We have significant infrastructure problems in the USA. Long neglect of investment in infrastructure has left it crumbling around us. It is sometimes easy to witness in rusting bridges or potholed road surfaces. But too often, deterioration in electric, water and natural gas distribution systems go unseen until catastrophe strikes. California, right on cue, serves up a textbook example of a severe water grid failure. Last week’s water main rupture in Los Angeles culminated in over 20 million gallons of water flooding parts of the UCLA campus. Compounding this failure, this massive waste of water occurred during the worst drought in modern California history.
Climate change delivers a fresh set of challenges to our aging infrastructure. Many of those challenges must be addressed through relocation, replacement, or “hardening” of infrastructure threatened by rising waters (both coastal and inland), hotter temperatures, and more violent weather. In other words, we desperately need resiliency in our infrastructure. For instance, there are 22 wastewater treatment plants in the San Francisco Bay Area that are threatened by a 20 inch sea level rise, a very realistic projection given the loss of northern and southern polar ice sheets. The specter of very large retrofit projects to make existing infrastructure and built environments resilient looms large across the USA and the rest of the world.
It’s time for a different approach to the traditional siloed problem solving practices. Rather than solve one problem at a time, we need to think big and create interdisciplinary coordinated solutions to address infrastructure resiliency. This is the classic systems engineering approach, which is discussed here as a smart way to resolve problems that cannot be addressed through siloed solutions.
Several excellent examples of large-scale systems engineering in action are available at this website. Henk Ovink, Special Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, provided a recent overview of the initiative at the Dutch Consulate’s office in San Francisco. This public/private initiative was inspired by the obvious needs to improve infrastructure resiliency in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. The US government sponsored a competition of ideas to re-engineer and rebuild smarter infrastructure that could withstand similar storms in the future.
The scope of the challenges addressed in this enterprise are sobering. Seventy-five percent (75%) of the New York/New Jersey power supply is located in floodplains. The legacy built environments and infrastructure can’t always be replaced in a wholesale fashion, but must be modified onsite to accommodate requisite hardening (ie waterproofing or floodproofing). The winning proposals published at the Rebuild By Design site illustrate the real potential of system engineering approaches.
How do they do it? They avoided the traditional thinking and siloed approaches that encapsulate most infrastructure projects. The winning teams’ methodologies included best practices for complex organizational and operational challenges used in my consulting firm. First, they looked beyond the immediate problem and assessed the larger context of multiple related challenges and objectives. Second, they considered short, intermediate, and long term perspectives to create an interdisciplinary problem definition. Third, they involved all the stakeholders in extreme collaboration in which the teams analyzed existing situations and processes. Fourth, they used multiple data sources and analytics to develop information that validated/invalidated assumptions and justified decisions. And finally, they built strong stakeholder consensus for the resulting resiliency solutions derived from this methodology.
The winning projects are funded through public and private sources of money. They are in the initial stages of planning and deployment, so it’s too early to have meaningful results on their efforts to build resiliency in vulnerable communities. But including resiliency objectives into all infrastructure investments can’t be a bad thing. As Henk noted, the rule of thumb is that every dollar spent on resiliency yields four dollars in benefits.
To ensure that we are getting the best value for our investments in Smart Infrastructure, policy-makers should encourage every grid or other infrastructure modernization project to be planned in the larger context of interrelationships with other infrastructure. Utilities and other infrastructure agencies should specify resiliency requirements in proposed infrastructure enhancement projects. Investors should evaluate every project based on its overall ability to rebound from climate change impacts or other human-caused disruptions. There’s an important role for every stakeholder here. We have to rethink infrastructure from a resiliency perspective, so it makes sense to rethink our approaches to solving these challenges.