Sunday, August 19, 2007

America's Infrastructure Crisis: Are We Really A Developed Country?

In the three and a half years in which I worked in the office of Dr. Russell Ackoff, my mentor in the field of Systems Thinking, he probably talked about one thing more than anything else: the true nature of development. "Development," Russ would say, "increases the capacity of people to manage their own lives. Growth - which is what people usually talk about when they say a community or a nation is getting better - is about the accumulation of greater amounts of things, some of which are beneficial and some of which are not. Growth is not the same as development."

One of the expressions Russ used most often to make this point is If you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. If you teach them to fish, they can feed themselves for a lifetime.

When it comes to our nation's infrastructure, I fear that our political and civic leaders have - for decades - been giving us "fish" in the form of lots of roads, bridges, mass transit systems, utility systems, and other elements of what is sometimes referred to as the built environment. We know who these leaders are. They're the people in the photographs taken at the ground breaking ceremonies when new projects start.. and at the ribbon-cutting ceremonies when projects are complete. After that, we rarely hear from them again.

Well, perhaps with the collapse of the I-35 bridge, we will. In fact, we already are... in the personages of Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Chuck Hagel (R-NB). Their National Infrastructure Bank Act of 2007 is an important first step in moving we Americans past our long history of "being given fish" and towards a future in which we learn "how to fish for ourselves" and then act of that new knowledge.

Of course, by "learn how to fish" I mean learn how to take care of what we've got... not just admire it when it's new and then let it fall apart under our very noses.

Russ loves using this fishing analogy to help people understand what true development is. And - because he emphasizes that development involves wisdom that focuses on long-term (not short-term) results - I'd like to start a national dialog on the following question:

Is the United States truly a developed country? Or are we just a "built up" country?

It is common to talk about how our world is divided into the developed and under-developed nations. And the US - based on its GDP and other factors - always falls into the "developed nations" category. But based on my knowledge that to be truly developed is to know how to take care of yourself and what you have - not just to have a lot of stuff - I no longer personally put the USA into that category.

I think - and this seems especially appropriate when you consider how young America really is, in "country years" - that America is in a category that may have never existed before. Neither under-developed nor developed, America appears to be a "proto-developed country". We've accumulated a lot but do not yet have the wisdom to manage what we've got.

Now, having just described the problem, I'd like to suggest at least the beginning of a solution:


As H.G. Wells once said "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

I almost hate using such extreme-sounding language, but there really is a catastrophe awaiting us if we don't address our infrastructure crisis very soon. Just as the homes we live in will fall apart if we don't maintain them, so will the larger built environment - literally, our national "home". And for this analogy I have Sam Schwartz to thank. Sam was the First Deputy Commissioner at the NYC Department of Transportation when I worked there in the late 1980's. He ran NYC DOT's Bureau of Bridges. (I directed the office in the Bridge Bureau that contracted with private engineering firms to fix NYC's bridges... in my former life as an engineering program manager.) Sam recently wrote a very blunt New York Times OpEd piece entitled "Catch Me, I'm Falling in which he points out how crazy the bridge maintenance financial system is throughout America. I highly recommend you read it, as a first step in educating yourselves about the true nature of our problem. Because, it's only when a problem is truly understood that it can be permanently solved.

Solving America's infrastructure problem starts with understanding the magnitude of the physical challenge (see the report from the American Society of Civil Engineers) and then understanding the financial system challenge... which includes the long-term financial costs which will be incurred as more and more of our infrastructure falls apart.

To some extent, I suppose, this is a painful thing to come to terms with: that we now have to find the money (and fast) to "learn how to fish"... to maintain that which we have. But I also expect this is exactly the lesson America needs to learn in the run-up to the 2008 elections.

We need to ask ourselves - and those who would be our political representatives - if they "know how to fish". We need to find out if they know how to think long-term. We need to find out if they know how to learn to do the right thing - as defined by experts in the field such as, in this case, Sam Schwartz and the American Society of Civil Engineers - when information about a problem is presented to them.

Making sure we take care of what we have. Making sure what we have works and is the best quality it can be. That, my friends, is the hallmark of a truly developed country. And right now, this is not something that is true about America.

But it's not too late. We can still learn how to fish.

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