Pop Up Infrastructure?

Christmas pop up market at The Rocks

Pop-ups, those temporary, transitory events and structures have lately become very trendy. Marketers love them because, as humans, we are hard wired to respond to novelty. There is also a fear of missing out if we do not take immediate advantage of what is on offer because we know there is a good chance that next time we pass by, whatever it is won’t be there. OK. If the chief characteristic of pop-ups is their transitory nature – and the chief characteristic of infrastructure is its longevity, what are we to make of a headline reading ‘Pop up Prison’?

When I saw it, my first reaction was to smile. I thought of a young and earnest journalist wanting to be up with the latest, and a harassed sub-editor, too busy to correct. After all, pop-up infrastructure is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. But behind the trendy term lies a more serious issue.

In New Zealand, the reference was to ‘rapid build’ which is more accurate. The cell design is one that is in use in war zones and resembles detention centres surrounded by razor wire.  The cells can be rapidly deployed. This is the attraction now for cities with overcrowded prisons.  In war zones  rapid deployment is a response to a sudden and urgent need. It is very costly but in wartime there is not the luxury of time to plan so we wear the costs.  But the same argument can hardly apply to prisons. This has grown up over many years and we have been aware of it. We just haven’t been prepared to do anything about it. Now under the cover of urgency, do we throw caution to the wind, fail to plan properly, and exacerbate our future cost problems?

It is generally recognised that around 75% of the life cycle costs of infrastructure is committed at the planning stage, when we decide where and what to build.  Total life cycle costs may also be considered inversely proportional to time spent in quality planning.

Question: Why do we – both as individuals and organisations – so frequently put off thinking about, and planning for, known future contingencies until our scope for action is drastically reduced?  And what can we do about it?

Infrastructure bi polar disorder

Infrastructure managers have long been perplexed at why more resources are not devoted to maintaining the infrastructure we put so much effort into obtaining.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that we really don’t want infrastructure at all, it is merely a convenient means of securing what we do want.  So politicians may want the ribbon cutting and voters may want the promised jobs.  Council CEOs may want the adulation (and subsequent job security and salary increases) that come from winning capital grants.  What no-one particularly wants is the financial responsibility for maintaining that capital over the longer term.

Commuters don’t want a road. Few of us would get much pleasure out of simply admiring a strip of bitumen.  What we do want is to get from A to B. Similarly we don’t want a power plant, or transmission wires, we do want to power up our lights and electrical appliances. Morover we don’t want prisons or law courts, what we do want is to feel safe and to be reassured that justice is served.

We may call infrastructure an asset but, once acquired, we think of it as a liability. While the announcement of a new infrastructure project is usually received with joy and jubilation, once the project is completed and the construction jobs have vanished, the mood changes. Governments, agencies and voters now unite in resenting contributing to ongoing operations and maintenance.  Bi polar!

What’s the treatment?  Bi polar disorder is treated with mood stabilizing drugs. The drugs change perceptions. Highs are dampened, lows are uplifted.  Perhaps the answer for infrastructure is the same?  Stop the nonsense of venerating new infrastructure projects as a panacea for all human ills.  And equally stop  the nonsense of assuming that services can continue to be provided without operations and maintenance resources. Dangerous illusions, both.

Both can be addressed by a better understanding of what infrastructure can and can’t do and a far better understanding of alternatives – this is one of our aims here at ‘Talking Infrastructure’.

And so our question today is:  If you were an Infrastructure Medic – what would you do to dampen the highs and elevate the lows?