Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Planning infrastructure to meet specific goals and needs, and not in terms of specific technology solutions 6

Posted in UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on November 13, 2014

This is my sixth 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 1-5.)

I have been systematically discussing an organizing methodology for thinking about, planning for, and carrying out large scale infrastructure development projects through the last several installments to this series after starting it with a set of three historical case study examples of how infrastructure development has been carried out in the past (see in particular Part 4 and Part 5).

And as a lead-in to this installment, I repeat here, a list of core elements to this approach that I have been point-by-point discussing (as presented at top of Part 5):

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 have already discussed the first two of these points (see Parts 4 and 5) and my goal here is to at least begin to delve into the issues of this list’s point 3. I begin that with the foretaste note that I appended to the end of Part 5, leading into this discussion. To repeat that here, I stated that I would discuss:

• What prototyping is and how it might offer value,
• Staged development and how that might or might not mean localized or single site test prototyping development,
• How these and similar approaches might or might not be viable options and why.
• And in anticipation of addressing that last point, I noted 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.

And I begin this with the fundamentals, and with a basic underlying assumption. Large-scale and even nation-spanning infrastructure development projects might or might not achieve the goals they are intended to reach but most of them at least start out with a defined intent to achieve specific societally relevant and significant goals – goals that would impact upon and in some way improve the lives of that country’s citizens. The intended direct beneficiaries of this effort might themselves comprise only a limited population within the overall citizenry of that country, and infrastructure development is at times proposed that would benefit one group even at the expense of others (e.g. when privately owned land is taken over under government ruling of eminent domain need.) But that type of development can be intrinsically unstabilizing societally, and certainly if not done with transparent fairness – which is often not possible. So I focus here on infrastructure development that is at least planned with a goal of maintaining if not improving quality of life for broad constituencies and demographics, and that would be societally stabilizing and strengthening. And I focus here on development projects that would have clearly stated societal goals as a whole. In that, I exclude from consideration development efforts that might primarily reflect the vanity of national leadership, or start out as what amount to bridge to nowhere projects.

• So I focus here in this series on projects in which broad reaches of the overall citizenry have a significant stake in what is done, where and how it is done, and in who bears the costs and gains the benefits from all of this.

And with that in place, I turn to consider two sets of issues: prototyping, and have and have-not communities. And for purposes of both, I assume that while different communities might see differing levels of value in what an infrastructure development project could bring them, communities in general that would be impacted upon by it, would essentially all see at least some potential positive good for them coming out of this effort. And they would all want to be fully included in this.

Prototyping as a process is easy to explain and justify – in general, abstract terms. You want to develop and implement a new and at least contextually novel and unproven system and do not know – cannot fully know in advance where problems might arise. You do not know in advance and cannot know without testing and test implementing how to streamline your development processes and make their end-results more effective in meeting real-world needs, and both for the a priori knowable and for the more unpredictably emergent. So you test build on one or a few sites and use that initial development exercise as a learning curve opportunity, for fine-tuning and improving what you develop and build and how you do that. Then at least ideally, when you broaden your development project to the full range and scale that you initially planned on, you will be able to build smarter, and more economically and with fewer delays and setbacks, and you will be able to more fully meet actual needs while limiting negative collateral outcomes.

Now I reframe this in terms of the real world and more specifically in terms of the developing world. And I begin with a fundamental question:

• Where do you begin this, and who gains early benefit from this development effort, and particularly where economic and budget limitation restrictions might mean real delays between any prototyping and its due diligence results evaluations, and fuller implementation?

I am going to delve into the complexities of these points in my next series installment where I will move this discussion out of the abstract by connecting this series to a specific case study example that I have already discussed, also listed in the UN-GAID directory: Developing Critical Infrastructure from a Human and a Societal Perspective – a series on a specific still as of this writing early-stage infrastructure initiative taking form in Tanzania (see postings 16 and following for its Parts 1-6.) And in the course of that discussion I will at least begin to discuss staged infrastructure development and how that and prototyping might or might not be viable in the specific infrastructure context depending on how they are attempted and carried through upon.

I am going to finish this posting with my “where do you begin” question and with the points of complication that addressing it bring up. And I explicitly note here that when I discuss a case study example such as Tanzania, I consider how the development model and methodology that I have been outlining here, might be applied to the more stable but still very ethnically and culturally diverse peoples of a unified country. I add as a foretaste of what is to come in this series, I will also be adding and discussing a more fractious case study example too, and will discuss how infrastructure development challenges can be shaped by that. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at the UN-GAID directory.

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