Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Planning infrastructure to meet specific goals and needs, and not in terms of specific technology solutions 5

Posted in UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on October 10, 2014

This is my fifth 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 1-4.)

I began to more formally develop an approach for more systematically evaluating and designing, and carrying through upon large scale infrastructure development projects in Part 4, where I introduced a taxonomic approach for classifying these initiatives according to timeframe and novelty criteria, using these as basic due diligence metrics. And in the course of outlining that organizing model I noted a short list of planning approaches and tools that can be effectively employed in this type of effort, which I repeat here with minor rephrasing:

1. Take a wider-angled preparatory look at what is to be done in a project, and with attention paid to 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 began discussing these points in Part 4 of this series with this list’s Point 2 as it directly addresses the classification criteria of the taxonomic model. And at the end of that posting I stated that I would return to this list again here, starting at the top and with Point 1 and that I would work my way through its three points more systematically. And I begin that by posing what might be seen as a basic if admittedly incomplete set of essential due diligence questions with accompanying commentary:

• What positive outcomes would this proposed infrastructure project seek to achieve?

Begin by thinking through and analytically developing your core goals and priorities for this project. Any answer to this first question needs to be as operationally precise and as implementation-oriented as possible, in how it is stated. And it should be quantifiable where possible and with the levels of precision and reliability of any numbers arrived at clearly stated. This is important, any answer to the core question of precisely what you seek to accomplish as a positive outcome needs to be as practically, empirically grounded as possible if it is to offer any real value. Simply stating, for example, that the goal of a project that would tap into and exploit deep aquifer water supplies in a largely desert and semi-desert region, is to “enrich everyone’s lives” is useless. And it can in fact be misleading for how a “focus” at this unfocused a level of intended effect can cloud any decision making processes with emotion. See Part 1 for a brief discussion of a specific case in point example where this type of mistake was in fact made. A more realistic and valuable answer to that case study example would have included at the very least, analyzing how much water could be brought into productive use through these wells, and where and over what productive time span. And this would be benchmarked against both current and anticipatable projections as to new water need as the peoples of this region responded to this newfound resource availability.

• Looking beyond the issues of specific intended goals and their initial consideration priorities, where would this infrastructure development project create and even compel wider change and both directly and through ripple effects?

This is where planning has to be scenario based and with a goal of anticipating possible more predictable outcomes where possible, while building for flexibility for addressing the unexpected too. And at least some significantly unexpected outcomes and side effects always do arise for any large scale infrastructure project of any type.

• What types of negative outcomes or side effects might be expected and with what likelihood, out of this?

The only way to answer a question of that type is to build from a realistic and practically stated and analyzed response to the first two of these bullet pointed questions. If you do not know precisely and in practical terms what you seek to accomplish, and if you have not at least significantly begun to think through possible and likely collateral impact issues that this effort could create you cannot begin to anticipate where things might go wrong in building towards your goals.

And in keeping with the wording of Point 1, above in my numbered list, any such analyses have to be made with open eyes and open minds. Think through the types of expertise that you might need to bring into this planning and development process. If the managers who were hands-on in charge of the water development project of Part 1 had brought in cultural anthropologists and sociologists directly familiar with the peoples of the Sahel and early on in their planning, at least some of the problems that developed from their work might have been avoided.

Too narrow a focus on what you seek to do can be blinding, and that repeatedly validated observation holds for conducting too out of focus a collateral issues and potential complications analysis too. Take a wide-angled but detailed and in-focus approach in all of this and consider how a change in one aspect of a people’s lives, stemming from a major infrastructure development effort can and will radiate out in its impact, influencing and bringing change to their overall society too.

Timing is important here, to return to points raised in Part 4 of this series. The people immediately affected by and changed by an infrastructure development project of the scale that I write of here, are likely to be short-term focused and for both immediate positive outcomes and for any immediate negative complications that this creates for them, and certainly as individuals and as members of locally affected communities. People tend to reach for immediate benefit and to be focused on that, and they tend to focus on immediate problems and challenges that come from these efforts too. They do not generally think in terms of, or see possible longer term emergent problems that might arise and certainly not until they that have begun to actually significantly manifest themselves.

If I were to summarize my Part 1 case study review here, for key transferrable points I would state, at the risk of repetition:

• The problems that arose in my Part 1 case study example did so because my first three bullet-pointed questions as listed and briefly discussed above, were not addressed with anything like the necessary rigor or objective practical focus that was in fact needed.
• And all of these questions and others like them were addressed insofar as they were with way too narrow a focus as to potential range and diversity of impact that might be realized.
• And certainly in retrospect no one involved in making the overall planning decisions there fully considered how the people of the Sahel would use their newfound water wealth or how this would dramatically reshape their cultures and their capacity to respond to any renewed water shortages again.

As a final thought for this posting, I would go back to the bullet pointed questions that I raise here one more time, this time not to consider the questions themselves but rather how the right questions would be determined.

• I posed very general and even generic questions for purposes of this series installment. A detailed, infrastructure project-specific planning analysis would all but certainly begin with these and other equally open-ended and general questions. But if that analysis is carried through effectively, working on and resolving more general questions means identifying and clarifying more specific and focused questions too.
• This preliminary project analysis is in large part a matter of learning which very specific and focused questions you need to ask and find workable resolutions to. Note that I did not say “answers” there as only some questions are so operationally constrained that they can only allow for one precise working resolution. This is about finding ways to deal with and resolve the issues raised in these project-specific questions that collectively would lead to favorable long-term infrastructure solutions.
• And in this, questions that begin with understanding context, issues, challenges and options and with understanding the project as a whole, give way to questions that focus specifically on how to hands-on carry out this infrastructure project in light of that understanding. And the questions needed here become more and more precise and project-context specific too.

And this brings me to numbered Point 3 from the list of basic due diligence process steps that I started this posting with, and prototyping and the use of similar development approaches. I will turn to that in my next series installment where I will discuss what prototyping is and how it might offer value. I will also discuss staged development, which might or might not mean localized or single site test development. And I will discuss how these and similar approaches might or might not be viable options and why. And in anticipation of that, I note that this is where politics of necessity enters this narrative if it is not already there as a driving force. And for anything like large scale societally impacting infrastructure development, that always means partisan politics. 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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