The consequences of untested assumptions

e02902e5276b9aed6bc9e6a42c7172d0The role of infrastructure is to create benefit. No one wants to see waste.  And yet we have many failed, wasteful, projects. Some may fail for unforeseen, and unforeseeable, reasons. But many of them fail because their underlying assumptions were not tested. Nor is this only a problem for public infrastructure, private infrastructure is just as vulnerable.

Consider the Melbourne Docklands project where many of the apartments that the private sector built (and was encouraged to build) relied on the general assumption that people would be willing to sell up large properties on the outskirts of the city to take up apartment dwelling to benefit from closeness to city attractions – and pay large sums for the privilege. This assumption has proved not to be true in sufficient numbers to justify the construction and many apartments are still unsold or unlet.

In addition, many of the apartments that have been sold have been taken up as investment properties by wealthy Chinese seeking an alternative location for their money. No-one lives in these apartments. So the projections of demand for newly established retail outlets in the complex have not been met. Could this have been foreseen?  Maybe the overseas investment was not obvious then.  But certainly it would need to be taken into account from now on. However, retail demand depended on close to full occupancy.

Maybe this will self correct in 5 years or more. However, if take up was expected to take time then an interim strategy was needed. Now, what had the potential to be a very attractive redevelopment serving the wider community may now suffer if landlords attempt to recover their investment by letting their apartments to temporary dwellers who have no commitment to the area.

A serious consideration is whether the policy planners gave sufficient – or indeed any – thought to the problems that might be experienced on the outskirts of the city if their assumptions of mass departures to the city proved correct.

What questions do these stories raise in your minds?   If you were on a decision committee for a large redevelopment project, what questions would you ask?

Customer or Citizen

Street cafeMy friend did not care for the streetscaping decision made by our local council and was angrily denouncing it to
us all at coffee, concluding “This is a useless council, they simply do not care for the individual”.

Which raises the question – should they? Council decisions may be made well or poorly, but they need to be judged by their effect on the community as a whole not on any one individual.  In fact, when decisions are made in favour of an individual, we call that corruption!

So why do we get so aggrieved when councils make decisions not to our liking?  For there is no doubt that we do.  I suspect we fail to make the switch from being a customer to being a citizen.  We carry on thinking ‘me’ when we should be thinking ‘we’.

My question for you today is a personal one:

Not how we can get others to make the switch, but rather how can we, ourselves, do it?   What experiences have you had when you just naturally switched to ‘we’ thinking?  What was it about those situations that caused the switch?

Do you see what I see?

'Rust taking over…' Courtesy lamdogjunkie

‘Rust taking over…’ Courtesy lamdogjunkie

When you look at infrastructure what do you see?

My boss had just returned from a visit to Rome and was telling me about his trip. What particularly inspired him was the Trevi Fountain. As he spoke of its magic, its beauty, its romance, its glory, his eyes lit up, his voice was reverent.  Not surprising you might say since tourists always rave about the Trevi Fountain.  Except that he was a Hydraulics Engineer and what he was describing to me was the fountain’s hydraulics!  Engineers see things differently!  I have seen my brother, another engineer, stare at the luggage carousel at the airport, fascinated by the design of the metal plates that enable it to turn the corners so smoothly.  As an economist, it is unlikely that I would, but for them, have ever thought of the ingenious design of the Trevi’s hydraulics or the luggage carousel, but now I cannot help but see it too.  That’s the thing, once you see things through someone else’s eyes, you can never ‘un-see’ it.  You are forever changed, and the richer for it.

This is important for us as infrastructure decision-makers, and it is the rationale for the collaborative structure of ‘Talking Infrastructure’.  We need to be able to see through the eyes of the engineer, the economist, the scientist, the environmentalist, the planner, and… even the artist.  (Our picture today is from the free photo sharing site, Flickr. To see other pictures of rust or infrastructure decay through the eyes of the artist photographer, just type in infrastructure decay.)

So our task today is to consider how many different minds we can engage.

Let us multiply our perspectives.

“We have yet to develop a substitute for water”

man-hand-garden-growthHow true is this today?

For a long time, I agreed with my friends in the water and wastewater business, that their assets were largely immune from technological change and that, in fact, such change as we were likely to see, eg, improvements in trenchless technology, would be to their management benefit.  However, recent developments throw this easy, and comforting, assumption into question. Prolonged drought in Australia over a number of years has led to many changes to reduce our consumption of water (from the simple brick in the cistern to changing garden design to policies restricting the use of hoses for hosing down driveways and washing cars) and, in Canada, councils are struggling with pricing models that are not able to adjust to demand reduction brought about by environmental conservation.  And now, consider the nanotechnological toilet.  This is a toilet that does not need water, a sewage system or external power but instead uses nanotechnology to treat human waste, produce clean water and keep smells at bay, which is being developed by a British university.

Todays question:

What other changes (technological, cultural, environmental) are impacting our demand for what is shaping up to be the 21st century’s scarcest resource, and how is our infrastructure changing (or how does it need to change) to meet the challenge?

Again, links are welcome so that we can expand our media awareness, but please provide a brief summary so that following the link is optional, and limit links to two or the system may think that you are spam and throw you out!

New Technology is exciting, but is it enough?

books-1012088_640What is involved in putting new technology to work? 

She waited patiently for the train, a small girl, slight of build with an enormous stack of books almost as heavy as she, the books she needed that day at University.  I felt sorry for her. That was 20 years ago. Today technology makes it possible for that heavy load to be reduced to one tablet. However to apply the technology requires changes in business models (University lecturers supplement their incomes by writing books that become requisite texts), in intellectual property rights, in methods to deal with plagiarism (which is so much easier with digital texts), etc.  These problems are being overcome and Universities today are a far cry from those of 20 years ago.  But when we consider the impact of technology change we must also take these cultural and organisational adjustments into account and tracking trends in cultural change is as important as tracking changes in technology change. For example, a friend who runs a large accountancy firm declared, over ten years ago, that when computers were able to respond to voice commands, he would immediately change all the computers in his office. He didn’t type himself and so voice command control would, he believed, be a benefit. However, his most efficient and dedicated staff that were responsible for data input were a group of women, around 35 – 50 years of age, all of whom were experienced keyboard operators. I queried how willing – and able – they would be to change their method of operating. His company has yet to use voice activation. (And given the problems raised by Geoff Hudson, referenced in the last post, other issues will need resolution before it does.)

So our question today concerns trends in cultural change.

What trends have you observed? How are they affecting technology and our demand for infrastructure?

Media links welcome.

Infrastructure is a means to an end – but it is not the only means

pexels-photo-66134Infrastructure is a means to an end – but it is not the only means.

As ends change, traditional infrastructure may not even be the best means. In ‘Talking Infrastructure’ we consider technological, demographic, environmental and other change and its impact on criteria for infrastructure decision-making.

Do we really want a road – or do we want to get from A to B?  And what is so attractive about B anyway? Is it where we want to work, or shop, or play?  Technology today is changing how we do all three. The key to understanding what technology can do, and how fast it can do it, is to recognise that it must be accompanied by cultural or organisational change. For example, Geoff Hudson, speaking on the ABC radio show, Okham’s Razor, argued that technology has made it possible for effective working from home for many years now and yet few businesses use it. He puts forward a detailed and fascinating plan for overcoming disadvantages currently experienced – lack of connection, suspicion, lack of control amongst others.  ‘OK, so it is possible’ you might say, ‘but why bother?’  The answer lies in the interconnection of the new digital technology and physical infrastructure.  We build more roads every year, yet congestion gets worse, commute times get longer, house prices in the cities rise and become unaffordable for many. Now ask yourselves, as we adopt voice instruction for our computers over keyboards, can our open space offices cope? Working from home can aleviate many problems – if we can solve the cultural and organisational problems.

So our first question, designed to expand awareness, is this: 

Which technologies  – e.g. iPhones, driverless cars, 3D printing, nanotechnology, bio-technology, you name it, are likely to increase the demand for roads and which are likely to reduce it – and why?

Links welcome but provide a brief summary for each so that following the link is optional and limit them to two links or the system may think you are spam and throw you out!