And maybe good riddance to 2021, that groundhog year for many of us waking up every work day to trudge to our home office in our slippers and yet another Zoom/ Teams meeting.
In 2021 we celebrated five years of Talking Infrastructure, and Penny Burns’ 80th birthday. We began to publish The Story of Asset Management – and in 2022 we continue.
This year, we also want to build on the pioneering thinking at Blue Mountains City Council on infrastructure, biodiversity and planetary health.
And a follow-up to Building an Asset Management Team, this time aimed at CEOs, board and council members accountable for major infrastructure decisions. We’re looking at advocacy for future-friendly assets in the USA, as the Biden Infrastructure Bill proposes to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure.
All of these welcome your active involvement.
- What are good examples of truly environmentally friendly infrastructure assets that you know of?
- What are the right questions for decision-makers to ask before using ‘Build Back Better’ funding?
- How have you been involved in developing Asset Management in your country or state?
Get in touch to join these initiatives, and let’s make it a good year for infrastructure together.
How do we get AM into decisions and projects for new assets?
I fear we haven’t quite got there yet. The lure of shiny new things means that even in those organisations where Asset Management is almost business as usual… any thinking about the whole ‘lust to dust’ lifecycle management, even basic on-going costs, goes out the window as soon as opportunities to access money for new (such as Biden’s 2021 Infrastructure Plan) arise.
It’s almost as if organisations can tolerate Asset Management – as long it does not impinge on their fun.
And so we continue to build long-term liabilities.
Wave 3 is ensuring that Asset Management, and Asset Managers, have their seat at the top table in decisions about growth and shiny new things. And once we are there, to ask very hard questions about both of them.
I would like to explore how we get to be at that table, and that ‘future friendly assets’ start, but don’t end, with a healthy scepticism about building anything new.
- What are they really going to cost over their whole life?
- Who really benefits from them?
- What do we rule out by investing in them, as opposed to something else?
- And what might we actually destroy in the process?
How do we make sure we are at the table to be able to ask them?
For a longer article on what goes wrong when Asset Management is not on the table, please see:
An Asset Management friend recently emailed me that her CEO had challenged her view of the importance of AM to their whole business strategy. “So asset management is improving our passenger experience? Asset management is improving employee engagement? Asset management cures cancer?”
While, on the other hand, even plenty of people with ‘Asset Manager’ in their job title act like their job is to manage the list of assets in an IT system.
ISO 55000 makes bold claims, that I think it cannot substantiate. That the same principles we apply to managing physical assets hold true to managing anything else of value, like financial assets, or people. I suspect that the good folks who wrote ISO 55000 may have no idea what that even means – or, put it this way, would you necessarily go to an engineer to tell you how to manage people?
So I do in practice think there’s a limit.
However, managing physical assets clearly is a huge part of running an asset-intensive organisation such as transit or power, or even a city. It’s certainly most of their budget and resources. If you can get that right, many good things should follow, like profit, customer service and, yes, engaged workforce.
But perhaps the real point is that to manage the physical assets well, you have to think about profit, customer service, and engaged workers.
To me, it’s obvious that it matters – it matters hugely that we do manage our essential infrastructure well, that not merely our economy but quality of life and planetary health depend on it. So we need a wider vision, an understanding of interconnections and dependencies, ‘the bigger picture’.
Asset management will not cure cancer. It has boundaries.
But managing the physical assets that underpin our society effectively is probably wide enough scope to be getting on with, don’t you think?
Not everywhere in the world uses hedges. But Britain has about 500,000 km of hedgerow – despite losing half of them since 1945, as industrial scale farming has taken hold here. One of my very earliest memories is being driven through a patchwork, hedged landscape in the middle south west of England. And it was magic.
Hedges are not just fence-equivalents, worth the investment for that alone. They also store carbon, of course, as linear (if metre high) woodland.
“Hedgerows help slow down the runoff of water, guarding against flooding and soil erosion, and act as barriers to help prevent pesticide and fertiliser pollution getting into water supplies. Studies show they can improve the quality of air by helping trap air pollution.
“They are perhaps the largest semi-natural habitat in Britain, refuges for wild plants and corridors for wildlife to move through, often in barren farmland landscapes.” Paul Simons, the Guardian, 18 Aug 2021
For these reasons, the UK Climate Change Committee recommends planting 40& more hedgerows by 2050.
They are only semi-wild, of course, because they are trees manipulated (‘laid’) by humans, and so require effort, and skill. They are very definitely infrastructure.
Thinking about Waves 3 and 4 of Asset Management, this quote from a recent novel struck me:
“It is difficult for anyone born and raised in human infrastructure to truly internalize the fact that your view of the world is backward.
“Even if you fully know that you live in a natural world that existed before you and will continue long after, even if you know that the wilderness is the default state of things, and that nature is not something that only happens in carefully curated enclaves between towns, something that pops up in empty spaces if you ignore them for a while, even if you spend your whole life believing yourself to be deeply in touch with the ebb and flow, the cycle, the ecosystem as it actually is, you will still have trouble picturing an untouched world.
“You will still struggle to understand that human constructs are carved out and overlaid, that these are the places that are the in-between, not the other way around.”
– Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot Book 1), 2021
In a previous post, there was a diagram showed how each of our ‘waves’ could also be conceived of as particles, embedding and building on each other. .This is our latest version, to capture the ideas of ‘grey assets’, as opposed to green and blue assets.
For the last 40 years the economic focus has been on growth.
And so infrastructure decisions have also focused on growth. But now this growth focus is changing as we realise the damage we are causing – and so asset management and infrastructure decision making needs to change, too.
We are now at a pivot point.
We have been at pivot points before. This is what Talking Infrastructure’s THE ASSET MANAGEMENT STORY is now documenting.
At each pivot point in Asset Management (the beginning of each wave), we have expanded our understanding of the world we operate in. Starting from simply maintaining and recording in Wave 1, we moved, in Wave 2 or Strategic Asset Management, to using this information to optimise decisions concerning our existing portfolios.
Then, in Wave 3, we look to take on a bigger role, infrastructure decision making, where we go out into our communities to work on whether the size and shape of our portfolio is what it needs to be. Wave 4 extends our understanding of our asset portfolios to the impact we are having on society and planetary health, and actively seeks to improve these impacts. The task in Wave 4 is to make all infrastructure decisions ‘future friendly’.
Wave 4 is the challenge that Talking Infrastructure was surely set up to address.
It is our most critical pivot point yet in asset management. This is the challenge that Talking Infrastructure CEO, Jeff Roorda, is leading at the Blue Mountains City Council where he is Director of Economy, Place and Infrastructure services. The city’s focus is on Planetary Health and Social Wellbeing. And we will be reporting what the City, and others with whom it is working, learns so that everyone can move in a saner direction than we may have done in the past.
If this interests you, watch this space, for a new series of blogs about infrastruture and biodiversity.
And, of course, become an active part of the dialogue on Talking Infrastructure.
In May 2018, Penny Burns and Jeff Roorda wrote here about three ‘revolutions’ in Asset Management – later renamed ‘waves’, because that captures better the idea that one wave doesn’t supersede another.
Since then, we have discussed with each other and many others how Wave 1, ‘Asset Inventory’, is more successful if you already have in mind the vision of Wave 2, ‘Strategic Asset Management’ and how you are going to use all of the information you collect.
We have looked at what Asset Management practitioners need to develop to move on from this, to be able to look beyond our own organisations, to a bigger role in supporting our communities. We called this Wave 3, supporting better ‘Infrastructure Decision Making’.
We have even begun to imagine Wave 4.
As Penny puts it: whereas Wave 1 looked at WHAT we had, and Wave 2 looked at HOW we needed to manage it, Wave 3 started to ask WHO we were serving by our efforts. This has brought us now to start thinking more deeply about this question and about the next move, looking at the critical question of WHY.
As Asset Management practitioners, we have to ensure we are in the right positions of influence to be able to challenge existing infrastructure assumptions, which is what I think Wave 3 is all about. To look ‘up and out’, as Lou Cripps of RTD puts it.
But we can already spot that there is no point in being able to ask hard questions, if we don’t have the right questions to ask….
What do we mean by ‘better’?
A new world, new questions
Today is the 5th Anniversary of Talking Infrastructure. It was created in July 2016 to consider the new world we are now in – and the new questions this world and its challenges requires.
It is now massively evident that whereas a focus on competition to secure the success of individuals and individual companies has generated much that we enjoy today, it has also generated serious problems, of which climate change and social inequity are just the most visible.
Infrastructure – problem or solution?
While we may be reluctant to admit it – infrastructure has been a large part of the problem! Every infrastructure does considerable environmental damage. And not every infrastructure generates commensurate community benefit. A few months ago, I said’ Goodbye to our Talking Infrastructure Guy’, – and explained what was wrong with our current attitudes to infrastructure. Today he is formally replaced as our icon.
So welcome our new icon – the Australian platypus – symbolic of the collaboration we so badly need. The platypus was originally regarded as a joke, for it was considered an impossibility, being so many different animals all in one. And this version of the platypus reflecting our aboriginal culture is particularly appropriate. The Australian aboriginals are the oldest civilisation in the world sustaining the land for over 50,000 years. That’s resilience! And they have done it by a focus on community, rather than self, and a veneration for the land that supports us.
If we want a future that will support our children and theirs, we need to embed these iconic qualities of community, resilience, and sustainability in all of our decisions – and especially in our long term infrastructure decisions – from new and renewal to ongoing maintenance and even to eventual withdrawal.
What questions do we now need to ask ourselves in order to secure this future?
Hint: They are not the questions that we started with in asset management and which I discuss in volume 1 of our series, The Story of Asset Management. Consider the ten questions I pursued in the first 10 years (1984-1993) which you can find here Or, to see the questions in context, see “Asset Management as a Quest – contents”.
After you read these questions, consider to what extent we have already solved (or at least know the solution to). Then ask yourself what the questions for the next ten years should be.
And, if you would like to see how I came up with these questions to start with, you may enjoy the first chapter of “Asset Management as a Quest” which you can find here. The full volume will be available in the New Year.
What do you consider the most important questions? Please add them below.
The world of infrastructure Asset Management has had the benefit of an evolutionary model for several years: the ‘Waves’ of Penny Burns, to make sense of how organisations seem to have to go through a period of focus on basic information (Wave 1, Asset Inventory) before they really look at how to use it to make better decisions, to start optimising (Wave 2, Strategic Asset Management).
Before that, I confess, I struggled to express what was going on: how could people get stuck in data and databases? I don’t know that I fully understand, still, but I least I recognise it now – that having a list of all your assets, simple facts like install date and location, and a big dumb database to put it all in preoccupied so many of us for so long.
Penny herself seems not to have spent too much time worrying about this, but always had a vision way beyond it. She assumed we would have a grip on lifecycle costs, thinking longer term, and planning ahead, and get down to acting smarter on our asset decisions.
And now, as we work together to capture our collective history and development, we are really looking forward to the next Wave. To really so much better infrastructure decision making that is fit for purpose, through the rest of this turbulent century.
Look out for celebrating our history on July 29th!
One thing that puzzles me in the world is the desire of many to be more excited by what technology could do to emulate people than about people themselves. Why are Asset Management conferences packed with papers about data, and usually silent about what human beings bring to decision-making?
Even those who should know better (because they have been there) talk about ‘data-driven’ processes; and organisations pour far more money into dumb databases than getting a better understanding of their assets.
I suspect this is partly the fetish for capital over on-going costs – and, frankly, ideological faith that it’s better to invest in ‘innovation’ than labour costs. Anything that promises to cut staff is good, no matter how much it costs to try to replace them.
Now, I am a big sci-fi fan, which generally accepts the forward march of technology. But then again, it also warns about how it can wrong, at least in the stories I read. I am not at all sure replacing people with robots benefits anyone, and not the 99% of us that don’t control how automation is used. I am not especially optimistic.
However, there is one thing I am pretty certain about, even in embracing uncertainty about the future: no-one really has any clue about how we can replace experience in managing physical assets.
I remember when I first noticed that investment in things like work management systems, or even more basic computerised processes, could lose sight of how things really work. Big IT in the 1990s in asset-world was sold as replacing some administration costs – mostly part time, middle aged women, who cost almost nothing as they were paid very little, who managed the monthly reporting, knew where the data was, what it meant to asset decision makers, and what to do with it. And the local nerds who programmed in Fortran in their spare time, and wrote routines for their next door colleagues to do any analysis or maths required.
At least we might try to learn the lessons from the history of IT: where did it work, and why?
Which, to me, includes the question of how to think of technology as a tool to assist skilled people. Why would we even want to see ourselves replaced?