Category Archives: Philosophy of Infrastructure

Fundamental concepts and values

Infrastructure principles to live by

As a child fascinated by tales of exploration and archeology of the artifacts of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Incan civilizations, I built models of balsa-wood and modeling clay to recreate in my room the temples and fortresses pictured in my books.  I channeled my university studies toward building things, the bigger the better, I thought, as my training progressed.  In graduate school I encountered Albert O. Hirschman, a Harvard economist whose seminal  book introduced me to the ideas of social overhead capital—the etymological precursor of what we mean today by economic or societal infrastructure—and its essential role in economic development. (1958, The Strategy of Economic Development, New Haven: Yale University Press)  I wrote a doctoral dissertation on “systems of constructed facilities,” and from there moved on to planning and design of new cities, airports, highways, and investment policy.  I guess it is fair to say I have been interested in infrastructure for a while, and maybe a wonk on the subject.

In any case, I was excited by the opportunity in 1992 to work with a National Research Council committee seeking to gain an understanding of what might be done to address the problems underlying the nation’s increasingly distressing instances of infrastructure inadequacy, failure, collapse, and destruction.  The group spent more than a year talking to people from cities around the country and extracting from their experience a set of three broad principles for acting locally to address what were agreed to be national and even global problems. (The committee’s report was published as In Our Own Backyard: Principles for Effective Improvement of the Nation’s Infrastructure, 1993; Washington, DC: National Academies Press)

The principles themselves are fairly straightforward, albeit cryptic: (1) Geography matters. (2) The paradigm is broadening. (3) Value the “public” in public works.

My interpretation has perhaps shifted in the years since we wrote the report.  First, infrastructure should be tailored to the specific physical, environmental, social, and economic characteristics of the area to be served.  However, these various characteristics are connected in complex ways that make the tailoring difficult, and we need good data to achieve a good fit.  Second, all infrastructure has to be understood as providing multiple services, having not just a single function.  Thinking that our highways simply let us move from place to place and water systems only provide a clean supply when we turn the tap is—pardon the possible pun—tunnel vision; we need to broaden our perspectives in funding, designing, and operating each piece of infrastructure and address the system the pieces comprise.  Third, the public is a part of the infrastructure, not simply a customer, investor, or impediment. We as a society and our infrastructure are engaged in an evolving dialogue; the better we understand our role in that evolution, the more likely it is that future generations will appreciate the legacy of our infrastructure investment.

Two decades later, I think these principles are still relevant and important.  They are also, unfortunately, no more representative of current practice than they were when written.

(A footnote:  In the course of earlier work for the National Research Council, I found that the word “infrastructure” itself was hardly used at all before 1980. (For example, see Infrastructure for the 21st Century: Framework for a Research Agenda, 1987.) Typing it into Google’s search field today returns some 270 million hits.  “Social overhead capital,” has not caught on with the Internet public, showing up not quite 8.1 million times.  “Principles of infrastructure” returns some 1.82 million hits. Narrowing down to “principles of economic infrastructure” yields 315,000; replace “economic” with “societal” and you drop to just over 9,000.  For comparison, “ten commandments” gets 4.4 million hits and “principles to live by” 820,000!)

Sustainable Values and Infrastructure

There seems to be little question that we are now in one of those historically recurrent periods of societal crisis that tell us we must change our ways.  A plethora of recent books present dismal perspectives of our clash of cultures, changing climate, losses of species and languages, and financial crises, and how each threatens our well-being and lastingness.  The threats are very real, of course, but to me are interesting because, if relief is to be found, surely our infrastructure must have an important role.

Seeking to understand this role, I have finally plowed my way through Raj Patel’s modestly titled exegesis on modern economics and human nature, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. (2009, New York: Picador)  With ample reference to both foundational and more radical texts of market economics and Western social theory as well as more personal accounts of current populist movements, the book has definitely generated buzz and expanded its author’s reputation to sometimes messianic proportions.  (For a review, see “Are You the Messiah? A political economist gets a following he wasn’t expecting,” by Lauren Collins, New Yorker magazine, November 29, 2010)

The reading took longer than expected, because as page after page turned I felt compelled to pencil in questions, opposing references, and outright objections to Patel’s perspectives. Where he sees elemental democracy in the masked pronouncements of a Zapatista Junta, I see the tyranny of the mob. When Patel disparages the possibility of getting prices right—or having any prices at all—for clean air and water, I despair at the idea that humans will forsake the desire to improve their lives, however privileged they may be, satisfied that their needs—defined by others—are being met. While Patel finds it essential to feed the world’s growing population by rationing necessarily limited food production, I wonder why humanity might not be happier and arguably better off limiting population to levels supportable with an abundant and varied food supply.  I suppose I must recommend the book at least because it offers the attentive reader ample intellectual stimulation.

Patel’s message seems to be that for two key reasons a market-based, democratic society is essentially unsustainable and revolutionary change is essential. First, there is no hope of getting the prices right for clean air, pure water, cultural diversity, historic associations, and myriad other resources we humans use in pursuit of comfortable lives. Second, our abilities as humans to work together toward success in this pursuit are hopelessly subverted by the existence of corporations, disembodied entities that behave with the legal rights and powers of a person but lack a person’s moderating moral and ethical judgment.   Without the restrictive forces of either appropriate prices or moral imperatives, corporations and people ruthlessly seek exclusive control of collective resources and private gain from exploitation of these resources.

Hope lies, for Patel, in a Buddhist theory of value.  “The real value of something,” he writes, “is not its ability to satisfy a craving, a desire, a vanity, but to meet the need for well-being.”  With enlightenment, we will recognize that our desire for cell phones, shoes, and other such “baubles and fripperies” is nothing but illusion created by hidden persuaders.  Corporations will somehow adapt, I suppose, and we will lose our lust for more, all settling happily for just “enough.”

British economist Diane Coyle’s book The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters. (2011, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) takes a similar stance on the problems but offers a more moderate assessment of the underlying issues and, to my mind, a more practical prescription for what must be done.  She focuses her attention on the inevitable necessity of making tradeoffs among efficiency, fairness or equity, and freedom in how people are able to pursue and manage their resources.  Our values and our governance, as individuals and groups within our society, determine how the balance is struck, and today we have “tilted too far”—in Coyle’s view and my own—“in favor of individualism and the gratification of immediate wishes,” toward freedom at the expense of fairness and even efficiency. Where previous generations made investments, we now are consuming our assets.

Regarding values, Coyle’s views are not so different from Patel’s: We need a change of values to guide our behavior.  In Coyle’s analysis, however, a revival of what Max Weber termed the Protestant ethic, principles that guided people to work for the future rather than immediate gratification, could be effective.  Neither author has much to say about how we are to decide what is “enough” for individuals and groups in a pluralistic society. Patel would no doubt be the more austere judge.

To Patel’s call for changed values, Coyle adds changes in measures of achievement and in our institutions of governance.  The ways we measure economic growth, productivity, and well-being are simply inadequate for dealing with our growing understanding of the importance of intangibles. With the revolution in information and communications technologies, services account for an ever larger share of production; we do a poor job of measuring  quality of services, and the shortcoming is especially severe regarding what we term quality of life matters.  The  technology revolution is also transforming how individuals, corporations, and political entities relate to one another. Coyle imagines that societal decision making can be shifted from centralized agencies to “involve a more productive  and thoughtful interplay between markets and governments than we’ve typically had in the past…”, but here I could not quite make out her image of that future. Perhaps she envisions social networking platforms supporting grass-roots participation, a sort of Swiss direct democracy via telethon or Facebook.

Development of such a participatory system would certainly signal the integration of a new set of technologies into our infrastructure.  In past decades, new infrastructure technologies have been accompanied by—and arguably enabled or perhaps caused—changes in how society operates. Rail and then highway transportation changed the patterns of human settlement; piped supply of clean water changed the way households operate.  These changes in turn have been accompanied by changes in our fundamental values, on the scale contemplated by Patel and Coyle.  If we are to have the change in values these authors argue we need for a sustainable future, then I believe we must expect to reshape our infrastructure.

Our roads, our legacy

The nation’s network of roads, taken together, is the legacy of investments made over the course of many decades. The legacy includes land committed to enabling people and goods to be moved from place to place, and with that land forests and grasslands cleared, streams diverted, and flora and fauna displaced. Added to these natural resources are concrete, steel, and other materials, and the human labor of planning and construction to produce the pavement and bridges, signs and signals, guardrail and rest areas that daily carry millions of vehicles.

Despite the efforts of clever analysts, there is no authoritative appraisal of this legacy’s current value. That the legacy has any value at all is a proposition based on our society’s desire for access and mobility and our adoption of  economics as a way of understanding and directing our behavior.  The protracted discussions in the U. S. Congress and many state legislatures concerning how we pay for roads and government’s role in their management is a reflection of our lack of consensus on the value of the legacy and what we should do with it in the future.

It’s as though we are beneficiaries gathered for the reading of the will following the demise of a wealthy relative. We’ve inherited a family estate and now must decide what’s to be done with the property.  Is there a substantial bank account, stocks and bonds?  Do any of us want to live in the mansion; can we afford it?  What’s to be done with the art collection?  Is the land still to be farmed or subdivided for development?  Can the gardens and fen be conserved?

Our legacy is a diverse collection of assets.  The fundamental questions facing us are whether to use these assets to realize the greatest return to the beneficiaries or to keep the legacy intact at the lowest cost.  We may seek advice from the financial advisers, groundskeepers, curators, and other staff who have cared for these assets in the past.  The answers will depend, however, on what we judge to be important, what we think we can afford to do, and how well we can agree among ourselves.  It’s all very complicated.

These are the issues facing the people who take responsibility for managing our roads  For more than a century the network was growing as the nation moved across the continent and trucks and cars began to compete with trains, wagons, and trams as primary means for moving from place to place.  Today we have more than 4 million miles of public roads in the 50 states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, according to the U. S. Department of Transportation; about 2.7 million miles of these roads are paved. The strategic core of the network is the National Highway System (NHS), about 160,000 miles of paved roads judged to be important to the nation’s economy, defense, and mobility. Within the NHS, the Interstate Highway System, inaugurated by President Eisenhower in 1956, accounts for just over one-quarter of that, about 47,000 miles.  While the Interstates represent just over 1% of the nation’s road mileage, they carry about 25% of the nation’s traffic, measured by vehicle-miles of travel. (1)

We have reached a point where the demand for new roads nationwide has been largely satisfied. Additional capacity would be welcome in some places where population and jobs are growing, and this means adding lanes and upgrading standards on some routes. Substantial revisions of facilities will be wanted in other areas to enhance livability and improve safety, for example replacement of Seattle’s Alaska Way Viaduct with a tunnel. It may be that we will choose in coming years to make substantial new investments in rail transit and other forms of mass transportation, and this may necessitate alterations in communities’ roads.  But in much of the nation the primary task facing the people responsible for our roads will be managing our legacy assets.

When it comes to roads and other public works, the job of “asset management” has come to mean primarily looking after the facilities’ condition and maintenance to ensure they can provide the services for which they were constructed.  Other than re-purposing a freeway lane for use by high-occupancy vehicles only, dedicating road right-of-way for transit use or installation of fiber-optic cable, or converting abandoned rail lines to bicycle trails, road assets are not particularly fungible, that is, easily converted into other forms of assets. (Stock markets, for example, make it possible for owners to easily exchange shares for cash and vice versa.)  The nascent market in private-sector leasing and operation of toll roads (the Chicago Skyway, for example) and other facilities are a step toward encouraging infrastructure asset managers to think about how the value of  might be redeployed to increase public benefit, but we are still a long way from managing a road system as though it were a mutual fund.   In the meantime, asset preservation seems to be the primary objective, simply making sure that everything is still presentable and in working order when the family finally decides what to do.

(1) See http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_04.html,
http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/2008cpr/es.htm

Baltimore’s Sustainability Report

Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on April 16, 2011, stood up at the city’s Druid Hill Park Conservatory to announce the release of the 2010 Annual Sustainability Report.  This “yearly accountability tool to track Baltimore’s towards improving the economic, social, and environmental sustainability” was the city’s second such report, a product of the Baltimore Office of Sustainability.

Baltimore defines sustainability as “meeting the current environmental, social, and economic needs of our community without compromising the ability of future generations to meet these needs.”  This is deceptively similar to the often quoted formulation of the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission.  Our Common Future, the Commission’s 1987 report, asserted that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  The concept of needs was explained with particular priority of concern for the world’s poor.  Our ability to meet needs was represented as limited by our social organization and technology as well as environmental constraints.

Read literally, Baltimore’s idea of sustainability differs in two possibly controversial ways from conventional usage. First, development—meaning steady increase of living standards and economic activity—is not mentioned.  Second, the needs that future generations will want to meet seemingly are presumed not to differ from ours today.  But perhaps, for Baltimore’s sustainability assessors, development is a fundamental need.

Baltimore's sustainability goals

In any case, the report is structured around 29 specific goals in seven clusters aimed at enhancing the city’s sustainability. Some of the goals are quite specific (for example, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2015), but most are open ended.  And with the possible exception of supporting local business, every goal is crucially linked to the region’s public works infrastructure, although infrastructure is cited explicitly as a contributing resource for only about one-third.

Measuring Infrastructure Performance Is Complex

Performance is the execution of a task or fulfillment of a promise or claim. Musicians give a good performance when they play well, provide listeners with insights to the meaning and emotion behind the music, and entertain their audiences. Employees of large companies have annual performance reviews to reflect on how well they and their immediate supervisors think they are doing their jobs.
For civil infrastructure, performance has something to do with moving people and goods, supplying water, removing wastes, and keeping us comfortable. However, just as we might disagree about whether a singer has given a good performance, individual infrastructure users, companies that depend on infrastructure, government agencies that build it, people who live near the facilities, and others may have their own ideas about both what is the task or promise the infrastructure should fulfill and how well the job is being done. Because these several groups all play a role in shaping our infrastructure, determining how it is used, and taking advantage of the services (or disservices, as some might say) delivered, we often refer to them as stakeholders.
These stakeholders are a wonderfully diverse bunch and their ideas are dynamic. Trying to understanding what might be meant by “good performance” for infrastructure gets complicated. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s and ‘60s built the Buford Dam and others along the Chattahoochee River for power generation, flood control, and navigation purposes. Lake Lanier, a large reservoirs created near Atlanta, Georgia, became an important part of that growing region’s water supply as well as a popular recreation area. Downstream, where the river joins with others rolling south toward the Gulf of Mexico, oyster harvests in Apalachicola Bay depend on the freshwater flows. The states of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia have feuded for decades over the water management in the river basins. Since construction of the Buford Dam and Lake Lanier was completed in 1957, the tasks they are expected to perform have certainly shifted.
Sometimes stakeholders are very direct in stating the broader objectives they have in mind. Public works investments during Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” era, for example, were planned to give jobs to some of the legions of people left unemployed by the Great Depression as well as to provide the services of municipal buildings and libraries. Huge water projects built in the vast and largely empty southwestern areas of the United States were intended to enable settlement and consolidate the nation’s hold on land which (to quote Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Gift Outright) “was ours before we were the land’s.” The spending of public funds on new roads and water mains is routinely justified by expected gains in property values and subsequent tax revenues expected when newly accessible and serviced land is developed.
Sometimes our objectives are less overt. Some highways built in urban centers during the 1950s and ‘60s were viewed by their planners as instruments of slum clearance as well as transportation arteries. Public backlash gave rise to more general resistance to new construction and the term NIMBY—“Not in my back yard!”—that has since come to be recognized in many languages. A recent Saint Index© survey of U.S. attitudes about real estate projects and development found that our extended economic downturn may be softening opposition to new development in general, 74 percent of American adults still do not want it in their own community.
Sometimes we simply have too narrow a perspective. Vitruvius, the 1st Century BC Roman who gave us the 10-book De Architectura, wrote famously that our infrastructure should not only ward off hostile attack, glorify the gods, and enhance public convenience, but should do so with “strength, utility, grace.” A panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences to consider principles for improving the nation’s infrastructure (full disclosure: I served as the staff support and a primary report author-editor) asserted that we must manage our infrastructure to “… incorporate effective recognition of infrastructure as a multimodal and multipurpose system—a stream of services—as well as an armature of community development.” In other words, no infrastructure should be conceived of as doing only one thing.
In any case, whether the objectives, promises, or claims are narrowly or broadly conceived, explicitly or implicitly stated, the performance of infrastructure as a public investment must be judged by how well it serves the community. Measuring the return on investment will always be complicated.

Infrastructure Service Life as a Matter of Sustainability

The word is everywhere.  People are talking about sustainability, but what does it really mean?  We want sustainable growth, sustainable development, sustainable communities.  In a recent blog posting, the Director of Sustainable Communities at the Natural Resources Defense Council admitted with remarkable candor about the latter topic, “even a lot of environmentalists don’t quite know what to make of the phrase.” 

Most people would probably agree that not using up all available resources needed for life has something to do with what “sustainability” signifies.  Physicists, chemists, and biologists can define with some precision the oxygen, water, and food, required by a group of organisms for a particular period of time, and the quantity of waste products they will produce.  For humans, their communities and their civilizations, there is certainly a lot more to it.  Our population, our history, and our ideas continue to grow, increasing our demands on an expanding range of resources. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) tried to cover everything by defining sustainability as “a set of environmental, economic, and social conditions in which all of society has the capacity and opportunity to maintain and improve its quality of life indefinitely without degrading the quantity, quality, or availability of natural, economic, and social resources.”  Improving quality of life “indefinitely” with no degradation of resources sets the bar quite high.

The Brundtland Commission took a more modest perspective, defining sustainable development as “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  If one considers that our concept of “needs” has evolved over time, along with our technology and other capabilities to meet our needs, then the Brundtland criterion is considerably less stringent than ASCE’s.   As we look to more distant generations, we necessarily have less confidence that their concept of their own needs will be similar to ours.  Although some people will judge it to be technological hubris, we also are inclined to presume that these future generations will find new ways to meet whatever those needs are. 

The idea of discounting the significance of the more distant future is fundamental to the benefit-cost and cost-effectiveness analysis practices.  The practices, developed primarily in the middle decades of the 20th Century, are now widely used to assess the wisdom of decisions involving expending resources to obtain services or other benefits over a period of years.  These capital investment decisions—for example, to build infrastructure facilities—certainly have the capacity to foreclose future options.

A crucial assumption in any such analysis is the discount rate, usually expressed on an annual basis, representing the decline in value of resources that are made available or used at some future time, as compared to their value today.   For a simple example, many people would readily accept the idea that being given $98 today is preferable to the promise of $100 to be received one year hence.  If the proposition is $90 today versus $100 next year, more people may be willing to wait.  These examples represent discount rates of 2% and 10% respectively.  The discount rate used in any particular analysis reflects economic conditions and analyst’s and investors’ expectations about the future.  Higher discount rates imply less confidence and a requirement that the initial investment should more quickly become profitable.  (An interesting footnote: Comparisons of the value of the goods traded by the Dutch to purchase Manhattan from the Native Americans in 1626 to the current assessed value of the real estate suggests an annual increase of 5 to 6%.  It seems unlikely that Peter Minuet could have imagined what would become of the island.)

What can this tell us about understanding sustainability?  If we imagine that life will carry on more or less smoothly for some time, we might apply a low discount rate, perhaps 2% annually, in deciding whether or not to invest in infrastructure.  The discounting calculations would tell us that benefits accruing to a new investment more than 160 years from now would have a present worth less than 5% of their future amount.  If a human generation is about 20 years, we might then conclude that any long-term benefits that will not be realized until the 9th generation after we make the investment and building the facility are not worth much.  If the discount rate is 5%, fewer than 4 generations (perhaps 50 years) are needed.  With a discount rate of 10%, it takes about 30 years to reach the point that returns promised further in the future may not be influential on our decisions today. 

In other words, it may not make much sense to try to think beyond our grandchildren when it comes to sustainability.  Consider this: the initial demonstrations of transistor technology occurred in the mid-1940s, when I was a toddler.  Only a few years earlier, ENIAC I was developed as the first modern computer, using some 17,000 vacuum tubes.  Who then would or could have imagined the microchip and digital computers—not to mention cell phones—my grandchildren today take for granted. 

Perhaps it is only coincidence, but designers of bridge typically assume their structures will last about 50 to 70 years; for highway pavements, the numbers are 30 to 35 years.  Regardless of such assumptions, most of the people responsible for managing the nation’s infrastructure strive to get as many years of service as possible before a facility must be substantially refurbished or replaced.  Only seldom do public-sector owners of infrastructures make provisions at the beginning of the service life to ensure that funds are available to do the right thing at the end.

If we want our infrastructure systems to be sustainable and to serve as a basis for sustainable communities, such a management strategy may be counterproductive.  Long service lives discourage adoption of new technology and responsiveness to changes in users’ demands and society’s values.  Long-lived infrastructures fix the patterns of land development, social and economic activity, and perceptions of spatial relationships on the regions they serve.  Anecdotal evidence suggests we might be better of planning that infrastructures should be replaced, substantially renovated, repurposed, or retired no more than 3 generations after they are initially constructed.  Where rapid changes are occurring in economic conditions (for example, population growth in Phoenix or shrinkage in Detroit) or the technology (electricity generation and control, for example, as compared to municipal waste disposal), the lifetimes should be much shorter.

Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, for example, an elevated highway constructed to carry traffic past the city’s downtown core, was completed in 1953.  Over the years since it was built, traffic levels and truck sizes and weights had grown to levels that exceeded what the original designers had in mind; the structure was effectively obsolete.  Replacement would have been costly and very disruptive for the region’s highway users and the Viaduct’s neighbors. 

It was the 2001 Nisqually earthquake that moved Seattle finally to declare an end to the structure’s useful life.  The Viaduct was seriously damaged; sections had to be closed for a time. Repairs were made, but much of the public understood that more would need to be done.  It nevertheless took strong political leadership to effect the Viaduct’s replacement—with a tunnel—initiated in 2011.

The now-infamous The Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, first commissioned in 1971, uses “Generation II” technology.  Newer “Generation II” plants have better safety features.  Because nuclear plants are very expensive to build, reducing their allowable service would significantly raise the hurdle for establishing feasibility of a new plant but might also reduce the risk such infrastructures can pose for their neighbors.

There are many more examples that might be given of infrastructures destroyed or removed before the time envisioned by their builders and operators.  Certainly many elements of any particular piece of infrastructure are likely to remain useful beyond the 3- to 5-decade life implied by sustainability considerations.  However, viewing these elements as evidence of overinvestment and designing to ensure that infrastructures can be salvaged, recycled, or put to other uses would be important steps to improved sustainability.