Or, making sure we always ask who truly benefits by a new infrastructure project.
Infrastructure investment always attracts several groups with particular interest in the projects themselves.
There are the construction companies where it is all upside (work for them) and no cost, at least to them. They probably won’t even be around when the assets are in use.
There are internal project engineers who want cool things to build, whose interest in the assets once constructed can be minimal. That is to say, they don’t necessarily worry about handover of as-builts or how well the assets work after ten years. Their job is to do shiny news things!
And of course there are developers, whose interest extends to how much they can exploit the infrastructure – and with a long, long history of lobbying to the point of corruption.
I am not sure if the people who fund it always think about this. Assuming, of course, they have not already been captured by the lobbying and mindsets of construction companies and developers.
A lot of people like to see money invested in their neighbourhoods, at least until the construction noises start.
So, wearily, we have to take this on as infrastructure Asset Managers and stewards.
Like mad-eyed prophets calling out in the wilderness, and not necessarily honoured in our own country, nobody maybe wants to hear: Cui Bono?
I work with a variety of organisations in several countries who are attempting to implement good Asset Management. Some are just starting out. A few are quite sophisticated. And one or two are even tackling the question of infrastructure decision making in our communities.
I was struck again this month by how hard this all sometimes seems.
Organizations who are just starting out have interesting challenges, of course, including no-one much understanding what AM is and, usually, a lack of resources. One half time resource without much authority, for example, can’t do much to radically transform their business.
But surely it doesn’t have to be that hard, conceptually, to sort out a basic asset inventory, classic Wave 1? Plenty of organisations have already sorted that – it is, as my old colleague John Lavan put it, a puzzle, for which there is an answer already known, not a problem we haven’t yet solved.
And yet many people just don’t seem to have good sense about asset information. And want to reduce the problem to basic IT, which they also don’t do very well. (I am feeling a bit grumpy about this: can’t someone please donate good-enough asset hierarchies and principles into the public domain, or even write the book so no-one ever has to reinvent those particular wheels? TJ, Dave Ulrich, I am looking at you guys here.)
Wave 2, strategic AM and better all-round asset decision-making also depends on something rather more than technology – and that, I am sure, is why organisations struggle. It involves people! Culture! And politics, small p, and sometimes Big P too!
Where Asset Management is effective, infrastructure Asset Managers can then get caught up in Wave 3. And however smart and well-resourced they are, it’s big.
A great current example is electric buses, something the US Federal government wants to throw money at as part of ‘decarbonization’ of transport. But the questions of how, and why, to invest with all the interconnecting issues of the infrastructure for the buses themselves, performance and customer satisfaction, and whether this will even give the right carbon-reduced answer…
Asset Managers get it. But they are a small drop in a large ocean of greed and love of shiny new things.
I asked a buddy who’s simply caught in too many stupid business decisions in a utility whether he might just bring in some additional resources to tackle more of them… But he said, quite rightly, where from? Who gets it, and all the diplomacy, strategic thinking, experience, intelligent use of what data there is that is that’s required, all at once?
ISO 55000 doesn’t help it all that much.
In a new series of blogs, I want to look with your input at some of the challenges we see in every Wave. Of course we love challenges. But I also see rather too many Asset Managers at every stage drowning in the sheer size of the job.
Series to include: asset information, risk, networking, attitude change, and more.
© 2023 Bill Wallsgrove
Some of my best friends are AI – in literature, at least. Ships Behaving Badly in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels for example, which led a human friend to say they couldn’t make a worse job of running the world than humans.
I am sad to say I expect less in reality, and any technology under the control of the rich few. But should we fear conspiracy or cock-up more, I wonder?
I seem to have become a luddite about ‘smart technology’ in managing infrastructure, delivering less and threatening more than enthusiasts are claiming. Systems too complex to manage, or to understand the potential implications of; and products that don’t offer much except big price tags.
But I had to smile at this image, the first result of my brother using an AI art app to create images for me of duck-billed platypuses.
Most simple definitions of Smart Cities include goals along these lines:
- Improving transportation
- Enhancing sustainability
- Promoting economic development
- Improving public services
- Improving quality of life
There can be more, or fewer goals (I have compiled a non-exhaustive list of 78 that fall under the smart city umbrella) in part because smart cities mean different things to different people:
- For a politician, a smart city address the challenges facing urban areas, improves the quality of life for its citizens, creates new economic opportunities and drives economic growth and development. It also provides an opportunity for politicians to demonstrate leadership and innovation by using technology to improve the lives of citizens.
- The economist sees an integrated approach to urban planning and development that uses technology and data-driven approaches to improve performance and sustainable economic opportunities, growth and development with new business and investment opportunities, and improved competitiveness.
- Civil engineers may see improvement in the performance and sustainability of the city’s infrastructure.
- The planner, a way to identify and address key urban challenges and optimise the functioning of the city’s systems and services.
A dummies definition:
Smart Cities use technology to make cities more livable, efficient and sustainable.
But wait – these goals have been the aim of city administrators form time immemorial. The only difference is the addition of “technology”, and the use of technology in very specific ways:
- Measuring things that matter in a way that allows for timely and rational decision making.
- Providing meaningful access to information for citizens and stakeholders.
The introduction of technology and data analytics in a smart city setting allows for the implementation and achievement of city goals in a more efficient and effective way. It allows for informed policies and programs leading to better infrastructure decision making based on a more accurate understanding of the city and its needs.
Technology and data analytics in smart cities can also allow for better monitoring of progress towards goals, and improved transparency and citizen engagement.
So Smart Cities are simply those that find ways to achieve their goals through the application of technology.
Except it’s not simple.
No single project has the necessary budget to implement enough smart city technology to achieve its own goals. Traditional project funding arrangements do not yield smart cities. They give “projects with cameras”. The city part of Smart City is the key. To achieve a smart city all projects and activities, large and small, need to have a city-wide focus. Where there is opportunity to extend a protect to further the technological goals of a city’s progress to smartness, these opportunities must be seized and exploited. This can generate significant organisational stress, as funding priorities are analysed. A playground that gives 100% fun may need to give 80% fun, and 20% smartness – a difficult pill for some to swallow; and 20% smart might not be enough for the boffins, so they have their own bitter pills. This internal stress requires strong policy and leadership if a smart city state is to be achieved, and “smartwashing” avoided.
Smartwashing, like greenwashing, and other washings, refers to “projects with cameras” being presented as achieving smart goals for political and grant funding reasons.
Leadership, understanding, and communication pave the way to rational decision making through adoption of appropriate technologies, leading us to a smart city.
Digital twinning in the context of asset management and smart cities refers to the creation of a digital replica of our heroes of physical infrastructure, such as buildings, transportation systems, or pumps, with the goal of simulating and analysing asset and system performance.
In fiction, the “evil twin” is an identical copy of our hero, but with malevolent, or prankster intentions. Like an evil twin, the digital twin initially appears helpful or friendly, but as the story progresses, their true malevolent intentions become clear. The evil twin tries to manipulate thinking by posing as Our Hero and causing distrust and confusion among those who know and love them. The Evil Twin suggests things that don’t seem quite right, but friends and families accept them; the Evil Twin is very plausible.
These suggestions are increasingly divergent from Our Hero’s true nature, yet family and friends continue to accept them, even as the results place everyone in an increasingly perilous situation.
Eventually there is a confrontation between Our Hero and the Evil Twin, where the true nature of both is revealed, and Our Hero prevails… Or the story ends in tragedy for all.
Digital twinning is a great tool for asset managers and for supporting smart cities project implementation, but it essential that the twin is understood for what it is, simply a tool. Putting the tool in place will not solve any problems. The interpretation and analysis of the tool is where value lies. Twinning our assets in a generic way is unlikely to yield future benefits. The need to understand our assets and systems remains key.
Know what matters. Measure what matters. Analyse what matters. Integrate what matters. Do this, or you may create an Evil Twin that misrepresents assets and misleads decision makers.
Photo 63254580 © Liliia Epifanova | Dreamstime.com
2023: surely the year for harder questions about the impact of our infrastructure on biodiversity.
For example, researchers in Idaho built a fake road to test out the impact of freeway noise on migrating birds.
“A third of the usual birds stayed away… those that stayed paid a price,” writes Ed Yong in his fabulous book Immense World on animal senses. The noises drowned out the sounds of their predators, so the birds had to spend more time looking for danger and less for food, so they put on less weight and were weaker for their migrations – which take every bit of energy the birds have.
And this didn’t include actual road effects from headlights, exhaust fumes, polluting run-off.
As Ed Yong says, more than 83% of continental USA lies within a kilometre of a road. There is nowhere else for the birds to go.
We have options to do something about this in our infrastructure, in a year we’re meant to be ‘building back better’.
Just replacing blue or white LEDS with red in, for example, parking lot lighting cuts down the impact of night light on insects. Sound-absorbing surfaces and barriers; slowing down traffic; quieter vehicles – all can immediately reduce noise pollution for animals such as owls and mice who depend on sound to catch or avoid being caught.
If 80% of humanity live under light-polluted skies and two-thirds of Europeans live in the noise equivalent of constant rain, it’s not great for people. But what Ed Yong brings out so brilliantly is how often we don’t even think about the different and miraculous sense worlds of other species, of whales and manatees and frogs and birds, and how very much worse it can be for them.
Is this the year to start taking seriously a problem we’ve only just begun to realise?
Immense World, Ed Young, 2022 – how other animals sense is truly mind-blowing.
Photo 247485510 / Asteroid Hitting Earth © Elen33 | Dreamstime.com
Don’t Look Up – as opposed to Now, or Back in Anger – is a 2022 witty parable on the climate crisis in which a variety of movie stars play more or less against type. It does not say much about infrastructure, except to destroy it all with an asteroid, but I was struck by the stupid economics.
When the Elon Musk-alike (Mark Rylance!) says how many trillions of dollars’ worth of rare and valuable metals are contained in the asteroid, one of the heroes mutters about how that isn’t going to mean anything when it destroys the Earth.
But I was struck by the very specificity of the pricing. As though price is an absolute, unaffected by destruction, or anything to do with other humans. Even without total destruction, surely living through the threat and even partial environmental chaos might change people’s enthusiasm, one way or another, for buying yet more mobile phones?
The Musk-alike means how many dollars he could get for the stuff in today’s market, not the value; it’s left to someone else, a corrupted government advisor, to suggest it’s enough money to cure hunger and poverty, but you know he’s just mouthing it. (And you can’t eat money.)
The trillionaire simply plans to be trillions richer. He has no sense of who will be around to buy from him. The ‘stuff’ is enough.
The dollars have some kind of fabulous independent existence.
Rather like the idea of how many dollars infrastructure construction generates. We know for sure lots of construction means lots of money for construction companies, but the value it creates is rather less easy to work out.
Both of these things – the $ worth of metals in an asteroid that probably can’t be used, the $ worth of building infrastructure any old place – are, I think, what some people call fetishes. Inanimate objects worshipped for supposed magical properties.
Out of context, we’re not even trying to work out what’s actually of value. It really is very stupid economics.
PS I recommend the film
I’ve long been fascinated by the idea that we need ‘bridges’: people who can translate between two domains with different mindsets.
One key gap to bridge is between science and management, as Penny describes https://talkinginfrastructure.com/2022/07/20/science-and-asset-management/ . There are other gaps that affect us in asset decision-making.
In the late 1990s two of us, now very senior IT director Christine Ashton and me, put forward the need for such active translation between IT and business users. IT has always struggled to understand what’s really needed by users, as the users themselves are poor at describing their information and information processing requirements.
Christine and I set up a special interest group in the British Computer Society – an organisation which could do with some translation in the first place – for people who work between IT and business. We had a great time discovering some very good people, who, I am happy to say, generally earned pretty good remuneration for their ability to understand what the users need and turn it into something IT techies could understand (and use). It’s still a rare and precious ability.
And it’s surely still as big a challenge as ever.
Add to that how to bridge between an engineering mindset and business. I train engineers who still radiate – why do I care what the objectives of the organisation are? My job is to do the right thing by the asset, regardless of management.
It’s fascinating in all three cases, because scientists, just like engineers and IT in their different ways, are kinda proud of their ability not to compromise with business and organisational realities.
In particular, the issue of ’embracing’ uncertainty is just so relevant to Asset Management. But we educate scientists, engineers and IT to hanker after 10 decimal places of clarity.
And, I fear, not to ask ‘so what? – or, what happens next?’ as often as they should.
At an event organized by Women in Asset Management North America for Infrastructure Week USA in May, several of us explored how we develop future Asset Management practitioners. And not just through formal college courses, but also engaging high school students in infrastructure.
With Lou Cripps of Talking Infrastructure and three leading women US Asset Managers – Amy Lindblom, Mildred Chua and Katty Fleming – we also included a draft ethics statement for discussion.
- We are managing the assets on behalf of our communities as well as our organizations, not assets for their own sake, and certainly not for ours
- We take responsibility for continuously developing the knowledge and skills to manage the assets well
- We recognize our dependence on other skills and experience, especially from those people who work directly with the physical assets
- Our communities and organizations depend on us to take the longer view, the bigger picture, the system-wide view, and to ask hard questions about the implications of what we decide to do and not do to the assets
- We need to consider all the unintended costs and risks across time of decisions
- This requires both honesty about past performance and our current processes, and the ability to understand what the data can (and cannot) tell us, through good analysis
- We need, above all, to face honestly who benefits and who does not from our infrastructure decisions
What do you think? Would you sign?
NB I do not know why North America has so many preeminent women in thought leadership roles in Asset Management, I am just glad it does.
To coincide with our presentation on the Waves of Asset Management at the IAM Global Conference on June 15, Talking Infrastructure launches: TIki. The wiki for strategic Asset Managers.
To being with, while we build up the content, it’s read-only, but we invite you to join in with further development.
Organized by Wave, we aim to build up an unrivalled knowledge base on Strategic Asset Management, including access to the best of… Strategic Asset Management, Penny’s biweekly newsletter from 1999 to 2014, as well as more on Building an Asset Management Team, and through DAN and other networking with AM leads in North America and beyond. And don’t miss an episode of The Story of Asset Management, which for Penny was always about being strategic.
On Wave 3, Infrastructure Decision Making, we are using TIki to capture thinking on future friendly assets – better questions, some of them hard, particularly in this era of ‘Build Back Better’ trillions.
For Wave 4, we aim to start to nibble away at how to integrate infrastructure and planetary health, starting with the initiatives at Blue Mountains City Council.
TIki already has many pages, and many more to come. It’s easy to follow your curiosity, as well as backtrack via the trace.
Click on TIki in the top menu bar, and start your exploration now!