Category Archives: Technology and Innovation

Infrastructure and its workings

Infrastructure asset management advancing in Canada

I spent part of last week at the annual gathering of the Canadian Network of Asset Managers (CNAM) in Burnaby, British Columbia, a part of the Vancouver metro area.  CNAM is a 2-year old association of government and private sector professionals dedicated to advancing asset management principles and practices for municipal infrastructure. As someone accustomed to the ways we have been doing infrastructure asset management—or more accurately, not doing it—in the United States, the meeting was an eye-opener! 

For a start, there seems to be a high level of Canadian interest in infrastructure and its management.  Some 250 people were there, coming from across that nation and many municipalities, large and small.  A glossy print periodical, ReNew Canada: The Infrastructure Renewal Magazine offers news and commentary, not simply vendors’ views of how the world should work.  Canada’s Public Sector Accounting Board’s standard 3150 on Tangible Capital Assets (requiring municipalities to report such assets on their financial statements) is the counterpart of the U. S. Government Accounting Standards Board’s Statement 34, but my conversations with other meeting attendees suggested there is a much broader interest in Canada in integrating asset management into financial planning and management rather than simply meeting minimum requirements with minimum effort.

Most exciting to me was hearing about examples of how specific communities are developing and using their asset management systems. The city of Vancouver, for example, has integrated their enterprise accounting system (they use SAP) with their infrastructure inventory and condition monitoring software (they use Hansen).  The city’s mayor Gregor Robertson, famously a campaigner for making Vancouver “the greenest city in the world by 2020,” is said to be firmly in favor of the asset-management program.  Calgary staff reported that their efforts are not far behind Vancouver’s.

Such efforts are not restricted to the larger cities.  The District of Lake Country, a 10,000 person municipality in British Columbia’s wine country, presented their 7-year history of developing and applying asset management principles. The responsible staff and consultants described how elected officials “got it” when maps of aging, at-risk facilities were shown and how they sorted through the issues of deciding public priorities for maintaining performance in delivery of infrastructure services. 

There is work to do, of course. Vancouver has had to add additional staff members to deal with the large volume of data being produced by their infrastructure management systems.  Smaller municipalities in mineral-rich areas of Saskatchewan and Alberta are just starting to develop management systems to keep up with growing demands for infrastructure services. I expect there will be lessons learned as more of these Canadian communities develop and apply asset management principles to their infrastructure.

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.

Infrastructure Maintenance and Sustainability

Infrastructure needs maintenance; there’s no escaping it.  Storm-water drains get clogged with trash and debris; they must be cleaned out.  Steel bridges must be repainted from time to time to keep corrosion at bay.  If the joints and cracks in pavement are not kept sealed, water seeps into the soils underneath the slab and erodes the road’s load-carrying capacity.  Water purification filters must periodically be cleaned to keep doing their job.  Burned-out lights must be replaced. When a meter breaks, a guardrail is destroyed, or a pipe cracks, it must be fixed, patched, or replaced.  Failure to perform needed maintenance diminishes infrastructure’s performance or reduces its service life or both.

While maintenance is important—indeed crucial—it is often neglected.  Day-to-day maintenance activities have not the scale and scope to attract and hold people’s attention the way new construction does.  Politicians do not get to cut ribbons and shake hands when maintenance is successfully completed.  When budgets are tight or workloads are heavy, it too often seems easy to put off maintenance without immediately serious consequences.  It is often easier for infrastructure managers to find resources for repairs and replacements than for normal maintenance and preservation efforts.  This problem of maintenance is ubiquitous and seemingly unavoidable.

We should know better. We have those old sayings: “A stitch in time saves nine.”  “For want of a nail” to shoe the king’s horse, the war and kingdom are lost. Deferring and neglecting maintenance increase the rate of wear and tear on infrastructures, increase the chances of an early breakdown.  The costs of premature repairs and replacements exceed what it would have cost to do the maintenance.  Infrastructure professionals speak of the “life cycle cost” of infrastructure, the total of all spending required to build and operate facilities to provide the services we want for an expected number of years; neglecting maintenance almost inevitably is more costly.  “Pay me now or pay me later.”

Knowing that our tendency is toward neglect, we try to design and construct facilities that need as little maintenance as possible.  It may be argued that this strategy increases life-cycle costs, for example when labor is abundant or capital is scarce, but human nature makes it a wise one.  This then is the first step toward sustainable infrastructure: it should not require much care.

While maintenance requirements may be minimized, it is unlikely they can be altogether eliminated for most infrastructures.  The second step toward sustainability is to ensure that required maintenance is carried out.  This is a matter of social and institutional relationships.  Roman roads and aqueducts were kept up through military supervision under strong central government control. A monastic clergy served the function very well for the Roman Catholic Church’s network of European cathedrals and shrines during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The Balinese water temples have successfully maintained the structures and operating rules safeguarding rice production on the Indonesian island.  The demands many universities make of major donors, that anyone wishing to support construction of a new building must also be willing to donate funds to endow maintenance of that building and its grounds is a modern adaptation of such practices.

But even with proper maintenance, infrastructures age and components wear with usage.  Earthquakes, storms, and evolving patterns of use, while possibly anticipated in general, may cause unpredictable specific damage at unpredicted times.  The third step toward truly sustainable infrastructure then is this: it must be possible to fix it quickly and with relative ease when it fails.  The designers of San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, for example, recognizing the risk that seismic activity might shift the soil and rock through which tunnels were built, arranged for excavation of larger chambers where a tunnel crossed a fault line, to allow tacks to be quickly realigned following an earthquake. 

In short, sustainable civilization requires the support of sustainable infrastructure. Sustainable infrastructure (1) needs little care, (2) is well cared for, and (3) is fixable.

Talking better infrastructure

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell recently opined that “The proponents of infrastructure investment have yet to close the sale with the American people…” (The Infrastructurist Forum, Feb. 15, 2011) that the nation’s infrastructure needs “repair and revitalization.” 

It hasn’t been for lack of trying.  Every newsworthy disaster stirs up swarms of dire warnings: the 2010 gas pipeline explosion that leveled a neighborhood in San Bruno, California; the rush-hour collapse in 2007 of an Interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis; or the 2009 crash of two trains on Washington, DC’s, Metro subway.  Following the example set two decades ago by the National Council on Public Works Improvement, the American Society of Civil Engineers periodically issues its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, giving it a solid “D” in 2010.

The trouble is, things don’t look so bad to the average person on the street.  Most of us get up in the morning, turn on the lights, brush our teeth, travel to work on paved roads, and are unsurprised when the garbage in our wastebaskets disappears without a trace.   Most of us only read about disasters or watch the video, even when the areas affected reach such grand scales as the destruction of New Orleans and the electrical blackout of the continent’s northeast.  Talk about necessary maintenance and fixing problems and most of us simply tune out.

In the summer and fall of 2010, Maslansky Luntz and Partners (a communications strategy firm) conducted a series of “listening sessions” around the country to learn about why the voters in some states and localities have been willing to increase their taxes to pay for their road systems while so many of our elected officials adamantly resist even mentioning the idea.  The work was done at the request of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, under the National Cooperative Highway Research Program.

What the listeners found was that people expect their taxes to pay for maintenance; it’s a given.  If those who are responsible for the roads and bridges say that maintenance is being neglected, then they simply haven’t been doing their job, even if the reason is there’s not enough funding.

Modernizing, however, improving technology, making things work better…. That’s another story!  Fixing the traffic lights so that you never have to sit at a red light when there’s no traffic on the cross street…. That’s worth paying for!  Clearing traffic crashes and mishaps quickly to get the traffic moving again; synching bus and train schedules to ensure that a trip by transit goes smoothly, and making sure that there’s a backup bus for when the train does run late; providing better mobility generally, that’s what people want and will pay to get.

Extending the message to all infrastructure (and to appropriate a phrase), “It’s the service, stupid!”  Infrastructure is a matter of steel and cement only to those who design and build the bridges, dams, and pipes that carry our vehicles, drive our water and electric power systems, and bring fuel to our homes.  The essence of infrastructure for most of us is the services provided: If we want to close the sale, we have to offer more and better service, not simply a legacy system in a state of good repair.

Intelligent Infrastructure: ITS, Smart Grid, SCADA, and More

High on anyone’s list of evolving innovation in our infrastructure would have to be the adaptations of electronics, communications, and information technologies that will make the systems “smart.”  There is little chance that the new infrastructure will ever approach passing a Turing test, but certainly these “intelligent” systems will give us enhanced return on our investment.

The essence of what is happening has three elements.  First, increasingly powerful and low cost digital electronic devices are giving us greater ability to monitor and exert control of the condition and use of roadways, pipes, cables, and other physical constituents of our infrastructure. Second, we are learning how to send very large amounts of information between these geographically widespread infrastructure components and more centralized locations where human managers can make judgments about the systems’ performance and make adjustments in operations.  Finally, our growing ability to store and use information is allowing us to comprehend more fully the factors that affect system performance and how to manage our infrastructure more effectively.  The progress of change looks different in each of our infrastructure’s several functional service areas. 

In water supply and wastewater management, for example, we have Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems being adopted.  The concepts, hardware, and software have been derived from process control in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.  Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) have grown out of traffic signaling but increasingly relay on wireless telecommunications and communication between vehicles and the roadside.  The United States government reserved a segment of the radio-frequency spectrum at 5.9 GHz for use by the transportation sector.  Electric power utilities are increasingly committed to the “smart grid” concept that includes giving electric suppliers an ability to adjust users’ demand and to shift energy supply across a network to meet short-term peak loads.  Transmission of digital data across power lines as well as via fiber optic cables and wireless channels has been important in the smart-grid’s development.

The most immediate payoff of this increasing intelligence in infrastructure will be greater efficiency in operations.  A universally applied principal of engineering in the past has been the inclusion of a “safety factor” in calculations to decide the number of lanes needed for a new highway, the diameter of the pipes for water supplies, or the generation and transmission loads to be met by the power supply.  The safety factor represented an allowance for uncertainty, a multiple of what the planners and designers estimated to be the maximum load a facility would have to meet during its service life, perhaps 30%, 80%, or 120% to this maximum.  New practices are shifting to a statistical view of the world and probabilistic measures are taking the place of safety factors, but the result is still the same: infrastructure facilities are built with redundancy and excess capacity to enhance their reliability in the face of anticipated variations in demand.  Increasing the smartness of these systems offers potential cost savings by allowing total system-wide excess capacity to be reduced without sacrificing reliability in meeting peak demands in parts of the system.

A second payoff of increasing intelligence will be enhanced ability to charge all users of infrastructure for the services they receive.  The services of infrastructure are for the most part available to all, approximating the conditions economists use to define a “public good.”  If the taxpayers of a particular community choose to build good roads in their region, it is difficult for them to exclude road users from neighboring communities from using the roads to travel to and through the area.  This is the “free rider” problem.  Installation of meters substantially eliminates the problem for power and water supplies (except in places where people are able to divert supplies—to pirate, in other words—as is the case in many cities in lower-income countries.)  For roads and waste management, smarter technology has yet to be developed and adopted.

Another payoff will be improved ability to identify the use of public resources that now have low or no market value.  Use of the atmosphere and surface waters as a repository of for our wastes is an example of (again using the economists’ term) “free goods.”  More precise detection and monitoring will enable pricing of these goods, both discouraging their use and generating revenue to be used for resource recovery and renewal.  Periodic inspection of motor vehicles to ensure that emissions-control devices are functioning properly is a rudimentary step toward this aspect of system intelligence.

Reflection on Doing More With Less

Political discourse has no shortage of empty or misleading catchphrases.  A particularly popular one is that we must “do more with less.”

It has bipartisan support.  New York’s Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, speaking as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, was quoted, “We’re going to have to change our orientation in this state, and how can we do more with less. You know, every family, every business, has had to do more with less.” (Newsday; October 30, 2010) Louisiana’s Republican Governor Bobby Jindal (Business Exchange; December 06, 2010) in an interview on Political Capital With Al Hunt said “We have cut higher education by about 4.5 percent. We’re all going to have to do more with less.” 

It’s not only the politicians who say it, of course.  As the recession deepened in 2008 and 2009 and budgets came under pressure, employee’s across the private sector were told what National Public Radio’s Chana Joffe-Walt termed “four familiar words: Do more with less.” (Morning Edition; February 26, 2009)

It sounds good, conjuring up thoughts of waste reduced and fat trimmed.  But anyone who is old enough to remember when airlines provided legroom even in coach class knows that what is doing more for some can mean getting less for others. 

In an article in Forbes magazine, innovation specialist Scott Anthony had a sensible perspective. When you are told to cut your costs, you cannot really do more.  Instead, you focus on doing only what is absolutely necessary to sell your product and figure out what the customer is willing to sacrifice. (“Creative Disruption: Doing More with Less” February 26, 2009)

Anthony writes that there are three basic categories of performance objectives; (1) functional objectives relating to product performance and reliability, like provide a smooth ride or deliver safe-to-drink water on demand; (2) emotional objectives associated with the influence a product has on how customer feel about themselves, for example choosing “the best that money can buy” or opting for frugality; and (3) social objectives associated with how customers perceive others feel about them, seeking for instance to demonstrate solidarity with a group or to impress people.

When it comes to infrastructure, many people lose sight of emotional and social objectives, and they generally view even functional objectives very narrowly.  

Take our public water supply, for example. We take for granted that abundant, safe water is available at the turn of the tap.  Occasional lapses occur: a broken water main can flood a street, force residents of an area to boil their drinking water and, in the aftermath, make faucets run muddy for a time.  Bacterial contamination of two purification plants serving the Milwaukee area sickened thousands and drew international attention in April, 1993.  For the most part though, water is reliably and inexpensively available on demand and it meets quality standards set to ensure public health. (Despite improvements made in recent years, this is still not the case for a notable fraction of the world’s population.  The United Nations World Health Organization estimates 13% of world population lacks any safe drinking water source, piped or otherwise.)

Nevertheless, sales of bottled drinking water in the United States total about $11 billion annually and continue to grow.  People buy it because they think it is safer or tastes better than what comes from the tap.  They buy it because the like the look of the bottle or the idea that it is imported.  They buy it because they identify with the celebrities paid to endorse a brand.  According to water expert Peter H. Gleick we consume 30 gallons per person annually. (Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water 2010)  The marketers have figured out how to give consumers more than the bare-bones minimum of public infrastructure service.

Roman engineer and architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote that a city’s infrastructure—for him,  public buildings, defensive walls and towers, and shrines and temples—should all be built with strength, utility, grace.  (De architectura, Book 1, first century BCE)  Pressed time and again to “do more with less,” we have lost much of the grace or beauty in infrastructure and, I fear, some of the utility and strength.