The real infrastructure crisis

–Water from your taps isn’t any better, roads need repair, power outages happen more often, and don’t expect public transit to get you anywhere just-on-time. You’ve also heard it’s going to take billions more to bring these physical systems up to the A-grade we want.

But that is not the real infrastructure crisis we face. Even if our physical structures were dramatically improved, the management side would still be under attack.

Because you don’t see the latter crisis, you don’t know what needs to be done or what you can do about it.

–What you don’t see is how real-time control centers in large water supplies, energy and natural gas utilities, transmission grids, refineries and pipelines, public transit, and more prevent all kinds of accidents and failures from happening. To put it bluntly, what you and the public almost always experience, albeit you don’t see it, are the savings in errors prevented.

It’s true that there are accidents waiting to happen because of the poor shape our assets are in; it’s also true that other accidents happen because of operator error in the face of constant cost-cutting. Those reasons, though, are true only as far as they go and they don’t go far enough.

–The wider truth is that major system failures are waiting to happen because these control rooms are attacked from many different directions today. This goes beyond cyberattacks from outsiders fended off for the time being. The real infrastructure crisis is the attack by insiders and summertime patriots paid to know better:

Infrastructure CEO—If we don’t risk failure by cutting costs we’ll never get market share! Energy Economist—Trust me, selling electricity is no different than marketing corn syrup. Politicians—Don’t worry; when things go belly-up, we’ll deal with it then. Technology Evangelicals—You can never have enough innovation, and where better to start than on what we depend on most! Investors—We’ll buy the bridge and its revenue streams; you lot just keep the rest. Chief Risk Officer—Nothing’s wrong with our models; it’s reality that’s 26 standard deviations away from normal. Planners—There’s nothing like a disaster to clear the table and start all over again! Regulators—If it takes fining them on the silly stuff to get their attention, so be it! Consultants—Sorry to interrupt, but could you tell me again just what exactly is going on here in the control room?

To put these elite delusions in context, you’d have to think long and hard to imagine a single terrorist attack on a major infrastructure that costs California or Texas and their citizens as much as did their defective electricity deregulation and energy markets in 2001 and 2021.

–What then is to be done about the attacks from within and what can you do about it?

First, get real. Complex is about as simple as it gets for public utilities, large water supplies, or major transportation systems. Anyway, easy fixes for electricity and other vital services are what got us into the infrastructure crisis we’re in today.

Second, get worried. New construction and maintenance are only part of the answer to better transportation, water and energy supplies. The priority is to stop the unchecked attacks undermining daily operations. Since systematically important banks are important enough to stress test, we should be routinely stress testing key critical infrastructures so systemically important that they too mustn’t fail.

Third, get smarter. Politicians, policymakers and their consultants habitually underestimate costs, overestimate benefits, and undervalue environmental impacts of their infrastructure proposals. It should be crime—yes, a crime—when they fail to tell us about the arsenic in their macro-designs once implemented.

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