Adaptability, what do we mean?

 Continuing our blog post series by Douglas Bartlett, Manager Asset Planning, City of Kalamunda.  Here he looks at how we might define and use the word ‘Adaptability’.  Again, Doug welcomes your thoughts and alternatives.

‘sustainable’ but ‘adaptable’?

Sustainability is an undefined concept, but so is Adaptability.  How do we describe what an adaptable asset is? Adaptability suggests that the service being provided by the assets will need to change

But are adaptable assets expected to last forever? Perhaps not at the component level but, through adaptability in the design, ensure the network or higher order asset will last forever?   Roman roads in Italy are still being used today but in a current form different to their original form. It is difficult to think of examples of buildings (or other infrastructure) that have lasted a very long time, because the original designs would not have incorporated adaptability concepts. Those buildings that have lasted centuries or one to two thousand years have continued to be used for the same purpose as originally constructed (or converted to a tourist attraction which essentially involves keeping them unchanged).

Adaptability could be designed for reduced resource consumption, or perhaps greater resource consumption as an accepted offset for the higher level of adaptability (air conditioning in a larger room for example which enables the room to have more uses, but which increases overall energy load).

Perhaps the solution is not to change the word from sustainability to adaptability, but to instead drive greater levels of adaptability in the design and management of assets. This can be done by expanding what sustainable means with a fourth element. Sustainability for asset management means for a defined time period and service level:

1    The asset will last (provide its full function) for the time period

2    The service provided by the asset will last for the same defined time period (the service may be subject to change but this is not limited by the asset)

3    The asset and service will require no expenditure of resources beyond what is defined in the service (noting that resource consumption efficiency should be defined in the service),  and

4     The asset is designed to be adaptable to a wider range of services, and also to the changing service needs over time.

One Thought on “Adaptability, what do we mean?

  1. The fourth element of sustainability in this definition (adaptability) is the hardest to achieve because it requires 1. predicting the future (which can be done with enough information, but introduces an element of uncertainty and risk) and 2. to oppose the cliched enemy of sustainability – consumerism.

    Outside of government services, businesses providing goods and services don’t seek to provide value for money, but to satisfy the need for value in consumers while collecting the profit. Illusionary value is just as good as true value in deciding price, and something’s “value” in the business world is literally what someone will pay for it. The capacity to adapt in an uncertain future to provide a wider range of services is unfortunately far inferior in our system to the capacity to become outdated, moribund, and useless just past the point an owner would consider it a sign of poor quality.

    Consider the iPhone, the hardware is sufficiently adaptable to continue working for many years, and updates of software are the most sustainable way to supplement this with environmentally friendly upgrades (requiring few materials). Instead millions of dollars of marketing drive the perception that perfectly adaptable technology is outdated and thus worthless, while updates are scandalously designed to drain battery power and reduce the life of the device. From a governmental perspective consumers (the population) don’t have a choice to purchase many services, they are forced upon them. Then, thanks to democracy, they have the chance to evaluate the product in retrospect. Despite the interference of terrible social popularity contests, the increasingly self serving voter trends, and the ignorant shortsightness induced by 4 year terms (exemplified in blaming the previous administration) this is a good system. Governments are accountable, so they pay attention to things like sustainability, and not JUST in the handwaving public image way that businesses do. The issue is that capitalism is designed around businesses beholden to free market forces ostensibly under the control of watchdog governments. This is why regulations such as recycling requirements are far more commonly the result of governmental control than business initiatives, when “reduce REUSE recycle” is the epitome of the concept that adaptability relates to sustainability. We are supposed to expect businesses to be controlled by faceless shareholders, often indirectly controlled, crying out for maximum profits at any cost, yet expect them to act ethically, rather than in the interests of the bottom line. Meanwhile, the government is faced with toothless powers (resulting from living in a climate of rampant consumerism) over those than infringe upon their rules, ties and obligation to many financial interests and backers required for political success, yet is expected to catch and punish enough wrong doers that it is not only influencing those exposed (A2 Milk for example) but deterrent to those who think doing the wrong thing is fine if they get away with it. Governments exist in the real world, only in theoretical neocapitalism can governments provide the external unbiased checks and balances to allow free market economies to be anything more than a failed social experiment. Instead they are slowly drawn into having skin in the game, and soon they become increasingly biased and corrupt. This is not always a bad thing, the federal government propped up businesses during the pandemic, because it recognised the importance of the economy over the surplus it had promised, and it realised (at least initially) that public health would have to take precedence over economic matters, which meant the economy would take a big hit, and protection for business is required. however if we accept that governments cannot always leave business alone, they instead need help, it becomes unacceptable hypocrisy to say that businesses when they are thriving deserve their hard earned rewards and should not be subject to the meddling control of governments. We are nearing an elitocracy, where popularity, or even celebrity is qualification for governance, and the illusion of the American dream tells us that equality of opportunity = equality of outcome for those who work hard, rather than success being a combination of hard work, privilege (lot in life) and good luck… ie 2/3rds chance! Einstein famously said that success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, which is easy for him to say as a man blessed with an overwhelming font of inspiration, not to mention education and opportunity (I am of course facetious, Einstein was remarking upon the ratio, of hard work required for genius epiphany, not dismissing the importance of luck in success). Point is that governments must choose to either prioritise spending, healthcare and education as labour always seems to, but must accept they are going to need to draw the money from businesses, and thus owe them help and assistance. Or, the government must prop up and support businesses, allowing them to generate profits, and hoard the vast majority of the world’s wealth (as the liberal party does) but then hold them accountable for making the world a better (rather than a worse place) with strict rules and regulations (as the liberal party ever fails to attempt). In this context one can see how sustainability is hard, and adaptability is even harder. Both these things make a product – goods and services, better in a difficult to quantify way, that by its very nature cannot be grasped in the short term. This makes a product superior, in a way that cannot be easily sold to a consumer, and thus not natural for business even though it is the only way forward. Governments have the choice to require specific superiorities with close control of businesses (a tortured kind of neocapitalism), or they can give businesses control and support as they currently do with their “economy first” liberal party focus, but then as a society we must hold businesses accountable for developing their own superiorities which is the antithesis of capitalism. (Not that I am calling for socialism or communism as the way forward in terms of sustainability over consumerism, instead I would simply suggest a common sense balance).

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