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A New Understanding of Infrastructure

A New Understanding of Infrastructure

Wind power station. Aerial view. Several wind generators standing at top of the hill. Around are agricultural fields. Frame shows a roundabout and a small city.

By Tom Godin

I applaud the professionals who are hard at work improving our physical infrastructure – our roads and bridges, water systems, public transit, power and transmission systems, and communications networks.    Infrastructure keeps our society moving and connected and allows our livelihoods to flourish.

In our politics today, folks in that arena are starting to talk about things like affordable and accessible childcare as infrastructure too.  There’s a point to be made there.   

When I was asked to contribute to this edition of Civil + Structural Engineer, I immediately thought of a book published in 1992 and that I read (skimmed) two decades ago.   Stuck in Traffic.  Coping with Peak Hour Traffic Congestion by Anthony Downs, at the time a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.  I live in the Washington DC area where peak hour traffic congestion is notorious.    And not far from my home a major infrastructure project is underway, the widening and improvement of Interstate 66.

Downs argued that relieving traffic congestion through infrastructure projects – adding capacity with lanes, for example – provides only temporary relief because of three shifts that occur in the behavior of drivers: temporal, modal, and spatial.   Drivers who avoided peak hour by traveling early or later switch back to traveling during the busiest windows.  Drivers who opted for public transportation (or bikes, or walking) switch back to cars.   And drivers who avoided the highway by taking different routes go back to the highway.   Downs made a case that additional measures – policy changes or economic incentives – were required to deal with peak hour congestion.  The behavior shifts would otherwise lead right back to congestion.

I’m not an engineer or policy maker and the point of this isn’t to argue about any of this.   I am, however, a business advisor to engineering firms so I wanted to draw a connection between this book and our industry today.

Engineering firms are congested with work today and are trying hard every day to add capacity in terms of engineering and technical staff.  If enough capacity was available, I think three similar shifts would occur.   Work that is being done outside of standard core hours could be done in the typical 8 to 5 window.  Work that is getting subcontracted out could be brought back in house.   And work that your firms may be passing up entirely now could be pursued.  All things being equal, these seem like positive shifts.

When we talk about infrastructure inside engineering firms – especially considering plans to add staff capacity – we talk about the usual suspects.   You need to make sure that there are enough offices, desks and chairs – computers and software licenses – sufficient bandwidth and server space.  But I think in our context, firm leaders need to expand the definition of infrastructure to include policies, practices and procedures– the management operating systems of their firm broadly, and both formal and informal.   Are these things capable of standing up to the complexities inherent in a larger organization?   Or is a firm setting itself up for disappointment – where adding capacity just leads to the same problems just now at a larger scale.

If you are metaphorically Stuck in Traffic and would like to talk about your firm’s management infrastructure, please get in touch with me.   If you are literally stuck in traffic, I hope at least that it is on the way to the beach or a great vacation spot, because as important as your contributions are to improving our country’s infrastructure, you deserve a little time off.   

Tom Godin  is an advisor within Zweig Group’s Strategic Planning team. Contact him at tgodin@zweiggroup.com.