Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Planning infrastructure to meet specific goals and needs, and not in terms of specific technology solutions 11

Posted in UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on April 26, 2015

This is my 11th 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 1-10.)

I began discussing multinational, border crossing infrastructure development projects in Part 10 of this series, by posing and briefly commenting on an admittedly very incomplete subset of the types of questions that this type of initiative raises.

My goal for selecting the specific questions raised there was to provoke thought on how they might be addressed in the context of specific infrastructure development projects. My goal for this next installment is to more fully build upon that starting point discussion to more fully explore some of the issues that I have seen critically arise in development projects, and regardless of overall shared perceived need for achieving the overall final intended goals that a project might be targeting.

Reorganizing and reiterating the issues that I first touched upon in Part 10, and continuing development of the cartoon example that I cited there, a large scale infrastructure development project is being planned that would span three contiguously bordered countries in its area of direct development activity. Who would lead this initiative and from where? How would they be selected for this and by whom? What would be their mandate and their range of decision making authority? How would their position of authority and their range of responsibilities and of direct authority be reviewed and managed? How, I add here, would their range and scope of authority to make decisions and take actions be meshed effectively and equitably with their range of responsibility so they can in fact be held responsible for what they do but not for what is simply done and even without their support or approval? Who would evaluate and manage the overall supervisory leadership of this project? And how would new project leadership be selected, where this can become a guaranteed issue to address for any such project that would require an extended number of years to complete? Turning back to reconsider just one of these question, mismatches between authority held and responsibility held create fractures in any development initiative that ultimately lead to problems and all too often to outright project or program failures as well. And a failure to effectively, consistently address any of them would offer opportunity for significant project-challenging problems.

Any project of any scale and complexity in effect becomes a dynamically evolving, living and breathing entity – complex endeavors such as large scale infrastructure development projects come to take on a life of their own. And like living organisms they have to be able to grow and adapt in the face of unexpected, where with time the unexpected should be considered inevitable and both for emerging new challenges and for unexpected opportunities that could be capitalized upon.

I find myself thinking back to the start of this series and to its initial Part 1 example as I write this.

• Large scale infrastructure development projects need to run smoothly and with any friction that arises fairly resolved as it arises – and with “fairly” there meaning fair as perceived by those involved in these emerging points of misunderstanding and at least potential conflict.
• That at least holds true if these infrastructure development projects are to proceed to completion as quickly and cost-effectively as possible and with as few have and have-not conflicts and other challenges arising, of the types that I have written about in this series.
• But at least as importantly, long-term and after a major infrastructure development project is at least nominally completed, it has to have been the right development project and for where it is developed and for the people who would use and rely upon it, and over a long-term timeframe. The technology and the technology implementation have to work and long-term in meeting the needs this project was developed to address.
• In a multinational project context that means its working for all of the peoples involved in this initiative, and both for benefits obtained and for resulting costs incurred too and with a fair and there-perceived equitable distribution of benefits and costs too and with benefits outweighing those incurred costs.

And this brings me to Part 1 and its deep aquafer-tapping system of artesian wells, spanning the Sub-Saharan African Sahel. The overall goal there was noble and good – to make green a largely desert region and to enrich the lives of everyone of that region. But this was the wrong project for this entire region, and certainly over anything like a long-term timeframe. I suggest reading Part 1 for an at least brief summary of what was done there and of the consequences that resulted. There is a reason why I started this entire series with that cautionary tale example and framed all subsequent discussion offered here upon that starting point. Now imagine in that posting’s context what would have happened if its project had succeeded and long-term for some of the countries that participated in it, but that it has led to desert-expanding and starvation-causing disaster for others that had made similar commitments and with similar hopes and dreams for what this project would bring. It is easy to imagine how that type of disparity of results and costs would have bred animosity and conflict that would continue to this day.

• Any infrastructure development failure can be expected to create ongoing problems and new forms of challenge, with that definitely including new levels of resistance to any further large scale development work and even just to correct the problems that have arisen from that first project.
• Inequity in results with some perceived to reap benefits and rewards while others are seen as mostly bearing costs turns these problems and challenges into what are closer to disasters. And when this inequity crosses tribal and ethnic borders, or international borders, those negative consequences can take on lives of their own too.

And this brings me back to the issues of who leads and with what oversight, and of how these projects and programs involve and include all stakeholders in the ongoing flow of decision making. This brings up the issues of who gains project development benefits first and who gains access to them next and so on, and who pays what costs and when and with what recognition and support from others involved. And this brings me very specifically to the core point of argument that I have been developing and seeking to make a case for throughout this series, and in fact throughout the entire United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) directory that I have been adding this series to:

• The overarching need to focus on what you seek to accomplish, and both short-term in developing an infrastructure project and carrying through upon it, and long-term as the consequences of that effort matures and begins to bear fruit – good or bad or mixed.

I still have a number of case study examples that I could have added to this series and that I have considered including and elaborating upon here, but I have decided to stop this series at this point. I am certain to come back to further discuss a range of issues that I have just touched upon in this series, in future postings and series too. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at the UN-GAID directory.

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