ASCE’s 1st International Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure was held in Long Beach, California, November 6-8, 2014. The conference had many notable highlights and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I was there. This commentary was sparked by a keynote presentation in the opening plenary session by James Close, the Director for Policy and Finance of the World Bank Climate Group. Among the many notable comments in his speech was a quote attributed to Isambard Kingdom Brunel,a British engineer who played a key role in the early industrial revolution and made a number of advances and breakthroughs. Brunel’s biography (http://www.biographyonline.net/business/brunel.html) is impressive, to say the least.
James Close emphasized “the importance of innovation as an asset class that needs to attract investment in a world that is rapidly changing.” He commented that “price incentives are critical for technology diffusion, but are unlikely to be sufficient to trigger innovation at the scale and speed needed.” He also realized that “commercialization of risky new technologies such as carbon capture and storage may require the public sector to engage in demonstration projects before the private sector will commit and finance.”
The quote used by Close in his speech was Brunel speaking of his approach to building bridges:
“I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.”
Close’s speech and the Brunel quote he cited prompted two memories.
One was a project owner who admonished me that he did not want anything innovative to be used in the design of his project because it would slow down the review process and delay the construction permit.
The other was a slender volume from my undergraduate humanities course that I still have in my personal library. (Interestingly, I would never have taken [that course] had it not been a required part of my curriculum.) The volume is The Prince, by Níccoló Machíavellí, written in 1513. He writes:
“… nothing [is] more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones. The hesitation of the latter arises in part from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws on their side, and in part from the general skepticism of mankind which does not really believe in an innovation until experience proves its value. So it happens that whenever … enemies have occasion to attack… they do so with the passion of partisans while the others defend… sluggishly so that the innovator and [supporters] are alike vulnerable.” (Chapter VI, Of New Monarchies Acquired by One’s Own Arms and Ability)
It occurs to me that the way engineering services have become a commodity is simultaneously solidified by those in regulatory agencies who check designs against standard solutions and by owners selecting engineering design firms on the basis of low bid, assuming that all firms are equally qualified to provide standard designs. The precedent of low-bid standard designs guides capital-project budgeting and stifles innovation.
What do you think: Are “standard designs” sustainable or do they stifle needed innovation?