Infrastructure – damned by the language we use

We ‘invest’ in capital, but maintenance and operations are a ‘cost’.

We consider Investment to be ‘good’, so we try to increase it.

We consider Costs to be ‘bad’ so we try to reduce them.

The result is that we end up with infrastructure that we under-maintain and where operations are compromised by insufficient training and funding.

Because of the language we use! 


8 Thoughts on “Infrastructure – damned by the language we use

  1. Penny makes a really good point. What if we were to focus on the service? Take electricity for example. What if we were to focus on the life cycle cost of the service including the annualised capital (depreciation) and average annual operating and maintenance cost. We would then start to see infrastructure from the customers perspective, reliable supply, value for money cost, and environmental impact

    • Jeff, Looking at life cycle cost is a good start, bringing it back to an annualised figure is even better. However would not cost figures need to be complemented with benefit figures to appreciate reliability, value for money and environmental impact? I suspect that these benefits are likely to require non-monetary metrics to fully appreciate what is happening. It is where we need to go.

  2. I’m convinced language is the key to unlocking meaningful conversations about this complex issue, too… but I think ‘value’ is a better term to use than ‘service’ as it integrates three perspectives that must be considered together if we’re to overcome these challenges (as I argued in a recent paper to the IPWEA conference in Perth).

    Firstly, the activities of the organisation (e.g. outputs of maintenance and capital activities). Secondly, the needs and aspirations of stakeholders (i.e. the quadruple bottom line outcome). Thirdly – where the integration happens – the value of activities for stakeholders… the ‘sustainable best value’ outcome is the one where an organisation’s limited resources are allocated (across everything it does) to deliver the highest priority outcomes the stakeholders need and want.

    • Ben. I understand your argument but can’t help thinking that the more complicated we make a concept, so that our words need major explanation before we can start to use them, presents serious difficulties of its own. The word value comes with a lot of overtones and undertones.

      • I can’t disagree what I’ve explained is complex… and I’m the first to admit I’m still working on trying to make this simpler (haven’t solved it yet!). But for NSW councils each of the 3 perspectives I’ve identified refers to one of the primary documents in the Integrated Planning and Reporting Framework… so if you’re trying to convince a councillor they need to focus more on operational activities and not just on capital, this is the place to start!

        ‘Organisational activities’ are in council’s 1 year Operational Plan, ‘needs and aspirations of stakeholders’ are in the Community Strategic Plan and ‘sustainable best value’ is what I suggest councils should be aiming for when they detail the activities they intend to undertake in their 4 year Delivery Program to achieve the objectives in the CSP within the resources available in their Resourcing Strategy.

        The ‘value’ language is what ties all this together (provides the integration in IP&R). Don’t disagree it comes with lots of overtones and undertones… but haven’t found anything better to replace it with, plus it’s what’s in the NSW Local Govt. Act.

        • Another thought (or two) and an attempt to put it differently: Einstein said “make everything as simple as possible but not simpler”… De Bono said “simplicity before understanding is simplistic; simplicity after understanding is simple” (refer Gregory’s post of 26 July).

          It is surely the case that allocation of resources the activities necessary to provide infrastructure (in the context of a range of competing priorities across a government or other organisation) is complex… so we need to develop some level of understanding to avoid being “simplistic”.

          I don’t think I’m making the concepts more complex… I do admit I’m not making them “as simple as possible”, though!

          I don’t have a problem with using language like “value” that needs explanation because (as De Bono says) we need to work – at least with decision-makers like councillors (I admit it’s difficult with the general public) – to help them develop a better understanding of the realities of the situation because it IS complex

  3. I like the discussion here that maintenance is considered a cost and capital an investment. I have long thought this was a problem and have often discussed this during asset management trainings that we have to look at these dollars as equivalent. One is not better or different from another. It ties back to being all about the service we are trying to provide. If we are trying to provide a service, then we should focus on the most efficient way of providing that service – i.e., the lowest life cycle cost of investments (both O&M and capital) that gets us sustained service. We should not glorify capital and denigrate O&M (one is good the other is bad.)

    Glad to join the conversation.

  4. Milos Posavljak on October 12, 2017 at 2:00 am said:

    Further complicated by the language we use, yes! There is an area of the organizational theory research dedicated to this phenomena, but we will leave that for another time.

    After years of contemplation, I do not think that we (should) can tare down organizational / language silos. Simply because we would be taring down the Great Wall of the Division of Labour. It is a part of our societal fabric which starts way back in the educational institutions, with…what do you want to be when you grow up?

    However, we can drill strategically positioned pin holes that allow for free and efficient movement of information across silos, for the purposes of asset management planning.

    Minimal to no trauma is experienced by existing resources, communicative and authoritative lines. First “subjects” have already undergone the procedure at “top secrete” locations. ( :

    Come to think of it, it is sort of what AMQi and Talkinginfrastructure have done to allow for the free movement of am ideas across the industry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation