For Science, read Infrastructure!

Infrastructure – damned by the language we use

We ‘invest’ in capital, but maintenance and operations are a ‘cost’.

We consider Investment to be ‘good’, so we try to increase it.

We consider Costs to be ‘bad’ so we try to reduce them.

The result is that we end up with infrastructure that we under-maintain and where operations are compromised by insufficient training and funding.

Because of the language we use! 



Edward de Bono wrote much.  His book, Simplicity, I think is very appropriate to apply to asset management and KPI decision making. The part that resonated with me is the difference between simple and simplistic.

In Infrastructure decision making a simple model is a great thing, a simplistic model is a destructive and dangerous thing. This is true in all fields, engineering, economic and social included. Simplistic by definition is overly simple. Unfortunately many of out decision makers have a simplistic understanding of both the English language and the role of infrastructure.  You will hear many people calling for a more simplistic solution or approach. They mean “simple”, but one doubts whether the inability to differentiate between simplistic and simple translates into the making of sound decisions.

Regardless, satisfaction surveys, mandated bureaucratic KPIs, single-digit comparisons to like organisations and other such endeavors are  simplistic management techniques.  They have been over-simplified and are as a consequence of no value.

Simplicity before understanding is simplistic; simplicity after understanding is simple.
– Edward De Bono

Simplistic decisions are tolerated and often demanded by our populations.  I believe this is because the general public has little understanding of the complexities of the modern world, and no desire to embrace that understanding.  While the situations and decisions can be presented simply by our leaders, there is no political advantage in straying from binary arguments, right and wrong, black and white.  The issue here is to help people understand that complex arguments about infrastructure can be presented simply, and be debated on their merits.  With this understanding, the people can call for rational debate, not simplistic decision making.  As professionals in our fields we can assist by presenting our work as simply as possible and resisting pressure to make our work simplistic.

Question for the day:  

What techniques do you use, or know of, that help you to determine whether your reasoning is ‘simple’ or ‘simplistic’?



Is it really a ‘Rip Off?’

Managing the media is a fine balancing act

Without buying into any nonsense about ‘fake’ news, we do know that the media has a hard time coming to grips with infrastructure issues and presenting them clearly to their readers.  This is true, even when the journalists are not seeking the sensational.

Take the following example.  In 2005, the City of Toronto faced a sudden $60M hole in its budget when the Province reduced its funding at short notice. It made a deal with Toronto Hydro, a wholly owned trading enterprise of the City, to buy its street lights for $60 M and lease them back to the City. The contract details, when released, showed that the City had agreed to pay $13.6 M a year to lease back the lights. The Press had field day and the Council went on the defensive.  (Additional fact: The City tried to block the release of the contract and it took 5 years for a Freedom of Information request to produce the information requested.)

The news story about Toronto City Council selling off its street lights and leasing them back put the City Councillors on the back foot, fending off public criticism of the “rip-off”. On the face of it, you can see why the public were angry when the figures were stated baldly as selling off for $60M and paying close to $420M over the next 30 years to lease them back.

So today, two questions

  1. Was this a fair comparison?  Are these figures really comparable?  Anticipating media reaction, what extra information would you  have required, what questions would you have asked – and potentially discussed in a media release?  How would you have handled this situation?   What would you have advised the Toronto City Council to do?
  2. Or, What have you learned from media storms like this that you could pass on to others, ways of ensuring readers could potentially get a better understanding of what is really happening?

Populism? – or Community Participation?

A Question

Sydney Opera ouseBen Lawson’s response to the post “I measure therefore I manage” (do read it!) reminded me of a question I have recently been asking myself – What’s the difference between ‘populism’ and ‘community participation’?   Is it, for example, the difference between uninformed (and often knee-jerk) reaction and informed and considered judgement?   And, if so, what can we do to lift the level of informed response?

Good and Bad Practice

Back when I was writing “Strategic Asset Management” it was my job to note both good and bad practices in the measurement of community satisfaction. The clue? Good practices stepped themselves out from the pack by the amount of real understanding of the problem that they generated (both the costs and the consequences).

Citizen Juries

One example was the use of Citizen Juries, such as the exercise in Boroondara where a representative sample (about 20) of the citizenry were engaged (and paid!) to learn over a period of six weeks about the issues and the options facing the city and then – as informed citizens – to give their considered opinions.  It is notable that the City then implemented those decisions, and the jury members were the strongest advocates for both the City and the Council.

Sydney Opera House

A smaller example was the decision to replace the broken flagstones in the courtyard of the Opera House. The question was ‘should all cracked flagstones be replaced or only those that were major problems?’ Three costings were developed according to the degree of replacement and pictures were provided of both the current situation and what the final result would look like for each option.  Then local visitors (i.e. those that would be taxed to pay for it) were polled to see what level they supported. With both the costs and the consequences in evidence, those polled voted for a moderate degree of renewal, not the most expensive.  You can see that good practice asked specific questions and provided both costs and consequences.

Poor practice?

Current local government ‘satisfaction surveys’ on the other hand ask general questions and provide neither costs nor consequences.

How would you prefer that decisions on your rates and taxes be determined?

Talking Überstructure

No I’m not talking about huge structures, but about talking with Uber drivers about infrastructure decision making, and what I have learned from them.

Uber drivers are business people, they are characterised by having a drive for improvement of their lives and are often driving as a second career or while transitioning from one life circumstance to another, new job, new city, new family, etc. They are also polite.

As professional drivers they have a serious interest in transport infrastructure, especially roads. As service providers they will listen to customers’ stories. My drivers are often surprised when I voice the opinion that we don’t need more lanes, roads and tunnels; especially if we are in slow-moving traffic. There then follows a discussion, usually around 20 minutes, that covers the underlying needs for roads, traffic loads and the factors that contribute to peak congestion, the available solutions to the problems of road transport and the contribution that smart, connected technology can make to the problems of city life.

Since my drivers are constant consumers of connected technologies (GPS, booking apps, forecasting software) they have no trouble understanding the benefits that flow from the ideals of “Smart Cities” and easily understand that improvements flow from having information sources connected. They see that transport issues are directly related to things that can be adjusted with a connected view of the world. They also comprehend that the technology needed to address these issues has been available for years, and that it is the lack of integration of business, government and social information and policy that retards us.

What I have learnt from Uber drivers is that a conversation of 20 minutes can change a person’s understanding of infrastructure needs completely, from a view that continuous infrastructure construction is essential to a view that the solution to congestion of all kinds can be addressed with understanding and leadership.

Smart cities are coming, but I’d like the benefits now. Rather than upgrading highways, I’d like to see freely available information that can be used to tell drivers that leaving 15 minutes later will get you to your destination at the same time and with less fuel and frustration. Then service providers like Uber can give me an option to have a cup of coffee before my car arrives and everybody wins.

That’s interesting! I wonder why?

bottle balanced on chair

That’s interesting! I wonder why?

Over the last few posts, I have been looking at assumptions.  Questioning assumptions is a way of more fully engaging with the ideas presented, of getting involved in the dialogue.

However asking ‘Why?’ should not be an excuse to let loose our inner 4-year old.  We owe it to our own understanding and that of others to say ‘why we are asking why’.

Is it because we genuinely do not understand and want to know more (a neutral stance)?  Then, let’s be honest and say so. Admitting we need to know more is a sign of intelligent recognition of our own (current) limits.

Often it is because we believe the assumption to be at fault and we are seeking to trip up the speaker with our question. This is   not such a neutral stance.  It is also probably responsible for our reaction when our own assumptions are challenged, to vigorously defend them and to suppose the questioner must be at fault – and probably just a bit stupid!  So now we have an antagonistic situation where neither party learns anything.

There is a way out of this negative situation.  Whether it is your assumptions that are being questioned, or the assumptions of others are arousing doubt in you, the most productive reaction is to say “That’s interesting!  I wonder why?”   Why is my assumption being questioned?   Why am I having a gut reaction to the assumption of another?  In both cases, by all means think through possible answers, but be wary of too quickly coming to a conclusion.  Ask!  But in a spirit of genuine, interested, curiosity.   If you preface your question with “That’s interesting!”  (and mean it!) you will be surprised by the genuine conversation that can follow.



Should we question ALL assumptions?


What will happen next?

In the last post I suggested that we shouldn’t be shy about questioning assumptions.  But what?  ALL assumptions?

Assumptions serve a purpose, otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted so long. They enable us to take shortcuts. Suppose I assume it is going to be sunny and don’t take a coat when I walk to the neighbourhood shops and get caught in a downpour.  What are the consequences?  I get wet and I am uncomfortable. But it doesn’t last long, and I am the only one affected.  True, it would have taken but a moment or so to check my iPhone, so I probably also feel an idiot. But that’s it.  Cost is small, temporary, and impact is limited.  

Now consider an infrastructure decision where:

  • the costs are large,
  • the consequences last a long time, and
  • they impact many people.

So when the consequences are low, by all means save yourself the effort if you wish, but if they are high – and particularly when the consequences are to be borne by others – we owe it to them to check, to question, to verify.

The DESCARTES SQUARE is a useful tool to ensure that ALL consequences are considered:

How I learned to view “Independent” reports

a mozaic

Collection of differences

When I was an Economics Honours student, our small class was visited by John Stone, who later became Secretary to the Treasury. He was on a Treasury recruitment mission.  Early in his talk he referred to the Karmel Report on Education and how poor it was.  Prof Karmel had been our Head of Department so I felt honour bound to take up the challenge: “Professor Karmel is a highly regarded economist, so how come this report is as bad as you say it is?”

Consider the Committee!

He did not go on the defensive, instead he gave us a pen picture of each member of the Committee that had produced the report.  I remember one fellow being described as ‘a businessman who believes that there should be ten people lined up outside his factory gate for every vacancy he has available’.

As a student I had naively looked at reports as objective statements of fact, carefully argued. But after that visit, I saw that all reports are in fact a compromise of the various views of the members comprising the Committee. Before the visit I had thought that an ‘independent’ report meant it was independent of the government, but then who chooses the committee?

Unless we know who is on the Committee and the way they see the world, it is hard to appreciate the conclusions reached.   Often the titular head of the committee, the one whose name is associated with the report – as Prof Karmel was  in this case – is chosen for his reputation, but the committee is chosen for their views (and there are more of them!)


President Trump’s protectionist stance has been cemented by executive order withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Protectionism has swept Europe; Trump is not an isolated believer.

Much of the world’s infrastructure is built by international firms, their success built on scales of economy and expertise.

In the new protectionist environment, major infrastructure will increase in expense and/or decrease in quality.

My question is – where are the economic advisers, educators and leaders that help people understand the facts of globalisation, rather than the beliefs about globalisation?