The declining physical condition of our national infrastructure is well documented and debated. Coupled with our physical decline and decay is a crisis of system leadership. Among engineers, managers, and policy makers we have lost an understanding of how to catalyze and guide systemic change at a scale commensurate with the scale of the infrastructure problems we face.
As the interconnected nature of our core infrastructure challenges become increasingly evident, a growing number of people and organizations are trying to adapt a more systemic orientation. This systemic orientation will require new and different systemic thinking in our infrastructure asset managers and leaders. The idea of “One Water” – the integration of rethinking how we manage water, wastewater, and stormwater – is a perfect example. New systemic leadership will require organizational self-interest to become more re-contextualized, as people discover that their and their organization’s success depends on creating well-being and sustainability within larger systems of which they are a part.
Future infrastructure leaders will need to develop three core capabilities to foster collective leadership in a complex and interconnected world. The first is the ability to see the larger system within an infrastructure asset class. In our current system, as with most complex systems, people typically focus their attention on the parts of the system most visible from their own vantage point. This usually results in engineers, managers, and key stakeholders arguing about who has the right perspective on the problem. Helping people and organizations see the larger system is essential to building a shared understanding of complex problems. This understanding enables collaborating organizations to jointly develop solutions not evident to any of them individually and to work together for the long-term sustainability of the whole system rather than just pure symptomatic fixes to individual pierces of the infrastructure puzzle.
The second capability involves asset managers fostering reflection and more generative conversations. Reflection means thinking about our thinking, holding up the mirror to see the taken-for-granted assumptions we carry into any conversation and strategic approach and appreciating how our infrastructure mental models may limit us. As the industry moves toward more “green” infrastructure and less “grey” infrastructure, deep, shared reflection is a critical step in enabling groups of organizations and individuals to actually “hear” a point of view from their own. A key issue looking forward to new ways of managing public infrastructure will be how to manage trust. Reflection is the essential doorway for building stakeholder trust where distrust had prevailed and for fostering collective creativity.
The third capability centers on shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future. The current world of infrastructure management is too often one of reactive versus proactive problem solving with managing to a failure point an all too common risky proposition. Change often starts with conditions that are undesirable (a quick review of the ASCE national infrastructure report card illustrates how undesirable our current state is), but artful infrastructure leaders help people move beyond just reacting to these problems to building positive visions of the future. This typically happens gradually as leaders help people articulate their deeper aspirations and build confidence based on tangible accomplishments achieved together. This shift involves not just building inspiring visions but facing difficult truths (i.e, what condition is the wastewater collection system in, how long will it last, what is the current funding gap, what are the risks associated with capital planning, financing, and setting rates?) about the present reality and learning how to use the tension between vision and reality to inspire truly new approaches.
The real question today is, Is there any realistic hope that a sufficient number of skilled infrastructure system leaders will emerge in time to help us face our daunting infrastructure systemic challenges? I believe there are reasons that engineers and asset managers should be optimist. Real interest in robust asset management points toward a new area in which key stakeholders want real change. The public has widespread suspicion that the strategies being used today to solve our most difficult infrastructure problems are too superficial to get at the deeper sources of those problems. This real change is producing a technological revolution of tools for the asset manager of the 21st century. During the last ten years there has been an extraordinary expansion in the tools to support system leaders. They not only help asset managers develop answers, but they have also produced an environment in which asset managers have the tools to ask the correct questions. Finally, as the interconnected nature of core societal and infrastructure challenges becomes more evident, a growing number of people are trying to adapt a systemic orientation. Though we have not yet reached a critical mass of engineers and managers capable of seeing that a systemic approach and collective leadership are two sides of the same coin, a foundation of practical know-how is being built.