What COVID-19 Has Taught Us About Our Infrastructure

April 14, 2020

Brad Allenby, Ph.D., Aff.M.ASCE, Mikhail V. Chester, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE, and Thaddeus Miller, Ph.D., are engineers, professors and groundbreaking researchers at Arizona State University. In today’s Member Voice article, they write about how the COVID-19 pandemic has already taught us important lessons about adapting and transforming our infrastructure systems.

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The rapid progression of COVID-19 is revealing challenges for infrastructure as the institutions that manage and deliver critical and basic services are having to respond to changes in demand and new operating conditions.

Unlike other hazards (such as climate change extreme events, terrorist attacks and deterioration due to neglected maintenance), the assets themselves are (so far) OK. What has been compromised are assumptions about the efficiency of meeting service demands given a set of stable and rigid operating boundaries.

COVID-19 has revealed the tradeoffs between designing systems for efficiency under assumptions of stability, and resiliency. Spotlights have been shone on infrastructure and this dynamic.

Some infrastructure is both critical and appropriately resilient, such as how Zoom has managed to scale operations. Some systems appear inefficient but have some elements of resilience (such as universities and businesses that were able to move mission-critical activities online while allowing buildings to sit idle). Some systems appear unable to cope with drastic reductions in demand (e.g., airlines, airports and the cruise industry), showing their inability to scale operations quickly. We see some infrastructure become even more critical and highlighted (e.g., grocery stores, shipping, and supply chains) while others become less important (e.g., office buildings).

As COVID-19 continues over the next year, we will likely see new infrastructure effects emerge. The pandemic presents opportunities to restructure how we design, govern and educate for a future that will probably see ever more shocks on our systems.

COVID-19 is revealing how prepared our infrastructure is for making sense of rapidly changing conditions and adapting to meet these demands. While power and water demand have likely changed by a manageable amount, personal mobility has plummeted and internet use (particularly videoconferencing and telework applications) is skyrocketing.

The implications have so far been described indirectly, such as through the financial struggles of transit agencies and the cyberattacks on videoconferences. The direct implications must be recognized, that our systems are designed with technologies and governance processes that emphasize rigidity and the hedging of risks over long time periods under assumptions of relatively stable (or predictable) demand. Long has the Anthropocene community described the many variables that are accelerating, creating additional complexity within human-built systems, and those increasing the uncertainty that will characterize the future. However, many of our basic and critical services remain built on principles that emphasize the opposite, stability and predictability, and COVID-19 shows just how dangerous these principles can be.

“As COVID-19 continues over the next year, we will likely see new infrastructure effects emerge. The pandemic presents opportunities to restructure how we design, govern and educate for a future that will probably see ever more shocks on our systems.”

Agility and flexibility for adaptation

The agility and flexibility of our infrastructure systems in their response to COVID-19 have been laid bare, revealing our ability (or lack thereof) to adapt to shocks and complex hazards. In the context of infrastructure we define agility as the capabilities needed to change physical structures and governing processes to adapt and transform infrastructure services in time as environments change. We define flexibility as the capabilities needed to meet changing demands in the face of both predictable and unpredictable events. Agility and flexibility are preconditions for adaptation and transformation, properties that make systems resilient.

So why are some infrastructures seemingly better able to cope with the resulting shocks of the pandemic than others? Such systems are able to make sense of how the environment is changing, recognize the inherent complexity, and adjust their processes and even physical assets at least as fast as the pandemic unfolds.

The resilience of our infrastructure systems is the result of the principles by which we design and operate our physical assets, manage and govern, and educate, and the capabilities they enable. Whereas in the past we’ve prioritized efficiency under assumptions of stability, this model appears to be problematic and potentially untenable in conditions of increasing complexity and instability.

The pandemic should serve as a harbinger of things to come, and produce structural, governance and education changes to be able to navigate through complexity. The core hardware, technologies and configurations should be designed for multifunctionality, scalability, redundancy and even failure. Infrastructures governing institutions should rethink their traditional divisional bureaucratic forms in favor of cross-disciplinary and more nimble teams that are better suited for the complex problems we’ll face in the future.

Universities and training should embrace capabilities that emphasize taming wicked problems, sustained adaptation, managing cyberphysical systems, and social-ecological-technological systems thinking. Foremost, we must empower our infrastructure agencies with the abilities to make sense of a world that is moving faster and faster, increasingly complex and increasingly uncertain. Infrastructure systems should be remodeled as knowledge management and innovation systems.

“The agility and flexibility of our infrastructure systems in their response to COVID-19 have been laid bare, revealing our ability (or lack thereof) to adapt to shocks and complex hazards.”

Knowledge and innovation

This pandemic highlights the critical need to move beyond infrastructure and resilience as just the built, and the importance of how these institutions gather, share and utilize knowledge. Infrastructure systems are indeed knowledge producers. But their ability to generate knowledge is largely rooted in the goals of last century, providing services in a relatively stable context. Where efficiencies could be gained from, say, new technologies they were implemented, often in the name of providing the service at lower cost.

In the Anthropocene epoch, knowledge will need to be generated and analyzed differently, faster, and in larger quantities, and innovation will need to shift to adapting and transforming services in increasingly complex environments. COVID-19 has shown just how important this is. It is forcing infrastructure agencies to learn on the fly with little to no support. And they’re having to do so while stretched thin as their greatest resource, people, are asked to distance themselves and work from home.

With both COVID-19 and larger issues of the Anthropocene, complexity and uncertainty are the norm. New knowledge or more complex models will not reduce uncertainty to traditionally acceptable levels. Institutions that manage and maintain infrastructure must adapt to make sense of complexity and uncertainty by being adaptable. This involves people and processes with the tools and organizational structures to respond quickly. Organizations that were able to make sense of the pandemic are probably more likely to weather the chaos and possibly even thrive during it. Studies will examine how shippers and videoconferencing services were able to expand capacity during a crisis, and how some industries were able to retool seemingly overnight to provide critical services.

While hardware capabilities will be part of the story, they will be preceded by organizational structures that support cultures of sense-making and planning for unknown unknowns. They are likely to have invested in resilience (money, time and expertise), recognizing that some inefficiencies in redundancy were needed to ensure that they could weather a storm.

“The pandemic should serve as a harbinger of things to come, and produce structural, governance and education changes to be able to navigate through complexity.”

Conclusion

The current pandemic has brought into frightening focus the need to find new ways to assess, analyze and manage the relationship between short-term efficiencies and longer-term press and pulse events. If we take this seriously, then resilience as a concept will have to recognize that our social, ecological and human-built systems are coupled and that maintaining the viability of infrastructure services in an increasingly complex world requires working across the three domains.

We must also recognize that the infrastructure systems we’ve relied on for decades, and have locked into certain design, operational and financing principles, tend to push us to a norm that may have been efficient in the past but is increasingly problematic into the future. Embracing this complexity and resilience principles will result in inefficiencies in the short term but will make us more agile and flexible to future shocks. Efficiency is optimizing to current conditions, and resilience is buying adaptive capability to conditions that, by definition, don’t exist yet.

Thus, efficiency and resilience are, at heart, foundationally opposed to each other. This suggests two principles: 1) knowing that efficiency, driven by competition, will constantly drive resilience below what is socially optimal implies a market failure which, in turn, implies the need for institutional corrections; and 2) learning how to invest in resilience efficiently becomes a necessary skill.

COVID-19 is giving us a glimpse of the growing complexity in which our infrastructure systems will need to remain viable. Infrastructure managers should study how the pandemic affected not only the ability to deliver services but more importantly what competencies successful organizations employed to remain agile and flexible during the crisis.

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Brad Allenby, Ph.D., Aff.M.ASCE, is the president’s professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, and of law; Lincoln professor of technology and ethics; senior sustainability scientist; and co-chair of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative of the Center for the Future of War at Arizona State University. He entered academia after a 20-year career as senior environmental counsel, research vice president for technology and environment, and environment, health and safety vice president for AT&T.

Mikhail V. Chester, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE, is an associate professor for the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, and director of Arizona State University’s Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering. His work spans climate adaptation, disruptive technologies, innovative financing, transitions to agility and flexibility, and modernization of infrastructure management. He is co-lead of the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, composed of 19 institutions and 250 researchers across the Americas, focused on developing innovative infrastructure solutions for extreme events. He was awarded ASCE’s early career researcher Huber Prize in 2017.

Thaddeus Miller is an associate professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Polytechnic School, and co-director of the Center for Smart Cities and Regions at Arizona State University. He collaborates with interdisciplinary teams of researchers and practitioners to enable cities to leverage science and technology to meet policy goals and community needs. He is on the executive management team for the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network. His most recent book, Reconstructing Sustainability Science: Knowledge and Action for a Sustainable Future, examines how scientists can link knowledge to social action.

2 Comments
  • It is time to develop innovative technology to meet the demand of current situation. We as civil engineers to get into fast track community serving activities how military engineers are trained for crisis and disaster management

  • LET’S NOT consider developing and approving an Infrastructure Bill (now assumed at $2+T) unless and until State DOTs and others (Counties, Transit, Authorities) who want to replace presumed “deficient” bridges with this funding first use a proven, commercial technology to objectively and accurately assess bridge structural condition. Twenty years ago, the FHWA published a study on the efficacy of visual inspection, which has been used in the US for nearly 50 years as the sole determinant of structural condition. That study showed the visual inspection process to be “subjective”, “highly variable” and “incapable of optimizing spending” for bridges. For nearly 20 years, a technology called “structural monitoring” has been available to objectively and accurately assess structural condition, concluding that nearly 50% of bridges evaluated were in better to much better condition than visual inspection presumed. In addition, over 70% of load restricted bridges (mostly located in rural locations) subjected to simple load testing using technology had their restrictions significantly relaxed or removed all together. These proven results have enormous implications to save funds in an Infrastructure Bill by not replacing bridges that have additional safe remaining service life. The financial impact would amount to BILLIONS of dollars that can be used for higher priority projects (my firm has helped our customers safely defer over $500 million in unnecessary spending). Approximately 1/2 of State DOTs have successfully piloted this technology, but they are not pursuing aggressive long-term programs to use the technology across their States, which is the only way the US can save enormous amounts of funding by safely extending the service life of bridges. The FHWA, AASHTO, and TRB employees and participants are all aware of this technology (offered by many firms) and can support this comment. Substantially more information is available from this author, our company website (www.lifespantechnologies.com) or numerous published papers and articles.

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