Illustration by Lorylè @2020
Designing infrastructure and making it credibleTools for understanding a complex infrastructure proposal
Today, designing and creating a work well is no longer enough for it to have a straight run from paper to full operation. We need to accept that it is highly likely that it will be subject to media attacks, sounded out and called into question by just about anybody, including the classic know-it-alls and armchair experts… Thank goodness for Internet!
How can an infrastructure be designed and made credible so that it can at least pass all the formal steps and be ready for construction? What are the macro-areas to consider? To answer these questions, we need to analyse how the world is changing and how a project should be presented so that the message can be across-the-board and adapted to everyone.
Infrastructure – a complex world
Years ago, Dave Snowden developed an interesting theory on complex problems that he summarised in the so-called Cynefin framework which indicates 4, or better 5, areas for the management of planning problems.
The framework indicates 4 macro domains – simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. The aim of the framework is to help to understand which of the four domains you’re dealing with. For this reason, there’s also a fifth domain called ‘disorder’ which simply represents the state when you don’t know which of the other four domains applies to your situation.
The various quadrants show a synthesis of the 4 possible situations:
- Simple/Obvious: this covers cases where everything is known and there are no uncertainties. Here, cause and effect are the same thing and the answer is practically automatic. Best Practices are usually applied.
- Complicated: we find what is not directly known in this domain. There is a cause/effect relationship but it’s not obvious. A phase of analysis is required to reach the answer. Good Practices are applied here.
- Complex: cases where the cause/effect relationship can only be ascertained afterwards are here. We’re in the field of experimentation where there the level of uncertainty is high but manageable. The answer can be found through the adoption of a new procedure that emerges afterwards.
- Chaotic: situations where the cause/effect relationship can’t be indicated are in this area. Uncertainty is greatest here and the answer can only come through perception of a new procedure.
Experience has taught me that designing infrastructure falls within the Complex rather than the Complicated field in more than 80% of cases. Working in this domain has causes and effects which are unpredictable and only appear obvious afterwards. This is mainly due to the fact that there are many relationships between the items dealt with and, at the same time, the stakeholders, with opinions and requisites that only surface little by little over time. Often, we’re forced to try new or innovative solutions because the previous ones can’t be scaled to the context and the outcome of choices can only be checked afterwards, years after implementation, for example, the choice between creating a tramway or a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line.
The approach here is probe-perceive-respond, i.e. there must be experimentation and testing to understand the detailed purpose of the work and is why every project is effectively a prototype difficult to replicate in another place and another context. This has both advantages and disadvantages that are the two sides of the coin – if Work X went well in Context Y, it does not mean that it will work in Context Z. Fortunately, the opposite also happens.
How can I transmit this simple concept that falls within the Complex domain? And how can I reach all the stakeholders, particularly those less prepared and readier to attack any project in the best NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) tradition? The answer to this question is through careful planning, the study of the context, patience in talking, the choice of adequate tools for communication, care and attention to real sustainability, and the ability to spend the money available (when it’s available).
Planning or vision
Planning means asking questions and giving answers without the minimum knowledge of whether those answers will be correct. This axiom is even truer in the infrastructure world where we’re thinking of something today that will enter service in 5-10 years and should last for at least 50-100 years or perhaps more.
Building infrastructure means marking an area and giving it a clear development path for the future (or, on the contrary, declare its inexorable decline). You’ll go there, you’ll pass in the car and you’ll do it for the next 50 years! In other words, we’re planning for an unknown future and we’re marking it for at least two or three generations.
Think of the standard railway gauge, which originated in the distance between the wheels of a carriage at the beginning of the 19th century. George Stephenson drew inspiration from this for the Stockton-Darlington railway line. There were already ‘rails’ in the normal paved roads where the deep grooves in the stone or unmade road caused by decades (or centuries) of use forced the use of strictly unified widths in carriages and hence axles. The circulation of carriages of a different width was extremely dangerous as the vehicle could easily overturn because the wheels were in a groove on one side and raised or outside the groove on the other. In effect, a choice made in 1825 has indelibly marked the history of the railways from steam trains through to the High-Speed Train.
In many cases, it would be better to talk of vision or scenario planning especially when many alternative, and very different, scenarios have to be imagined. Consideration has to be given to what to do if the future doesn’t go in the direction you want. What can you influence? How can you stay flexible and agile to answer what reality tells you.
People often wonder, “How can you plan if you don’t know what will happen?” The answer could be that this is exactly the case where it’s important to plan. If anything, the point is to give plenty of room to flexibility and accept the risk of finding out that some planning leads to little-known or even unexplored territory – the so-called Extremistan, where there are Black Swans (according to Nassim Taleb’s definition).
Not only must there be scenario planning, but we also need the skills to go beyond the immediate and ask ourselves what the impact chain could be when making a choice. If I build this railway line, what will the management costs be for the next 30 years? What can’t I do because I’ve allocated resources to this railway line rather than that museum? What are the global impacts, including the environment? (There’s always a Plan B but not a Planet B…).
Stay cool, calm and collected
For some years, there has been talk of public participation in Italy following the model of the French Débat Public, especially after the publication of Prime Minister’s Decree 76/2018, which also caused great controversy on its real applicability in the national context. However, there are still very few cases where the population has been actively involved without the approach being necessarily destructive.
In reality, there has often been an attempt to involve stakeholders in infrastructure projects but not always virtuously or effectively. Personally, I’ve taken part in various public discussions of large infrastructure projects in Italy and abroad, and what I’ve noticed, especially in Italy, is an obsessive attention on looking for the defect, the error and incompetence. This would be acceptable if, on the other side, there was a group of technical people who had studied the problem thoroughly in a complementary manner but often the clash is with bands of know-it-alls who trained at the Internet University – and they’re the most dangerous. It’s impossible (and I would also say useless) to produce counter-arguments and discuss with people who show that they are already convinced of their truth and already know that the project is completely wrong because they discovered this on the web.
Over the years, I’ve realised that the wonder of the web is its democracy; the information used by detractors is the same available to promoters. This means that you have to use the same sources and study the information your contact could use against you in detail so that you’re ready to contest them in detail. It’s only by replying with knowledge and precise data point by point (even the most stupid) that credibility as a designer or promoter can be maintained.
Great calm, attention and preparation is required. No errors can be made at this stage – a crack in the hands of a fierce public and journalists with minimum skill can create disasters that are difficult to recover afterwards.
Communication tools – people’s opium?
We’re in 2020 and we have a vast range of communication tools available as never before – from making everything increasingly realistic to videos in 8K through to virtual reality and augmented reality. All extraordinary, powerful tools that enable a virtual infrastructure, perfectly integrated into the existing context, which can be entered and ‘navigated’ through, and perhaps even touched, to be represented. But it’s still not enough.
There are an infinite number of cases where the project created differed far too much from the render and the way it was presented, undoubtedly for very valid reasons – from the changed conditions of places to the lack of funds or the insolvency of the contractor. However, these are not understood as all the local inhabitants are left with is deluded expectations, “You said there would be a green park beside the road and instead there are three miserable trees!”
Recently, there has been a lot of talk of BIM, which is right as BIM has created a real revolution in our sector. Nevertheless, either BIM becomes a mindset or it’s useless. I’ve seen too many projects ‘bimmised’ after a traditional start or with only 20% done using BIM because “otherwise it’s too difficult”. In this way, we don’t get anywhere and, above all, it doesn’t help the project and its communication.
Communication only becomes credible if there is the ability to talk about it using the same project tools, and BIM is extraordinary in this. It’s no longer a problem of software in BIM as there are tools for all tastes and all budgets. Today, being BIM is a mindset.
If communication is a direct offshoot of this mindset, it all becomes much easier and spontaneous. If I’ve really done the project in BIM, it means that I’ve analysed all the critical elements and so I’m not afraid of showing the more delicate points as they’ve already been analysed and the appropriate solution has been found. When you give satisfactory answers, it means you’ve solved 90% of the communication problems.
Sustainability, or when appearances can be deceptive
A highly sustainable project costs more; it’s pointless hiding behind questions of ideology. It costs more, full stop – at least for the construction. But then there’s the management and that could be another story. However, the numbers that strike and move politics are only those concerning construction and few are interested in or, even worse, really understand, the meaning of the lifetime cost of the work.
In other words, we’re all aware that sustainability is important, we’ve drawn up the Minimum Environmental Criteria, our heads have been filled with LEED and Envision protocols but everything changes when it’s a case of applying them through to construction. Designing to reach an average Envision level (e.g. Silver) costs in terms of additional works but also in terms of extra energy to modify the project and make it comply with the requisites of the protocol, and then the certification costs, choosing a business with the right environmental sensitivity required by the project costs, and so does finding a Works Management able to check that the sustainability choices are applied with quality. All costs that administrations aren’t always able to bear, and not only in economic terms.
This means that, to make the extra-cost of environmental services credible, you have to be able to explain the choices made once again and ensure that all those involved in the creation of the work, from the construction company to the last sub-contractor, have the culture of sustainability in their DNA.
A big job for the designers but especially for the administration that has to have people with the skills to deal with these complex topics, working with extensive, clearly defined mandates.
Spend well or spend in haste?
I’d like to end with a provocation – is it better to reflect well, weighing up everything and then, if necessary, spend after talking to everyone and hearing everything or spend in haste when there is money?
I don’t have an unequivocal answer to this question because I don’t think there is one, nevertheless, all I’ll do is observe that this is a decision to be made by politics and it’s like finding yourself in a court where politics is the jury and we technicians are the lawyers. We have to be able to propose and defend our project convincingly to achieve complete acquittal. We have to do our work in the very best way giving all the elements so that the Court can make a judgement.
However, history teaches us that when someone is uncapable of taking even slightly unpopular decisions, the money, always less and less, has the bad habit of going somewhere else.