Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Planning infrastructure to meet specific goals and needs, and not in terms of specific technology solutions 10

Posted in UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on March 27, 2015

This is my 10th 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 loosely following for Parts 1-9.)

I began Part 9 of this series by noting three bullet pointed issues that I would discuss next in this series, and I then proceeded to discuss the first two of them there:

• I am going to continue this narrative with a discussion of visions and voices, and of making inclusion work without bogging everything down in endless discussion.
• And I will discuss at least some of the issues of conflict resolution here too, where that means ongoing effort and certainly for any endeavor with as long a timeframe as a national infrastructure development project would require, and where there are so many opportunities for setbacks and project complications and even when everyone seeks to act cooperatively on this.

Then at the end of that installment, I said that I would continue my discussion of the second of these points here and that I would also at least begin to discuss the third point of that list:

• And after that I will expand the scale of this series’ discussion to consider multinational infrastructure development projects.

I begin this with the second of these bullet points, and by noting that my initial discussion of it in Part 9 mostly focused on bringing all necessary stakeholders into the conversation in planning and carrying out a national infrastructure development project – and even if some can only comfortably enter into that process as late adaptor participants. I reexamine this same set of issues here from a somewhat different perspective: understanding and reconciling the underlying assumptions, concerns and wants of the various parties that have to be involved and included in this effort if it is to long-term succeed. And I begin that by asserting a point of argument that would, or at least should seem obvious, but that in practice is not always observed.

• You cannot reconcile differing points of view and perspective except perhaps by the short-term only mechanism of forced acceptance, unless and until all of the stakeholders of this venture understand what their fellow stakeholders at this table know and assume and seek to do.

That does not mean everyone agreeing on every possible detail with everyone else; it does mean the stakeholder representatives there at least understanding where their counterparts from other groups would hold reservations or feel concern, and why and with what priorities. And it means that at least the key decision-making representatives of each of these stakeholder groups understanding what those point of difference and of potential friction are, that do arise around the table.

And if you cannot resolve differences that you do not know of and understand, you also cannot resolve differences that you trivialize and dismiss. The points of concern that another stakeholder groups sees as significant to them might not mean much to you, but it is important and even essential that you accept that they can be important and even vitally important to others, and legitimately so for them.

Let me offer an only somewhat made-up example here, which I add has arisen in real infrastructure development projects and that will continue to do so, at least for its general principles involved:

• As a national infrastructure development effort, a country that includes within it a collection of distinct tribal groups seeks to develop full wireless telephony and online connectivity for all of its peoples. It is important to note here, that each of these tribes has its own distinct culture, history and identity – all of which are held by them to be of ongoing importance.
• As a crucial part of this infrastructure project, the peoples of this country seek to build an array of antenna relay towers that they would site at strategically chosen points of greatest local elevation for the relayed transmission of line-of-sight signals.
• And the one and only possible site for locating an antenna tower for connecting in a significant region of this country, that would be needed if several distant tribal groups are to be included, is on the top of a particular mountain peak that rises out of otherwise level plains and low undulating hills. And this peak elevation point is both geographically and culturally at the heart of one specific tribe of this nation, that sees the mountain and its summit as holy ground for their indigenous religion and for their ongoing culture and traditions.
• Other tribes might see this mountain as simply a mountain: a geological formation, and view the owning tribe’s religious views there to be more superstition than anything else. And that view might hold with particular force for the urban stakeholders of this nation’s capital and for the more internationally educated and urbane of its central government, as they look to their more traditionalist rural neighbors. But if all involved stakeholders cannot at least accept that others might take this point of friction seriously and with reason, then it is going to be that much harder to find any possible working compromise – that in this case might mean finding a way to build a necessary facility, but in ways that would not compromise or denigrate this mountain owning tribe’s fundamental beliefs.

I have discussed negotiations and negotiating processes in a variety of contexts in this blog (see for example Negotiating for Overall Goals and not Details.) And I leave this portion of this series’ overall discussion with that posting reference and with a recommendation to review the book references cited there. Negotiations can only work if they are entered into in good faith and as a good faith effort on the part of all who are involved. I have been writing here about building a foundation for that good faith effort.

With that, I turn to consider the third and final bullet point of the above list and the specific challenges of multinational development that I would address in this series. And I begin that by raising a brief and I add quite incomplete list of possible friction-creating issues, which I offer here in question and comment format.

Let’s assume for simplicity sake that an essential infrastructure project would of necessity call for active participation of three contiguous nations, with A sharing a border with B and with B also sharing a border with C.

• Where does the most senior leadership of this project come from, and both among these countries and from within them? And how would that be decided?
• What part of the overall funding for this initiative should come from which participating country? One possibility might be that each participating country funds the elements of this project that fall within its borders, but how would any internationally shared project components and systems be funded?
• I have already raised and discussed the issues of prototyping and staged development in this series, and how their implementation can create have and have-not friction and certainly if they are not effectively negotiated and agreed to. It can be difficult enough to find a mutually agreed to third party honest broker to help mediate any disputes within a single country. Consider, by way of example, when the fracture lines that would break agreement separate urban and national capital area citizens, from rural and small village citizens. When a project of this type would span international borders, which national spokespersons from which participating country would best be turned to for overall leadership of this endeavor? Would it make sense to bring in a third party mediator who is regionally respected for reasons that go beyond any single national or international development project who is, for example, chosen for their moral stature and willingness to listen and work with others? Would it make more sense to bring in an outside organized body such as the United Nations to lead this? And in any case, how would the charter of authority for whomever leads this be determined, and by whom? What would they be empowered to decide, if anything on their own and what would they seek to help the direct participants to decide? I find myself thinking back to square table versus round table negotiations-settings debates as I write that. Sometimes the overall leader or leadership group of a project really does have to be able to make at least some impasse-breaking decisions more unilaterally, if anything is to be decided and done.

I am going to continue discussing this third point: international infrastructure development projects in my next series installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at the UN-GAID directory.

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