Thursday, June 26, 2014

What If Don Draper Worked on the ASCE infrastructure Report Cards

The 2014 Pennsylvania version of the ASCE Infrastructure Card was recently published.  The opening paragraph of the drinking water (which received a grade of D) portion of the report is highlighted below: 

Drinking water infrastructure in Pennsylvania faces a required investment of $13.9 billion over the next 20 years to replace aging facilities and comply with safe drinking water regulations. Although waterborne outbreaks are low, the number of incidents has been on the rise. Encouragingly, the number of drinking water systems in violation of clean water regulations has seen improvement. Funding research into new water treatment technology as well as reducing waste and consumption will help reduce costs, but construction and repair of drinking water facilities will require a steady source of funding. Drinking water systems must adopt full-cost pricing in water billing to reflect operational and maintenance costs as well as raising funds for eventual replacement. If funding needs are not met, the state risks reversing the public health, environmental and economic gains that have been made over the past three decades.
As with all the themes of the various ASCE report cards written-by-engineers-for-public-consumption-as-best-they-can, it is a slapdish world of facts and figures.  The engineer as rational actor possessed of perfect information in search of a public engaged in utility-maximizing behaviors.  I hate to break this to ASCE, but human beings do not always make decisions that serve their own long-term self-interest.  They have more of a problem with collective-interest.  It is one group (the engineers and contractors), who perceive the world in objective ways, attempting to motivate the un-real world of Main Street to do one thing.  Read all the report cards on the various parts of the infrastructure matrix and you see the one same thing.  The one thing is simple - we want Main Street to depart with some of their money.  The cover of the book is the same - the call for a collective social good and collective economic benefit.  But the chapters all read the same - none of this collective social and economic good happens without a departure of Main Street's money.

If we recognize this is what it is (departing with money on Main Street), ASCE needs to be thinking more like Mad Men's Don Draper.  The advertising industry is full of incredibly cunning people, highly experienced at getting Main Street to depart with their money.  Yes, advertising is full of evil people (have you seen Mad Men?), but so is the AEC industry (have you seen traffic control on LBJ in Dallas?).  Evil people can work with other evil people.  Getting people to depart with their money is about understanding behavioral economics and recognizing the competition.  Raising the $3.25/1,000 gallons monthly water rate by 25% puts the local water utility and AEC community in competition with the likes of Starbucks.  In business you've just got to be less stupid, less wrong than your competition.  In the case of ASCE, they are being much more stupid and wrong than Starbucks.

Read the opening paragraph of the report card and explain to me how that screams out "D" and you need to depart with some of your money?  At least have Draper look at it (He would probably say, "Our worst fears lie in anticipation.").  It will probably take a tall glass of his bourbon.  The things Draper could do with a three or four minute YouTube video minimizing the economic transaction part of this by focusing on other factors.  Imagine a family in the kitchen.  The mother is getting a drink of tap water for their young son.  Voice over - -  "Have we lost the capacity to make the right decisions?"  Run the fancy water system decline graphics and cut to workers in a trench laying a water line.  Voice over - - "We seemed to have forgotten how to do this."  The things Draper could to do to improve our chances of getting people to depart with their money!!

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