Reprogram How You Think About Infrastructure

Mikhail Chester was at a crossroads of sorts.

He’d done plenty of good work in the sustainable engineering space – life-cycle assessment, climate change adaptation, resilience and the like – and won ASCE’s Huber prize in 2017 for these efforts. But there was something missing, some kind of unifying, synthesizing approach to tie it all together.

“A few years ago I stepped back and asked myself, ‘What is it that I’m really trying to understand here?’” Chester said. “‘I’m working on a lot of issues at the intersection of infrastructure and the future, but fundamentally, what is the problem with infrastructure and how should we be approaching infrastructure for the next hundred years?’”

The key idea Chester continued to wrestle with is this:

The world around us seems to be accelerating. But infrastructure, meanwhile, is traditionally very slow to change. Ergo …

“We’ve got to figure out a way to make infrastructure more responsive, to change more quickly for a future that is unpredictable,” Chester said. “We’ve got to make infrastructure more agile and more flexible.”

Read more about Future World Vision

Those are the keywords Chester hit upon – agile and flexible.

Through his work as director of Arizona State University’s Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering, as a professor at Arizona State, and as a member of the ASCE Committee on Sustainability, Chester has been able to develop the kind of unifying approach to the built environment he was looking for – a new conceptual framework from which to develop infrastructure that is both more agile and more flexible.

The main idea is the shattering of two seeming contradictions.

STOP thinking about infrastructure as dumb and rigid physical assets.

START thinking about infrastructure as a set of wicked and complex problems.

“Dumb” in this case is a descriptor, not a judgment. But judging the expectation we often have of infrastructure in 2019 to look and function much the same way it did last century as “dumb” is reasonable.

“I would argue that because the services that infrastructure deliver haven’t changed radically in decades, if not centuries, we accept a design paradigm where infrastructure can be rigid.” Chester said. “But given how quickly the world is changing this rigidity doesn’t make sense anymore.”

This is the crux of the problem outlined above. Climate change, autonomous technology, social-economic shifts, all of the trend drivers in ASCE’s Future World Vision – these factors are creating a world that moves too fast and is far too unpredictable to continue relying on dumb, rigid infrastructure, Chester says. Infrastructure, he says, should instead be viewed differently, not as an amalgamation of hardware, but as wicked, complex problems.

“The real challenge isn’t how to design and optimize the appropriate asset; it’s managing the complexity of differing stakeholders, working with financing uncertainty, integrating new technologies, which change with the situation and context,” Chester said. “Adding to these challenges are the wicked problems that infrastructure must address, ones that have no cookie-cutter solution that can be applied across the board.”

How to approach infrastructure today, or into the future, is a wicked problem. The monumental and often decades-long feat of deploying a transportation solution that works for say New York doesn’t provide a copy-paste solution for a similar transportation problem in Cincinnati or Beirut. Every infrastructure problem is unique. In general, a wicked problem is one that cannot be solved because of incomplete information or changing requirements.

Agile and flexible.

The complexities, meanwhile, are growing. Expecting infrastructure to function for the next century based on projections is futile. It’s becoming more and more challenging to predict 10 years out reliably, let alone 100, Chester says.

“The systems that civil engineers manage are now inherently complex,” he said. “The tools that we continue to use are for the last century where stability was a reasonable assumption and our infrastructure were simpler. We’ve spent decades layering new technologies on top of old and integrating infrastructure services into every facet of society. We have to accept that the systems that we design and manage aren’t going to become less complex. We’re going to have to change the way we approach infrastructure.”

Example of resilient, sustainable infrastructure
The key, according to Mikhail Chester, is making infrastructure more flexible and more agile.

STOP trying to optimize infrastructure.

START thinking of infrastructure as a process.

Chester has seen many civil engineers enter the field and hit a philosophical wall. They’ve been trained to optimize – to look at a situation and determine the ideal solution, only to find that the ideal isn’t possible.

“They think, ‘What am I supposed to be doing here? I thought my job was to be optimizing. My job is now very different than I thought,’” Chester said. “If you’ve been in the field, then you know this. You’re negotiating through this process. You have to find the decision that satisfies across differing stakeholder demands, forecasts of what the future could hold, and new technologies.”

And in an increasingly unpredictable world full of wicked problems and increasingly complex infrastructure, the services that infrastructure will need to provide are going to be changing. That’s why Chester often uses the word “process” to describe infrastructure.

“The reality of the situation is one of increasing complexity, Chester said. “Our infrastructure has become highly interconnected. They are going to have capabilities, and vulnerabilities, that we haven’t yet begun to tackle. Let’s not trivialize that complexity. Let’s recognize that it exists and begin to address it as a discipline and position ourselves to lead these systems as they transition and become even more integrated into our world.”

Agile and flexible.

Learn more about Future World Vision at the ASCE 2019 Convention.“You commit to maintaining a process of adaptation across the infrastructure life cycle,” Chester said. “We have to shift the mindset from one that thinks we’re going to put down an optimal solution and walk away to one where we’re going to commit to trying something, collect data on how it’s performing, and then we’re going to commit to adapting that infrastructure later on given our better picture of the future and changing demands. We must change our financing and governing institutions to accommodate this adaptive management process.”

Chester and his team at Arizona State continue to develop these ideas through the variety of projects they’re researching and implementing. The scope is daunting, the scale is enormous and stakes are high. But he remains hopeful that the group’s conceptual framework is up to the challenge:

“Engineers in the field are living this on a day-to-day basis. People are largely receptive to this message. We just haven’t developed the education and competencies needed to manage this new reality.” Chester said.

“And before we panic, don’t worry, we’ve got some inkling of what we can do.”

Learn more about the 2019 International Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure.

Join the Collaborate conversation about infrastructure.

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  1. You know, I have been involved with paving, sewers, water, all type of civil engineering and construction for over 50 years. As I have passed down that path, I have been involved with many changes in our public works area. I have noted that everyone is wanting “new” stuff.

    Infrastructure is not complex, you just don’t understand it. Back up and look. Most problems, when understood, have the answer screaming at you, if you have the experience to see it.

    Lets look at the new stuff:

    Concrete; the “new” concrete gets 28 day strength in 24 to 48 hours. Shrinkage cracks are creating major problems, short durability and earlier repairs, I look at airport pavements placed in the fifties laying next to pavement placed the the 70’s, 80’s and 90′ being replaced.

    You Swiss hammer an old 100 old sidewalk and it will give a 8 to 10 thousand psi reading. Today, we have almost taken the throw away attitude of the cell phone and pass it on to our infrastructure. “20 year life expectancy”

    The owners want the road open in days, so the cement manufactures developed “quick set concrete”. I have produced quick set mix designs for clients, explaining the problems of shrinkage and durability. They were getting heat, to open the roads. We will spend more than double original cost in repairing and replacing the new 20 years projects. Look at today’s roads, politics and the AGC, control what materials are accepted for use in the various states.

    The publish or parish philosophy in academia creates thousands of worthless Master and PH’D papers, with a few that actually have a value in the real world of public works engineering. Today, It’s hard to find a professor who could get a job in private industry, designing what he teaches.

    Am I suggesting to stop and rewind, of coarse not. The architecture college first teaches their students, study the masters work and philosophies of creating a beautiful and useful building. These fantastic facilities and structures were designed without one computer, or even a slide rule. The designer of old new every inch and cranny to their work.

    In the years I was deeply involved in construction, I would receive a set of drawings to provide an owner a bid for constructing a project. Engineers, at one time, were very capable of constructing the projects. Today, most new civil engineers come out of college have no earthly idea how to build the project they have just designed. As a result, 15% is the average overrun due to change orders, and it’s not caused by the weather. I am aware of several cities in the mid-west that are finally keeping track of the change order cost of the various consultants, and utilizing that in the selection process.

    Contractors have a much better knowledge of the quality of the professional engineering firms that most owners. I knew some that I was normally the successful bidder, as I knew the change orders would be coming.

    More and more, the contractor has to include final engineering costs included in his bid costs. Many contractors today provide the quality control inspection, and we provide, “quality assurance”. Those who are on site for the quality assurance normally don’t know if the work is being done correctly, and the academia certainly doesn’t know. As a result, today’s quality has sunk to a new low.

    Having provided forensic consulting for years, the phrase, “standard of the industry” comes out during the proceedings, and only experience can provide the answers. The costs to the owners are quite considerable.

    Before we jump into the “new approaches”, we need to clean up our act to provide the quality that built Hoover Dam, the Roman water delivery system, (read the history, head of New York’s system did before he designed the existing one, a long time ago), and those roads and airport I mentioned. Many have been replaced due to expansions and relocation, not pavement failure.

    The old phrase “we learn more from our failures than successes”, is true, I did. Start standing back and looking, study the successes.

    Robert A Hinton, PE, Life Member, ASCE


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