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?

4 Thoughts on “Infrastructure bi polar disorder

  1. Water, electricity and the Internet are just there. They are expected parts of our lives. The spectacularly massive infrastructure behind them is masked by our ability to conceptualise and abstract.

    This makes us very efficient thinkers, we don’t need to think about the how of a thing to make use of it. We do pay a price for this, we are not always effective thinkers. Separating infrastructure from the service it provides, and the maintenance it requires, can lead us to making wildly inappropriate decisions – like “giving” the community a facility they can’t afford to run; and like accepting the gift of infrustructure that you can’t afford.

    Like puppies, infrastructure isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for life. That stadium might be cute when it’s young, but as it ages and its maintenance needs get bigger and louder, someone has to look after it.

    Maybe if we think about services the way we should think about new pets it will help us consider the infrastructure and its upkeep as we make our decisions.

  2. Ruth Wallsgrove on January 12, 2017 at 1:50 am said:

    Penny, love the idea of treatment for silly thinking on infrastructure. There are certainly people who would welcome the longer term jobs if they understand that big projects are only temporary. But is the new project/ ribbon cutting a symptom of a throw-away society more generally? And so is the answer, in fact, mood stabilisation: a sustainable community means no big highs and lows?

  3. Ernst Krauss on January 13, 2017 at 6:10 pm said:

    It is a conundrum- why do we want Infrastructure, what is an acceptable “condition” of Infrastructure, what is its value? In a recent extended project on establishing Asset Managemet in a Public Utility, I was amazed how different the perception of need for Infrastructure was. From ‘we need it’ to ‘we look after it if we have to’ there was a variety of opinions. And when it came to maintaining it, there was acceptance that service delivery is important, but no money was to be spent ensuring delivery. Is it that Infrastructure exists to provide jobs for people rather then delivering anything of value? Another big issue is that value is not defined. Are we therefore mature enough as a society to have and sustain Infrastructure as something useful (and perhaps even valuable)?

    • Ernst, sadly, I think that the jobs aspect predominates. And what is even sadder is that infrastructure is just about the worst way to provide jobs. Construction jobs are only temporary and a large proportion of the expenditure goes to those who are already well-off: developers, large construction companies. Then, to fund the capital expenditure, we cut back on maintenance and operations (the ongoing jobs) and in this way infrastructure adds to growing imbalance between the rich and the poor. So from an employment perspective, it is counterproductive.

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