Three keys to faster infrastructure improvements

June 12, 2014

Last year the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) again issued its Report Card for America’s infrastructure. In drinking water and wastewater, the group awarded …

Last year the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) again issued its Report Card for America’s infrastructure. In drinking water and wastewater, the group awarded the nation a “D.” We suspect this news generated a hearty yawn from many. The ASCE has assigned drinking water and wastewater a similar grade every four years since 2001.

What the ASCE report cards really tell us is this: Inventorying our infrastructure defects is one thing, getting them fixed is another. Our recurring sour grades beg the question, “Why can’t we make substantial progress on our backlog of water, transportation, electrical and other key infrastructure projects?”

In this article, we share with you three keys to improving this situation, insights gleaned from studying dozens of successful infrastructure upgrades around the world. As you will read, they are more about preparation and people than about technology per se.

The problems that are holding us back

The infrastructure challenge is certainly not unique to America. As chairman of the Smart Cities Council, I talk with municipal officials from around the world who are twisting and turning the Rubik’s cube of infrastructure improvements.

They understand what’s broken. For instance, they know that shrinking resources aren't keeping pace with growing populations. They experience the political barriers that thwart sewage plant upgrades, energy conservation programs and citywide Wi-Fi attempts. And, they see that government authorities, or bond measures floated on the local ballot, are unreliable sources of public works funding.

How we can help

On the plus side, city officials are becoming aware of new information and communications technologies (ICT) that enable “smart” solutions to streamline operations and deliver digital government. Many of these technologies have a rapid payback. They can literally increase capabilities while also lowering costs.

But, the complexity and array of ICT offerings can be daunting.

Helping city leaders navigate the brave new world of smart infrastructure is a big part of the Smart Cities Council (SCC) mission. The Council includes global leaders in technology, engineering and construction. In addition, our Advisory Board consists of 60-plus experts from the worlds of academia, advocacy, research, international standards bodies, development banks and more.

Together we support and guide city leaders who want to apply ICT to improve their city's livability, workability and sustainability. Our website and newsletters help them track the latest technologies and trends. Our tools assist with engaging citizens, financing, policy frameworks and creating roadmaps.

Many city leaders find our Readiness Guide an especially useful document. It presents a detailed and comprehensive vision of a smart city and what it takes to get there. It also includes more than 50 case studies. The water and wastewater chapter, for example, showcases successful ICT-enabled water projects from Tianjin, China to Long Beach, California to Sanford, Florida and elsewhere in the world.

I want to offer three ideas from the Readiness Guide to show how you can accelerate infrastructure improvements. Feel free to download a copy of the Smart Cities Readiness Guide at our website.

1. Find your bold leader

Communities that want to move forward with significant infrastructure improvements need strong leadership and, often, a different type of leadership. Traditionally, mayors have confined their roles to politics and traditional public services. Today, innovative leaders see their cities as businesses and themselves as chief executives. 

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is one example. He launched the Chicago Infrastructure Trust in 2012 to provide alternative financing and project delivery options for transformative infrastructure. “We have a critical need in this city, which is we have a 21st century economy sitting on a 20th century foundation. And unless we modernize it, we won’t get moving,” Emanuel said.

This new breed of city leaders also works hard at engaging citizens. They provide the public with open and continuous access to a wide variety of data and planning information, and bring others into a project early so they can participate in designing it. 

In short, cities that want to build a better, smarter future must identify a forward-thinking champion. This person must bring together elected officials, city planners, policymakers, citizens, business leaders, financiers and public-private partnerships to forge a consensus vision.

2. Paint the big picture

A strong city leader believes in comprehensive planning. That planning must organize city efforts across departments while identifying citywide priorities. A comprehensive plan must, above all, be comprehensive.

Planning with a system-wide view has several benefits. It keeps you from tackling your infrastructure challenges in a piecemeal fashion and from dividing city functions into separate, “siloed” departments with little interaction. Projects built to solve a single problem in a single department create “islands of automation” that duplicate expenses while making it difficult to share systems or data. 

Here are some other payoffs:

  • You maximize synergies and minimize costs. Having the big picture can help a city find ways to share infrastructure and share costs — doing away with unnecessary duplication. 
  • You identify the best places to start. Picking the “low-hanging fruit” — projects that have a big return for a small investment — often makes most sense. When a city scores a win with "low-hanging fruit," it can build momentum and public support.
  • You create a framework for interoperating projects. With a plan in place, you can be confident everything will work together in the end because you’re adhering to principles and standards that ensure interoperability and collaboration. You know that individual projects will be compatible with each other, even if they are built separately at different times.
  • You increase public support. Because a comprehensive plan paints a picture of a brighter future, it can dramatically increase public understanding and support. It can also help rally support and financing from the private sector. 
  • You set the stage for change management. Comprehensive city plans promote change management strategies that ensure positive outcomes. People issues are always the biggest challenge, so it makes sense to prepare for them.

The bad news about comprehensive planning? Holistic thinking is hard and often painful. That’s why you need strong and committed leadership. But, done right, it can save time and enable new services that were not possible in an isolated, siloed model.

For instance, a city department can drastically cut the development time for a new application by re-using data and software modules already created by other departments. A municipal water utility can drastically cut the cost of a communications network by using one already built out for an electric utility.

3. Get out your roadmap

Where your comprehensive plan may describe the “why” or “what” questions associated with infrastructure projects, a roadmap answers the “how” question. A roadmap adds important detail to the big picture. It helps you prioritize initial investments and track progress. And, it helps those inside and outside city government prepare for the changes that are coming.

Your roadmap document typically includes these five elements:

  1. Assessment. Create a clear picture of where the city is now, as measured by the key performance indicators you will use to quantify success.
  2. Vision. You also want a clear picture of the ultimate outcomes, expressed in terms of technical and infrastructure achievements, but also in terms of lifestyle and work style improvements.
  3. Project plans. Include high-level project details including master plans for land use and the built environment; for digital infrastructure (communications and computing resources); for data; for transportation; for business and commerce; and for city services. 
  4. Milestones. Establish junctures at which you measure progress, share lessons learned, discuss course corrections and strengthen commitment.
  5. Metrics. Set up key performance indicators that quantify success. Examples include carbon footprint, average commute time, percentage of citizens with broadband, energy efficiency achievements, water efficiency achievements and percentage of city services available online. Installing metrics early in your smart city efforts can ensure transparency and improve citizen buy-in.

Don't get me wrong, the Smart Cities Council has plenty of technology guidance and advice. In fact, the Smart Cities Readiness Guide includes 27 technology principles that ensure a successful smart city foundation.

But, if you want the truth — if you want to know what we've learned from the thousands of smart city projects already completed — then here's the answer. The technology issues are important, but the leadership and people issues are the most essential to success.

As anyone who has painted a house knows, the roller and brush work is easy compared to the prep tasks of cleaning, scraping and sanding. The same holds true for infrastructure improvements. Cities with leaders willing to push the community toward a roadmap for their future will walk a smoother path to a better future. They will be the cities that help us improve our ASCE grade when the next report card comes out.

Jesse Berst is the founder and chairman of the Smart Cities Council, a coalition of organizations that seeks to accelerate the move to smart cities with better livability, workability and sustainability. Jesse came to the smart city sector from the smart grid space where he was one of the pioneering thought leaders and the chief analyst of, the Internet’s oldest, largest and highest-ranked smart grid site. He was a co-founder of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, a nonprofit that unites utilities, vendors and consumer advocates with the goal of accelerating a consumer-friendly smart grid.

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