Is infrastructure research keeping up with modern challenges?

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The latest infrastructure research trends highlight the transition towards more sustainable infrastructure systems The latest infrastructure research trends highlight the transition towards more sustainable infrastructure systems. © Shutterstock

When researchers talk about infrastructure, what are they focusing on? Is their work adapting to new and emerging challenges?

In 2023, our team sought to answer these questions by synthesizing more than 300 infrastructure-focused studies published between 1983 and 2022. Our analysis revealed several apparent trends: these studies highlighted the largely positive contribution of infrastructure investment to development. Overall, research tended to use household or firm-level survey data backed by large datasets.

Has anything changed in the past year?

We’re now taking a more systematic approach to tracking new publications, with the goal of gaining a real-time view of emerging trends and their implications. Here’s a first preliminary set of insights, based on a compilation of 565 infrastructure-related articles, focusing on digital, energy, and transport sectors, published in 112 journals and working paper series in 2023.

Big themes for 2023

Recent literature places a heightened focus on renewable energy, green technologies, climate and shock-related resilience, technological innovations and complementarities across sectors, and the transition towards more sustainable infrastructure systems.

Most common terms in infrastructure studies, 2023

Most common terms in infrastructure studies in 2023

Source: Authors’ elaboration based on 565 studies sourced from 112 journals and working paper series.


Infrastructure sectors are interconnected, and the research reflects this analyzing the interactions between digital, energy, and transport sectors. For example, digital inclusive finance significantly reduces Chinese firms’ consumption of fossil fuels, primarily through increased investment in information and communication (ICT) and green technologies. There is also strong complementarity between the energy and transport sectors. An increased installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems is linked to a rise in electric vehicle uptake (by a factor of 1.021) in New Zealand. And within sectors, complementarities loom large as well, for example the availability of battery energy storage boosts the demand for rooftop solar.

Research in 2023 also emphasized the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on infrastructure sectors. The pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital technologies supporting remote work, online education, and e-commerce activities. For example, a home-based learning program implemented in India using phone calls and text messages resulted in notable improvements in children’s learning outcomes (i.e., 4.69 percentage points increase in basic arithmetic operations). Additionally, multiple studies quantitatively demonstrate the pandemic disrupted energy demand patterns, leading to fluctuations in consumption and shifts in transportation modesThese findings underscore the importance of resilient and adaptable infrastructure systems in ensuring continued service delivery during crisis and supporting economic recovery.

New methodologies, granular data, and developing countries

Researchers are digging deeper into the local dimensions of infrastructure development—often relying on spatial analysis. In the context of Tanzania, for instance, individuals in places with mobile internet experience increases in labor force participation, wage employment (by 2 percentage points), and non-farm self-employment (by 3 percentage points), with a 7 percentage-point decrease in farm employment. These effects vary based on age, gender, and skill level, with younger and more skilled men benefitting the most, while high-skilled women see transitions from farm to non-farm employment.

Structural modeling work can also be fruitfully applied to key infrastructure questions, such as how market integration through investment in transmission lines lowers the cost of renewable energy expansion. And general equilibrium macroeconomic models illustrate the aggregate effects of specific policies such as improving grid reliability.

Why is this notable? The emergence of more big data sources—such as satellite imagery, mobile phones and GPS signals—has enabled a shift toward using more granular data. Researchers are placing more importance on understanding the micro-level impact of infrastructure investments, which can reveal important insights.

For example, while firms with connection to high-speed rail benefit from agglomeration economies and improved market access in China, there is a negative impact on firms in peripheral regions due to the redistribution of production inputs toward urban cores. On the big data side, indicator values derived from call detail record–based origin-destination matrices can track the evolution of mobility patterns in urban areas, providing useful evidence to design better transport policies. Cellphone records enable the estimation of the role of information exchange to mitigate information asymmetry in urban labor markets in China, and the spatial distribution of income in Dhaka and Colombo. And matched spatial climate and infrastructure data can help map the exposure of transportation infrastructure to climate change-induced change in precipitations.

Regarding the geographic focus of the literature in 2023, there has been a notable emphasis on specific developing countries, with China often featuring prominently due to its rapid infrastructure development and economic growth, followed by India and Sub-Saharan Africa countries. This aligns with the overall findings in our earlier literature review covering the pre-2023 period, which highlighted a growing interest in developing countries, particularly those in Asia and Africa.

Future research

To sum up, is infrastructure research keeping up with the unique challenges of today? Our literature review suggests, “yes.” Research on infrastructure and development outcomes is multifaceted and dynamic, evolving to meet changing realities and emerging challenges—such as climate resilience, energy transition, and the integration of digital technologies into infrastructure systems, such as the rise of platforms tailored to local needs (e.g., ClickforVic, a digital platform that connects country farmers with urban consumers), as well as the impact of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, 5G, and blockchain.

Spatial analysis and interdisciplinary approaches integrating economics, engineering, and environmental sciences have become the norm. Household firm-level analysis, innovative sources including big data from satellite imagery, and real-time data from sensors and Internet of Things devices are now routinely informing research.

By staying attuned to the latest research trends and insights, policymakers and practitioners can navigate the complexities of infrastructure-led development with greater clarity and purpose, paving the way for a more equitable, sustainable, and prosperous future. Watch this space for the launch of our infrastructure publication tracker!


#Infra4Dev is a blog series that showcases recent World Bank economic research to explore how Infrastructure is critical for development. You can access all the previous Infra4Dev blogs here.



Infra4Dev | Paving the Way for Sustainable Infrastructure and Economic Growth

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Stéphane Straub

Chief Economist, Infrastructure Practice Group, World Bank

Nisan Gorgulu

Economist, Climate Finance & Economics Unit, World Bank

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