Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Planning infrastructure to meet specific goals and needs, and not in terms of specific technology solutions 4

Posted in UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on September 4, 2014

This is my fourth installment to a series on infrastructure development in an international context, and on building the right infrastructure systems for the contexts they would be developed for (see United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID), postings 25 and following for Parts 1-3.)

I began this series with a brief discussion of three large scale development or redevelopment infrastructure projects, focusing in each case on how unexpected consequences developed from them. The first two focused on unexpected negative outcomes, and the third on serendipitous positive side effect outcomes. See:

Part 1 with its discussion of artesian well development as an attempt to green the desert of the Sahel in Sub-Saharan Africa,
Part 2 and the construction of a continent spanning highway, and
• The reconstruction of the City of London after the Great Fire of September, 1666 as briefly discussed in Part 3.

I said at the end of Part 3 that I would at least begin a more general discussion here, on how to plan for more stable and predictable infrastructure development, where that means limiting sources of surprise and managing their severity of impact where they do unexpectedly arise, and negatively so. I add that this also means more systematically understanding and building for possible positive outcomes too: positive side effects and side benefits included. And in anticipation of this posting and as a foretaste of what I would address here, I added that this, at least in part means:

1. Taking a wider-angled preparatory look at what is to be done in a project, and at the context of this intended infrastructure development effort,
2. This means thinking through the timing of change and development, and
3. This can mean prototyping and use of other test-case and first generation initiatives before launching a comprehensive infrastructure development program, and looking for actual realized outcomes from them, positive and negative.

I will look into these issues but before doing so, it is necessary to more fully consider the nature of where a development/redevelopment project would start from. And for that I begin with rebuilding after the Great Fire of London.

London was, and I add still is the largest, most important urban center in all of Great Britain. It constitutes the center of British government and holds a central and even defining role in British history and culture, and in the commerce and economy of that nation as well. So when the center of this city burned down, a rapid comprehensive restoration response was imperative. The nomadic people of the Sahel had endured under the water scarcity conditions that prevailed before an attempt was made to tap into underground aquifers and make their more desert climate bloom. This was their normal, and historically so, so a delay and even of decades and more might not have mattered to them, at least in comparison to the consequences that the people of London would have faced with even a brief delay in commencing the rebuilding of their city.

With that timing difference in mind, I would divide infrastructure development/redevelopment challenges into four basic categories, distinguishing categorically between them according to two axes:

• Urgency – a timeframe factor, and
• Novelty – the degree to which a proposed infrastructure project would create disruptively new, for which there is no real precedent, at least for any context that significantly matches that faced here – the type of context that would be directly impacted upon by this project.

|

High Urgency

|

I       |      II

|

— Low ———- Novelty ———- High —

|

III      |      IV

|

Low Urgency

|

The infrastructure development project touched upon in Part 1 of this series would fit into the low urgency, high novelty quadrant of the above graph: quadrant IV. Rebuilding the center of London, as cited in Part 3 would fit the high urgency, low novelty scenario of quadrant I. I note here in that regard that reorganizing the street pattern in this reconstruction and redesigning water availability systems, to the extent that infrastructure upgrades of these types were made, followed best practices for urban planning and development that had been developed after the initial building of that urban area and that had been tested and validated in real world settings, so even there, novelty was not necessarily a core issue.

• An increase in urgency, reducing the maximum amount of time available for planning and for preliminary evaluation of impact and consequences, increases risk that adverse consequences will arise.
• An increase in novelty, and in developing infrastructure using solutions and approaches for which there are few or no best practices precedents to build from, at least for the types of context that this work would be done in, increases risk too.

The first of these two bullet points addresses the issue of maximum level and quality of due diligence that can be carried out prior to making development and implementation commitments. If there is time available for due diligence but it is not adequately used and necessary impact studies are not performed, this avoidably increases risk too.

The question this raises is one of how much due diligence is good and effective and how much is simply delay and even stalling. What types of impact studies should be done and with what levels of depth and thoroughness? The question here is one of how to evaluate and understand potential consequences in advance, so as to forestall avoidable negative complications at least, from developing.

So far, I have touched upon the issues of taking a wider-angled preparatory look, as noted in my first numbered point listed towards the top of this posting. I have also delved in at least some detail into the issues of timing, as noted in the second of those numbered points. I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will revisit the first of those points. And I will focus in some detail on the third of them and on prototyping and other due diligence tools, and on when they can and cannot be deployed. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID).

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