Building Quality Infrastructure for the Social Good

Critics of government spending claim that building quality infrastructure for the social good is not affordable. Focus on utility and low cost, they say. No need for grand stone building with imposing facades. Their concerns touch on two core marketing topics, design and pricing.

The Cost of Building Quality Infrastructure

In the last U.S. presidential election, candidates from all major parties talked a lot about the unsexy topic of infrastructure. Building infrastructure creates well-paid union jobs, so it plays well to voters. But this wasn’t just election talk–U.S. infrastructure is in horrible shape.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives U.S. infrastructure a grade of D+. They report that the country is facing a $2 trillion infrastructure investment gap in the next ten years.

With so much work to do, and probably little money to do it with, why build quality infrastructure? If utilitarian, prefabricated, dead-after-depreciation stuff is good enough for now, shouldn’t we focus on that?

What is Quality Infrastructure, Anyway?

I’ve been thinking about quality lately because of my current day job. Mostly, quality comes down to fit and finish.

In business school, we talked about quality as meaning something works well for the intended purpose. We call this fit. If a good or service works well for the intended use, if it addresses the intended need, then it fits and has a certain amount of quality. For example, if a smart phone fits the user’s intended purposes for a smart phone, then it is a quality smartphone. Some phones are smarter than others, so there’s a range of quality.

We also look at the thought, materials and craftsmanship that go into the construction of a thing as part of its quality. We call this finish. Apple and Samsung smartphones may be very similar in their fitness as smart phones. Many people in the U.S. prefer the finish of the Apple iPhone over that of Samsung’s Galaxy. The preferred finish is part of those people’s perception of higher quality.

Durability is a key aspect of both fit and finish. If something continues to fit its intended purpose over time, we perceived it to be of higher quality. Likewise, if the finish of a thing allows it to withstand repeated use over time, we also perceive that as higher quality.

Quality Infrastructure

Clearly, the most important aspect of quality infrastructure is fit to intended purpose. If a bridge or a water system or a hospital doesn’t perform as intended or promised, it’s of little or no quality. Hence Alaska’s bridge-to-nowhere debacle. A bridge needs to lead to somewhere.

The second most important aspect of quality infrastructure is durability. Infrastructure is so fundamental, and its construction so expensive and disruptive, that we don’t want to build it very often. So, it needs to last.

I think few people will argue with these points about quality infrastructure.

The debate usually comes down to excesses in finish. Ornamentation, aesthetic design, and public art installations are often seen as sins to avoid in infrastructure. The design of the Seattle Public Library drew criticism for perceived excesses in finish. Once the architects explained their hyper-rational, not aesthetic, approach to design, critics saw how utilitarian the design actually was.

In the public realm of low-bid contracts, I understand the desire to eliminate excess in building quality infrastructure. I would counter that ornamentation, public art, and aesthetic design are how we transmit our cultural values, brand our community, document our society, and express our civic pride. These contribute to the social good just as much as well-functioning infrastructure does.

Would New York City or San Francisco be world-class destinations if the Brooklyn or Golden Gate bridges were not beautiful as well as functional?

(Image courtesy of Flickr)

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