities perspective and argues for a capabilities basis for making distinctions between those systems that should be considered most critical and those that might be temporarily sacrificed. A key implication of this work is that an across sector approach is required to reorganize existing critical infrastructure efforts around the most valuable infrastructure end-services.


Critical infrastructure Infrastructure services Capability approach Human development Infrastructure criticality Maslow’s hierarchy of needs 



This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. (1360509 and 1441352) as well as funding from the US. Navy under Grant No. (11967796).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Susan Spierre Clark
    • 1
    Email author
  • Thomas P. Seager
    • 2
  • Mikhail V. Chester
    • 2
  1. 1.UB RENEW Institute, 112 Cooke HallUniversity at BuffaloBuffaloUSA
  2. 2.School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built EnvironmentArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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