Infrastructure Design Challenges in the Face of Uncertainty: A perspective from the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network
While many aspects of our lives seem to be endlessly changing, others stay noticeably stagnant in an increasingly complex world. For instance, consider the city you live in and the structures that allow it to operate—buildings, roads, water pipes, power lines. Research conducted by Dr. Mikhail Chester shows that infrastructure is a wicked, complex process—it must be able to operate between sectors (e.g. buildings rely on the water and power sectors to support operations) despite changes in climate and technology. This is not a trivial task with issues of lock-in and non-stationarity threatening the reliability of infrastructure to adapt to the world we now live in—one of complexity and uncertainty. The challenge of lock-in leads to infrastructure being designed with the same conventional approaches due to financial, political, technical, social, cultural, and technological barriers. An example of lock-in can be described through an on-going television series, The Good Place. In the show, people are given points for every action they perform on Earth to determine if they go to the Good Place or the Bad Place. Yet, the protagonists learn that life is so complex that individuals can no longer earn enough points to make it to the Good Place because their actions have so many unintended consequences.
The same is true for infrastructure design—the decisions infrastructure managers make today will have unintended consequences for generations to come due to lock-in. Lock-in makes it difficult to implement transformative ideas such as flexible and agile or safe-to-fail infrastructure and instead encourages incremental change within the existing system. Most transformational change is unintentional, as has been identified by Dr. Nancy Grimm and colleagues, occurring after major events such as extreme weather. This demonstrates the complexity of the issue as lock-in cannot be addressed by a single discipline, say engineers or policymakers. This provides another major challenge for infrastructure: coordinated, multidisciplinary collaboration to overcome incremental change and create co-produced solutions of transformative change as advocated by Dr. David Iwaniec. By adding multiple perspectives in the design process, infrastructure managers can begin to address some of the complexity and uncertainty present.
Lock-in becomes a major challenge due to the impacts of non-stationarity. When infrastructure managers can no longer predict the future due to complexity, they must learn to design within uncertainty, which is the crux issue of the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network at Arizona State University whose members’ work is highlighted throughout this piece. There are varying levels of uncertainty from a clear enough future to true ambiguity, and infrastructure has typically been designed with the former in mind. But what does it mean if our infrastructure is designed for one set of environmental conditions and another occurs? Well, think of our transportation infrastructure, which seems to undergo constant construction if you ask any Midwesterner. This construction may be taking place due to planned obsolescence or an early end-of-life from unexpected climatic conditions. Infrastructure is designed to a set of parameters, and most commonly, it is designed to be robust to the worse-case scenario. When these worse-case scenarios are frequently surpassed in changing climate conditions, the infrastructure fails and needs to be replaced more frequently. This not only leads to inconveniences to your daily commute, but increases safety hazards and costs.
An all too common example of worst-case climate scenarios being exceeded is flooding—for instance, the recent floods in Texas. Typically, our infrastructure is built to be robust, or fail-safe, meaning if it rains beyond the capacity of our stormwater management system, there will be unintended flooding. This is becoming increasingly frequent as design storm standards are becoming dated to an assumed stationary history. One way forward for infrastructure managers is to consider the consequences of their infrastructure failing and designing with a safe-to-fail approach as explored by Dr. Yeowon Kim. This approach seeks to have failures occur in controlled manners with different types of failure consequences based on prioritized decisions. A popular way to create safe-to-fail infrastructure is through adoption of nature-based solutions such as green infrastructure and biomimcry.
In order to achieve resiliency (different from sustainability as explained by Dr. Chuck Redman), infrastructure managers should use a variety of design approaches such as fail-safe, low regret, safe-to-fail, and adaptive management to appropriately address the spatial and temporal scale of the project. To be resilient, infrastructure must have an adaptive capacity which can be achieved through agility and flexibility. Examples of agility and flexibility in infrastructure already exist in practice across water, power, and transportation sectors. In order to explore these pathways, infrastructure managers must be open to urban tinkering, moving against the status quo to design for shifting functionality, and integrate a social, ecological, and technological systems (SETSs, as explored by Dr. Samuel Markolf) mindset, recognizing the world is complex and the ‘solution to resiliency’ will not be purely techno-centric. A complex and uncertain world does not mean the future is all doom and gloom, but, instead, this context provides an opportunity for infrastructure managers to flex their creativity and continuously reimagine our cities so that they satisfice to ever-changing pressures and needs.