Infrastructure in the age of supercells

Photo "An electricity storm in Twin Peaks" courtesy of the Emil Jarfelt

Thaddeus Miller–Assistant Professor, Arizona State University–discusses the infrastructure crossroads facing the United States.

Gridium: Hello everyone, and welcome to this conversation with Thad Miller, Assistant Professor, Arizona State University where we’ll discuss the infrastructure crossroads facing the United States.

And this is more than just the reinforced concrete that knits our nation together. It’s the social, ecological and institutional issues—the rules, norms, knowledge and standards that are inputs into the design, maintenance and management of these precious physical assets. Thad also has some sharp ideas on what’s needed to get us headed down the right path.

My name is Millen and I’m with Gridium. Buildings use our software to fine-tune operations.

Thad, your piece in ISSUES in Science and Technology Magazine magazine is as alarming as it is well-researched. And of course, your entry in The Conversation—republished by Popular Mechanics and others—was good, and I don’t just say that because you included some work I’ve done analyzing some deferred maintenance backlogs in the United States of Maintenance.

It’s great to be speaking with you today. Thanks for joining us, Thad.

Thad: Thanks for having me.

Gridium: You teach as ASU’s School of the Future of Innovation and Society. Can you tell me more about the nature of this school?

Thad: Sure! So, it’s a new school. It’s only been around for a couple of years now and the idea is that science, technology and innovation shape our personal lives and shape our world in all sorts of ways. And that certainly seems to be increasing as we move through time and it shapes our lives in ways that are positive, but also in ways that some would think of as negative. And as we look to the future, we think the effect of science and technology on our lives will be even greater, whether you’re talking about editing genes, whether you’re talking about autonomous vehicles or self-driving cars on the road, or artificial intelligence and how that will affect the labor force. But there aren’t really schools that are dedicated to thinking about that future and how we can direct science and technology and innovation in ways that actually help us create the future we want. There’s certainly engineers and scientists who are doing that innovation, but they aren’t always thinking about the social/ecological impacts or the ethical issues involved in that.

And so, that’s what we do. We’re a group of faculty and students from technical backgrounds, from social science and policy backgrounds—even from the arts and humanities—who work with technical experts in research or in the real world to think about what sort of technologies we’re creating and how we might do so in ways that will hopefully be better for everyone.

Gridium: That’s awesome. And it’s good to know and it’s a little bit assuring to know that there is a school thinking about that interplay between technology in the future and the ethical and philosophical impacts that a lot of this technology will have on the planet and on society. That’s really cool.

Thad: Thanks, yeah. It’s an exciting place to be, especially as we sort of try and figure out what it all means.

Gridium: How did you get interested in infrastructure?

Thad: So, I’ve been interested in sustainability and urban sustainability for some time. I actually got my PhD in Sustainability at Arizona State University. And then I was a faculty member at Portland State University in Urban Studies and Planning in Portland, Oregon. And when you think of Portland, Oregon you think of you know, it’s the most sustainable city in the United States, at least—or that’s how it’s billed. And it’s certainly doing a lot of innovative things in that space. And I began to get interested in well, what are the different ways that sustainable infrastructure whether it’s bike lanes or energy for infrastructure… how is that built and how is it contested in different ways? Can people, can groups actually disagree about what sustainability is and how it should get designed into our cities?

And so that’s where I began to think about it over some contests over transportation infrastructure and bike lanes in Portland that I’ve written about. But then that expanded out as more how do we actually work with cities and with interdisciplinary groups of researchers to think about how our infrastructure is built and what vulnerabilities we may be creating and how that might fail. But also, sort of more importantly, how we can build them to be more sustainable and resilient whether it’s with regard to climate change or to ecological values and changing social issues.

Gridium: I see. And your paper in the Issues magazine is titled “Infrastructure for a Stormy Future” We’ve had some devastating weather events in this country in 2016 and in 2017. Which ones stand out to you the most?

Thad: Well, I think certainly in terms of headlines, you’d have to think of the hurricanes, but in particular Maria. I have one of my close collaborators that was on that paper you just mentioned, in Issues: Tischa Munoz-Erickson is from Puerto Rico and still does a lot of work there. And San Juan, Puerto Rico is one of the cities in our Urban Resilience research project that I’m happy to talk more about later.

But certainly Maria is a standout for me, especially the sort of long repercussions that are coming up from that with—I forget what the latest numbers are, but it’s something like they’ve only restored power to about 60% of the population by this point. And some of that, sort of worrying kind of articles that continue to come out that are about some of the, not only human health, but sort of mental health impacts of that sort of devastation and disruption of not just the infrastructure, but of daily lives and routines. So, that certainly would be a standout.

But I think also more broadly, whether you look at the heat or the rainfall in the west in 2017, or then the hurricanes this past fall, that one of the things that seems to be changing in terms of how the media is covering it and how people are talking about it, is they are beginning to talk about the more systemic vulnerabilities. I think you’re seeing a shift that it’s not just an excuse that, “Oh, that was a natural disaster. There’s nothing we could have done.” Instead, there’s articles that are written about Harvey, for example, with Houston—that part of the contribution to that was legacy of land use planning and land use change that really made the impact of that rainfall worse than it perhaps could have been. So, I think that’s another sort of standout for me about some of these recent events.

Gridium: We’ve had some of these terrible weather events—that’s not debatable. What does the data show about whether or not our physical infrastructure assets can weather these events?

Thad: I think that’s highly contextual in that it depends on which infrastructure you’re talking about and where you’re talking about and when it was built and to what standard.

But I think on the one hand, after writing this piece what we maybe weren’t clear about is that to some degree, it’s kind of spectacular that some of our infrastructure operates as well as it does, right? We’re not having dam failures every time there’s a large rainfall, for example. Or you know, our energy infrastructure is able to weather extreme events of various types. So, on the one hand, it does perform remarkably well in a lot of instances, until it doesn’t, right? And then there’s no backup often, right?

And that’s I think one of the points we’re making in that piece. This sort of what we call “failsafe”, that is building infrastructure: for example, think of a levy. You build it to withstand a certain level of event, but then if you overtop that levy, you’re in trouble. There’s kind of no backup plan and it floods into New Orleans, for example.

And so, with a rapidly changing world in terms of climate… but then also, as we build cities or build new infrastructure, it’s not just the climate that’s changing but that landscape and those land use patterns are changing too, which creates vulnerabilities that are difficult to really predict and get a handle on. And so, if we do think that there’s this complexity that we’re helping to build and that we’re also generating with climate change, how can we make sure that we’re able to build infrastructure that can sort of be adaptable or flexible to that complexity.

And so then you’re not relying on your prediction of a certain level of risk that yes, you’re still going to have to try to make some predictions; but that if it does fail, how are you going to make it so that it’s safe-to-fail, so that you’re giving, for instance, one of the—what they’re doing in the Netherlands: giving the river room, rather than saying, “No, we’re going to try to tighten this into the levy system that we think has the appropriate level of risk.” And so, I think it’s really about changing some of those assumptions about how to think about risk and infrastructure.

Gridium: How else should we think about spending on a new infrastructure project compared to spending on maintaining an existing asset?

Thad: So, I think you know, what’s been interesting and you mentioned it in your intro with the United States of Maintenance that there is this increasing push to get—often, when you… to the extent that people think about infrastructure at all, right, it’s usually when it fails, and then you start to think about it.

The other time people might think about infrastructure is when some politician—whether it be at the national level or at the city level—says they’re going to deliver some new infrastructure package, right? And the way you get political buy-in from that and get the headlines is when you’re building new stuff, right? The fancy new bridge or dam or whatever.

That sort of daily maintenance that folks do—for example, on the New York City subway: the Metropolitan Transit Authority—isn’t all that glorious, right? But really, that’s where the data shows that you’re going to get the biggest bang for your buck. And I know I’ve been seeing articles recently coming out of New York over the last year or so just about massive wait times that only get worse when it’s hot out. And yes, that’s partly needing a new capacity, but it also has to do with the maintenance of existing capacity as well. So, I think that’s where a lot of the conversations are heading and hopefully will impact how city states and nations spend.

Gridium: Speaking of New York, in 1930, Robert Moses added 22-miles of detour to the Northern State Parkway to appease some wealthy landowners on Long Island. That economic cost is carried to this day by commuters and extra traffic. Do you have a least-favorite infrastructure project?

Thad: I don’t know. I’m from Long Island actually, so maybe it should be that. And The Southern State Parkway, where I grew up off of isn’t a pleasure either. So, that could be it. But I think more generally, I would say I’ve been thinking a lot about highways recently because I’m doing some work here in the Phoenix area on self-driving cars—which are on the road.

And so, I think my least-favorite infrastructure projects would have to be the over-built highways in many of the sort of sunbelt cities that make it very difficult as cities are realizing that, “Oh wait, people want to walk around and get around and live in more urban areas.” And when you have these massive highways and streets dividing everything up, it makes it very difficult.

Gridium: I’m from New Mexico, so I have an idea of what you mean. You write about a failure of confidence at the intersection of nature and technological systems. What did you mean there?

Thad: So, what I mean and why I love that McPhee piece—which I’ll plug again. John McPhee wrote this excellent essay in the New Yorker entitled “Atchafalaya” which then was one of his essays in a book called The Control of Nature. And it’s really about the sort of hubris that humans can have in the ability of technology and their designs to control complex systems.

This story of the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi River is that the Mississippi River has historically in the Atchafalaya Systems, if you sort of talk to a hydrologist or a geologist will tell you that those systems will meander over time and that move, and therefore the Mississippi Delta has moved over time. And the sort of fundamental long-term force of nature, but yet based on 50-years of data, we think we can control it down to the cubic-feet flow that we’re going to have this much flow that way.

And you know, you can just picture sort of an engineering diagram in front of you that would have boxes and arrows and precise numbers about what’s going to happen. And the remarkable thing is that, often as I said before, we can do pretty well. But over time, what are the repercussions and over time how well can we actually control it, when we do think more long-term. And so, when you think about something like Hurricane Katrina, you see some of the repercussions of that mindset—not to mention, issues around equity of justice.

Gridium: It wasn’t until I read your paper did I think about infrastructure representing more than steel, concrete and electric cables. How do you describe the softer side of infrastructure?

Thad: Right. Yeah, so, this comes, I think, from… I’m a sort of interdisciplinary social scientist by training, and so it’s not often maybe that social scientists think about infrastructure.

But certainly that’s changing and there’s folks from anthropology to geography that are doing a lot of work on it at this point because you’re default mindset goes to, “Oh, infrastructure is something I’m going to drive my car on.” It’s a technical thing, it’s a built “thing” that engineers do. And that is true, but engineers also happen to be people that are trained in certain ways that exist within certain organizations that make decisions in certain ways and set standards according to assumptions about a risk level or what sort of populations are going to be changing. That is all to say that these are social systems all the way through as well, and that it is those organizations or institutions that are making decisions about how to design and build and maintain infrastructure for certain populations. And so, it’s social in that way.

And then it’s social in the way that we are interacting with infrastructure all the time, and often we do so without even thinking about it because those norms and routines are so embedded in our daily life and the community we live in that you often don’t really notice infrastructure until you travel, right. One of the things, at least when I travel, whether it’s to countries with the same level of infrastructure services or places where having power all the time is more unpredictable… it is those infrastructure changes you almost notice most when travelling because your daily routines and expectations have to change. And so that’s another piece of that social element.

Gridium: You mentioned this briefly earlier in our talk so far, and I want to circle back to it: the distinction and difference between a failsafe and safe-to-fail.

Thad: So, yeah, this is something that we’re working on with engineers as well and Mikhail Chester, who was one of the co-authors on the Issues piece has done a lot on this and he’s an engineer here at ASU.

And yeah, I think if you think about a lot of our infrastructure—the example I like to think of is, think of the Los Angeles River in LA, or really any river in Los Angeles… and think of the scene in Terminator 2 where T2 is chasing, I think it’s John Connor on a motorbike down the concretized channel, right? That concretized channel is actually—was a river.

And the Army Corps of engineers throughout the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s decided that the best way to control that natural resource or the unpredictability of flooding was to concretize that channel so that it didn’t overflow those bounds. And so that’s a fail safe approach that you’re saying, “This is how we’re going to control this piece. We’re not going to let it overtop that bound to flood the accompanying lands or neighborhoods or whatever.”

And while this hasn’t happened in LA, I think to my knowledge at least in any sort of huge way of overtopping that, it has happened in other cities, right? And so when the river does flow outside those bounds, like it’s going to go directly into your downtown or onto your streets or whatever—there’s sort of no backup plan if that original design doesn’t hold the event where you thought it was going to.

Whereas a safe-to-fail design and the example we talked about in the article you mentioned, would allow it to basically flood or “fail”, although it’s not really failing. So, there’s an example here in Scottsdale, just north of the ASU campus, called Indian Bend Wash where the neighborhood’s actually fought the army corp of engineers and they—I think it was the 60s and 70s—to say, “No, we don’t want you to concretize that because that provides no other amenities.” So, there’s an element of what sort of services you want to provide here too, because a concretized channel, really… it’s a disamenity. No one wants to hang out on that river, right? Whereas instead, here they’ve created a miles-long greenway that has golf courses and bikeways and playgrounds that from time to time does flood, but there’s not… it doesn’t flood into the neighbourhoods. It doesn’t really affect traffic because it’s sort of designed to spread out along its original flood plain.

Gridium: Is this to say that a failsafe system is an anachronistic system?

Thad: You know, I think… and that’s something we’re thinking about now. I

think again, it depends on the situation because there may be… there probably are instances where historically you can’t really… you don’t want to allow downtown Manhattan to flood, for example. And so, you’re already left with the choice of a failsafe approach. Or there may be other instances where it’s too costly to sort of even think about safe-to-fail.

But I think, to the extent we can—so the extent that as we think about new infrastructure projects or transforming old ones, that that safe-to-fail has to become one of the options we think about. Whereas in the past that really wasn’t the way that a lot of engineers or city bureaus or regional or state actors would approach that because no one wants to hear that, “Oh, we’re going to let this system flood” or anything. And so, the way you talk about risk is different.

Gridium: Knowledge systems get short shrift in the press. And as I understand it from reading your work, a deficit in knowledge transfer was evident during Katrina. Also Phoenix and Houston. What happened there and what are some of the details around the “deficit of knowledge systems?”

Thad: Yeah, I would say, part of it is maybe deficit or transfer. But I think with knowledge systems, what we really mean is that when we see failures of extreme events and you can talk whether it’s a nuclear power plant or something related to extreme weather… when you’re talking about failure and technological systems or infrastructure systems, whether they’re related to climate weather or not, it often goes to, “Oh, we could have never predicted that. We never would have known.”

Or it gets, “Oh, it was somebody’s fault. It was human error.” And sometimes those things are true, but I think when you look at some of the details of failures, it’s often in the case that the knowledge systems failed—that is, the ways in which the organizations that are charged with managing, maintaining and building whatever the infrastructure or system is in question, and the way that they generate knowledge about that system and about the potential risks and vulnerabilities, the way they share and acquire that knowledge—there is a gap and something went wrong there.

And so, with Katrina there’s an excellent report that I would refer you to by the American Society for Civil Engineers about what went wrong and why in Katrina. And they actually point—they don’t call it as such, but it’s basically a knowledge failure in that there was knowledge that those levies in question would fail, given the certain strength of storm. But that knowledge was not utilized—obviously.

Also in part, because of the institution, the Hurricane Protection System wasn’t powerful and didn’t have the resources enough to make those changes and to act on them. And so it’s really a sort of knowledge, system and institutional failure, not just a failure of the engineer didn’t do a good job. Or the technical system was weak. Yes it was weak, but it can’t get explained away by just that. You have to sort of really look at how the social or organizational system was organized around it.

Gridium: Yeah.

I have to say, it was so good to see your piece in ISSUES magazine end with some proactive ideas around what we need to do. So, I’ve got to ask Thad, now what?

Thad: (Laughs) Well, so some of the ideas we point to in that are related to some of the things we’ve talked about already that yes, obviously cities or other institutions are going to have to focus on the risks to their communities, but sometimes that risk-based approach can actually inhibit the ability to think about more resilience-based approaches.

And so a lot of cities right now are dealing with some fundamental things like, “What sorts of precipitation events or storms should their storm water system be able to handle?” But, how that’s typically done is a risk-based approach that looks at retrospective data of the past 10-years, for instance, of precipitation events.

Well, there’s two problems with that: if we think climate change is happening, we know the last 10 years are not going to be like the next 10 years, and certainly not like the next 50 years, right? And so the decisions we make on that, based on retrospective data—that’s somewhat faulty. Those systems once they go into the ground are also long-lasting. So, you’re also creating a legacy that’s based on retrospective data that we know certainly is going to change over the next 50 years. And so, there needs to be some way to shift to that more prospective and resilience-based approach.

And then we’ve already talked about it, so I won’t go over more—in the piece we also talk about the need for these organizations to think about how they’re organizing their knowledge systems. And a key part of that—and the third point—is that the extreme weather events and both the infrastructure systems don’t fit neatly into categories, right? So, typically the way it works in cities, is you know… The Transportation Bureau deals with the transportation infrastructure, The Water Bureau deals with water, The Storm Water deals with the storm water, right?

But if we know that these systems, as we talk about in the article, are increasingly interdependent: water effects energy, transportation of storm water interlinked… how can you make sure that those organizations are actually coordinating to think about resilience or maybe even thinking of new sorts of institutions that are designed to facilitate that integration and coordination.

I think those are some of the things we want to look at is start sort of shifting from looking at failures to looking at innovations and where cities around the world and infrastructure systems around the world are beginning to get it right and beginning to think in new ways. And then what can we learn from some of those first movers.

Gridium: Okay. And what are you working on now?

Thad: Well, I guess we should talk about where a lot of this work is coming from in the first place, which we didn’t really talk about in the piece. And so, my coauthors and I are a part of the leadership team of this large urban resilience to extremes/sustainability research network—or the Urban Resilience SRN—which is funded by the US National Science Foundation.

It is a five-year project that we’re sort of right in the middle of. And we are looking at urban resilience across 9 cities in the US and Latin America. And the sort of, two things that are most exciting about that real quick are: 1) that it’s a very interdisciplinary crowd. And so, as I mentioned, I’m a social scientist. Tischa Munoz-Erickson, one of the coauthors is a social scientist, but based in the US Fire Service, so kind of also a practitioner. And then Mikhail Chester is an engineer. And then we have ecologists on our team, so we’re very interdisciplinary. And then the second exciting thing is that we’re also working with practitioner partners across those 9 cities. So, we don’t want to just sort of understand things, we want to help support and advance resilience in cities.

Gridium: Right on.

Well, thank you Thad for speaking with us today. Your work shows that there’s so much to think about here. And for more information, we’ll provide a link to your Issues piece and also a link to the SRN network.

Thad: Yes, definitely.

Gridium: Cool. Well, thanks again Thad for speaking with us today. This was really interesting and we appreciate the time.

Thad: Great. Thank you for having me! It was fun.

About Millen Paschich

Millen began his career at Cambridge Associates, trained in finance at SMU, and has an MBA from UCLA. Talk to him about bicycling, business, and green chile burritos.

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