This is a guest blog by Mike Burns, PE, PgMP, DBIA
Last month we discussed How AEC Professionals Can Approach Their Roles as Integrators. This role is critical as communities across the globe cautiously move from healthcare pandemic responses to economic recovery. In the United States, our rapidly evolving monetary and fiscal response has a significant infrastructure investment component, including the Federal Reserves’ Municipal Liquidity Facility, the CARES Act, and pending action in Congress as recent headlines note (e.g., House approves $1.5T plan to fix crumbling infrastructure). In our inherently complex industry, we must build on our integrator role to expose and promote local wins aligned to broader policy objectives.
The Legislative Outline for Infrastructure in America , developed with inputs from across the political spectrum, frames our policy emphasis:
- Infrastructure grants providing capital for a wide range of asset classes, with a focus on transportation, water, healthcare, and broadband
- Rural infrastructure incentives, which include our first nation communities, promoting a partnering approach to spur prosperous local economic environments
- Finance programs broadening access to TIFIA, RRIF, WIFIA, and RUS, with greater access to private activity bonds and the associated tax benefits
- Streamlined property disposition approach, intending to “improve the allocation of economic resources”
- Transformational project programs seeking to “fundamentally transform the way infrastructure is delivered and operated”
As our communities and businesses work diligently to understand how their share of these investments can be captured, we must concurrently consider near-term pragmatic goals and long-term aspirational outcomes. To do so successfully, we must empathetically listen to today’s policy environment, as COVID19 shines an ever-brighter light on income inequality, Black Lives Matter, and other erosive social issues. As we listen, it is apparent that sustainable economic recovery requires a balance of asset-centric investments with comprehensive community solutions. Our ability to rapidly progress these goals necessitates our consideration of industry headwinds, existing frameworks, and outside-the-box concepts.
As with any apparently unwieldy problem, swaying between inspiration and angst, I seek guidance from those smarter than me. My role as an integrator this month is to share some of my favorite resources with you. My request is that you share your successes and challenges as we leverage physical and social infrastructure programs to improve inclusion and diversity in our communities.
CG/LA is an excellent resource for infrastructure policy and investment thought leadership. I was particularly intrigued by their recent “infrastructure” brand survey.
A Brilliant Question: How Does the Public View “Infrastructure” as a Brand?
Yikes — be careful what you ask for! Ninety-one percent of respondents see infrastructure as an average or weak brand. One respondent stated, “Infrastructure projects are pathologically over cost, over schedule, and subjects of fraud, waste, and abuse.” As someone who is often frustrated by the limited media coverage on infrastructure as an economic enabler, these survey results are concerning. It’s particularly concerning when you consider the previously mentioned federal government objective to “improve the allocation of economic resources” as we “fundamentally transform the way infrastructure is delivered and operated.” Our ability to improve infrastructure as a brand starts locally, requiring a commitment to messaging our success, challenges, and the commensurate community benefits.
Like CG/LA, AIAA-Infra provides an excellent forum to explore infrastructure delivery challenges and successes. With an emphasis on public-private partnerships (P3), their conferences, webinars, and workshops provide a nice balance between mega-infrastructure investment partnerships and local governments’ leveraging a master developer approach to solve sticky problems. I am particularly excited about their work promoting Transit-Oriented Development (ToD) success stories. Projects that truly “improve the allocation of economic resources,” leveraging public land and property to revitalize educational, housing, and employment assets. These win-win scenarios work where the new development incubates broader community revitalization, allowing the transit agency to naturally capture ridership revenue.
Moving toward what some see as outside-the-box thinking, let’s explore compelling perspectives from our economic colleagues, Kate Raworth and Stephanie Kelton. Ms. Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics” starts by debunking the value of a simplistic economic man and stunted indicators like the gross domestic product. Her policy approach promotes the development of a balanced set of socio-economic well-being indicators for adaptive program implementation.
Ms. Kelton’s “Deficit Myth” provides a very accessible explanation of modern monetary Theory (MMT). MMT asks federal governments that issue fiat concurrencies to stop accepting a base level of unemployment to combat phantom inflation. It instead encourages them to align currency issuance with policy objectives, allowing the combination of associated business and household capital balances to drive intended socio-economic outcomes. Particularly compelling perspectives if you believe, as I do, that sustainable infrastructure investments done right can create bottom-up economic activity, diversifying local opportunities.
These complex economic concepts benefit from the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) program, whose success allowed the U.N. to garner international support for their more aspirational Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). At the heart of the SDGs is the concept of Billions to Trillions, which, from my perspective, necessitates a P3 approach, adaptive doughnut KPIs, and an MMT policy perspective. Respecting that the rawness from our current economic decline creates a reasonable degree of skepticism, I encourage you to listen to the TED interview, Christiana Figueres on how we can solve the climate crisis. An optimistic perspective, exposing how open patient dialogues can enable win-win scenarios for our most complex environment challenges, creating a basis for locally customized economic growth.
As my angst wanes, I’d like to conclude with some inspiration from Accelerator for America’s recently released “Community Serving Infrastructure — A Playbook for a New Infrastructure Partnership.” “Our country is hurting. Systemic racial inequality is now, rightfully, at the forefront of our collective attention. This is in addition to COVID-19, which has caused a dual public health and economic crisis that disproportionately impacts the Black community. America’s mayors see this up-close. As the government looks to make long-term investments and changes to confront systemic inequality and promote sustainable economic recovery, this effort recognizes that our nation’s physical infrastructure is not only relevant, but essential.”
Always championing continuous education, I’ll end with poignant wisdom from Harvard Kennedy School Professor Matt Andrews, who noted at the end of a recent Implementing Public Policy session that “leadership is taking risk to promote something you care about.” We need passionate leaders in the infrastructure space. Please take risks, expose challenges, empathetically listen, and celebrate incremental success!
About the Author Mike Burns PE, PgMP, DBIA
Mike’s 27-year career has included planning, design, construction, and finance roles across a broad set of public and private development projects. His empathetic leadership style and program management experiences honed his understanding of complex governance and economic models, deepening his enthusiasm for leading teams delivering sustainable infrastructure in our communities.You can learn more about Mike here.
“Policy Objectives Require Main Street Success Stories.”
We would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share about how AEC industry professionals can approach their roles as integrators.
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below.
To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success