A Design Thinking Approach to Infrastructure

If communities really looked at what they could afford and confronted that right at the beginning, I think we would find a very different kind of infrastructure that we’d be putting in place going forward.
— Thomas Fisher

Thomas Fisher is a Professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota, and serves as Director of the Metropolitan Design Center. He's a graduate of Cornell University in architecture and the author of several books including Designing to Avoid Disaster and Designing our Way to a Better World. In this conversation with Chuck Marohn, Professor Fisher discusses a design thinking approach of bottom-up vs. top-down decisionmaking, and the danger of building the wrong types of infrastructure for the future of America.

This interview is part of our ongoing conversation on federal infrastructure spending.

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Tom Fisher

Tom Fisher

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Chuck: This campaign season our leading political candidates have indicated that they want to make game changing investments in infrastructure. In a nation that seems deeply divided on so many fundamental issues, the need for large investments in infrastructure is seemingly the one place we have a consensus. At Strong Towns we understand that America's approach to growth and development is bankrupt in our cities and this begs the question, if we're committed to spending more money on infrastructure, how do we do it in a way that actually makes us better off?

Today, I'm very excited to have Thomas Fisher. He's a professor in the school of architecture at the University of Minnesota. He's also the director the Minnesota Design Center. He's a graduate of Cornell University in architecture and he's written extensively. I've got his book sitting right here on my desk Design to Avoid Disaster: The Nature of Fractured Critical Design, and he also published a book last spring that you need to read titled Designing Our Way to a Better World. Professor Fisher, welcome to the Strong Towns podcast.

Tom: Great to be here, Chuck.

Chuck: You and I have been needing to do this conversation for a while. I love your work and I'm very happy that we have you here in the state of Minnesota. I want you to react, I guess, first off to the notion that our presidential candidates seem to agree on that we need a large surge in federal infrastructure spending. How do you react to that notion?

Tom: I think that it's clearly an example of our using infrastructure as an economic stimulus, which we've long done. There's, I think, recognition on part of both parties that not only jump starting the economy but also putting people to work who seem to be struggling on our existing economy, people who may not have college degrees, people who are in the construction industry, or may have manufacturing jobs that are disappearing overseas. I think there's a sense that infrastructure is one area where that segment of our population can still make meaningful contributions. I do certainly understand why both democrats and republicans are talking about this and I think it's good.

I think the real issue, which you really refer to in your opening remarks is the question of what kind of infrastructure should we put in place? What I worry about is we're going to continue to build 20th century infrastructure based on 20th century assumptions about our economy, about technology about how people want to be living and working in the future and if we end up doing that, we're actually going to be wasting a tremendous amount of money and have all kinds of other negative impacts. It's both a good thing, I think, in the sense that we need this, but it could potentially be a very bad thing for us if we don't do it correctly.

Chuck: I feel like the centerpiece of your work is really a recognition of the nuance of design. How do we do nuance of design with a federally funded system? Is there a way, in a sense, distribute this money and get better results?

Tom: A lot of the work that we do in my center is around this idea of design thinking and that begins by actually talking to people. This is a part of, I think, a larger shift that's going on in our country away from kind of top down expertise models where we used to design infrastructure in the past, for example, with public officials and the engineering community so it's deciding, "Okay, which roads and bridges need to be fixed or put in place?" with very little input from the actual people using this infrastructure and the shift has really been, you don't start there. You really, what you do is you start in conversation with communities about what kind of future do they want.

How are they actually living and working and moving around and how do they see that changing in the future and engaging as a source of ideas around which you then build the appropriate infrastructure. When you do that you find that there may be a lot of different kinds of infrastructures depending on place, depending on the needs of particular communities, but I also think that as part of the conversation has to be "What can we actually afford" and this is where your work, Chuck, and the work of Strong Towns is so important because you keep raising the economic and financial argument.

If communities really looked at what they could afford and confronted that right at the beginning I think we would find a very different kind of infrastructure that we would be putting in place going forward.

Chuck: I know a lot of the unaffordability issue comes from the fact that a lot of this stuff we don't pay for directly. I can't think of how many plans I did at the local level where the city wanted essentially all these crazy things and it essentially became a wishlist for us an engineers then to go out and seek grant funding or other kind of partners to help make those things happen. I'm with you and I understand the need for, in a sense, the surge in spending. What I'd like you to get at is you have this blunt instrument in a sense of money coming from Washington and these really kind of weird incentives at the local level. How do we square that? Is it possible to square that? How would you start going about it?

Tom: You're absolutely right that when large investments come from Washington it leads to perverse behavior. I mean look at our healthcare system where people are over-consuming healthcare because they don't think they're paying for it directly. There's all these buffers of insurance companies and other kinds of, you know, Affordable Care Act, other kinds of things which are getting in the way of people actually making rational decisions about 'what kind of healthcare do I need and what can I actually afford?'

I think the same thing is true in infrastructure as you were saying is that when there's large infusions of money from Washington it leads to a lot of over consumption of the resource. We saw this with urban renewal in the 1950's and 60's. There was actually cities where a wash in federal money and look at how much damage they did to their communities as a result of that. Self inflicted damage. We certainly don't want that to happen again. We need a much more nuanced way of thinking about finance and about capital and about assets so that, for example, one of the great untapped assets of the community are the skills of the people themselves in that community.

Of course, in earlier eras, in the 19th century before we had large federal investments to make a lot of communities made very sensible infrastructure decisions based on what they actually could afford and frequently they were somewhat more communal. There were people in the community who were helping put in the dirt roads and then dig the ditches. In fact, I think there would be a lot of benefit to go back to a much more localized system that did not always just depend on getting large amounts of money from the federal government in order to make it work.

Chuck: The pushback that you get with that conversation, and believe me, I'm very sympathetic to it. We've had that conversation, you and I, many times. The pushback that we get is, "Sure, Chuck. Things were a lot more communal and people worked a lot more closely, but you also had sewage in the streets and burn barrel and tuberculosis and what have you back in those days. You really want to go back to that?" What is the balance between this notion of kind of localizing things a little bit more, yet having maybe a floor that you don't fall beneath. You see what I'm trying to balance here? There's a set of competing principles, you know?

Tom: Yeah. I agree. Although, I think one of the changes that's happened is the idea of ecosystem services, so nature actually can do a lot that we don't take advantage of. It's really good at cleaning water, for example, but we don't allow it to do that. We build large water purification plants. I think part of this is are there natural means to do some of this that aren't about spreading disease and going back to some primitive existence, but actually is a much more sophisticated way of utilizing natural processes rather than always thinking that the solution has to be a gray infrastructure, kind of a hard infrastructure solution, so that's one piece.

Another piece, at least for part of the infrastructure is, I've been doing a lot of work recently on autonomous vehicles and the change that's happening in transportation and as we look more closely at those infrastructure needs, they're dramatically different from what we're putting in place. The idea that autonomous vehicles essentially needs one pass lane in each direction and so at a time when we're trying to build eight lane highways and thinking about expanding four lane roads to six lane roads and six to eight lane roads, we're still thinking about infrastructure with very old technology in mind. Actually, a lot of the new technology suggests that we need a much smaller profile of infrastructure.

Actually in the process, creating more space within the public realm that would also allow for eco services to take some of the infrastructure loading, so rain gardens, storm water methods that use wetlands rather than constantly building sewer systems and what have you. I think that these two things, the technology change and the greater sense of eco services both need to get sort of rolled into our conversation about infrastructure and those are very localized kinds of conversations, I mean, the green infrastructure that might work in one location would be very different from another.

That, I think, is one way to start to try to balance this. It's not an either/or. It's not either we continue to build infrastructure the way we did in the 20th century or we're going back to some sort of primitive existence where we have cholera again. We have to resist this kind of either/or polarization and recognize that we have a much more nuance set of tools available to us now.

Chuck: Let's say you're sitting in congress in January of next year. We've had such a crazy election cycle. It's hard to imagine what that would be like, but let's say there's some sober people there about to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure and they call you to testify and they ask you, "What kind of stuff should we fund and what kind of stuff should we not fund from here in DC with this bill?" What would you advise them?

Tom: That's a great question, Chuck, and one I probably should have thought more about. I think it's highly likely that that will happen and of course I think the immediate response is "well, we'll give it as block grants to states'. I do think that the more the money can move into more local government the better simply because I think Washington can't ... I don't think we want another highway program the way we had in the 50's and we don't necessarily want another big central Washington DC-driven infrastructure program, but I think that as the money gets distributed to state and local governments that there need to be certain kinds of incentives to not just spend this money as fast as possible on what we already know what to do.

Some kind of incentives and criteria that would encourage using the assets of communities as much as possible using the natural resources of communities as much as possible. Maybe it could really be framed in terms of some sort of a balance between gray infrastructure and green infrastructure between, for example using it as local economic development, so rather than having large contractors do all of this, it's to say half the materials have to come from your local economy.

Half the labor has to be local labor, some percentage of the equipment has to be locally derived and so there could be criteria that would encourage this to be much more innovative, creative, much more of a local economic development driver, much more contextually sensitive and sort of bottoms up from the community rather than large scale construction companies coming in from the distant big cities to just put all of this into place with communities ending up with much more infrastructure than they want or need. I think that setting those criteria and getting this money as flexible and as locally controlled as possible I think would be what I would suggest.

Chuck: I'm a licensed engineer. You're an architect. You're involved in training the next generation of thinkers and your research is quite extensive as well. You're wondering as someone who's been in private practice for a while, sometimes it's painful to think and it's a lot easier to just kind of get the money and do the project that the code says. How much of your vision requires kind of a different mindset among professionals? How much of it is predicated on us as engineers, as architects, as planners starting to think differently about things?

Tom: Yeah. Absolutely. It's why I'm in education. I think we absolutely have to have a complete mindset shift in all of the professions that deal with the built environment [inaudible 00:14:52] environment and I've argued in the book that just came out that everyone talks about STEM and we need STEM skills, but we need creative STEM skills. Just having engineers plug numbers into long established formulas and just following road standards and infrastructure standards that have been around for decades, we don't need more of that. In fact, as I said at the beginning, that is actually going to cause more harm than good.

What we need is an educational system that turns out engineers like you, Chuck, and planners like you who are willing to ask tough questions, willing to imagine a very different future who are interested in creative solutions that do not break the bank for municipalities around this country. I think that does have to start in school. One of the things we're doing a lot of are interdisciplinary teams, in fact I'm teaching a global infrastructure course right now with a colleague in public policy and an engineer and we have teams of students that include engineering students, business students, design students working around the world on appropriate infrastructure solutions in places like India, Nicaragua, and Uganda.

They're working with local populations and local communities on these appropriate methods and one of the things that is really great to see in a class like this is that they come in with very Western American ideas and they quickly learn that they're completely inappropriate for those places and then they have to step back and start to ask, "Okay, what are we trying to achieve and what are the least expensive, most appropriate methods in this culture and community to achieve those goals?" and that's when you start to get creative engineering.

They love it. The engineers absolutely love this class because as some have said to me, it's the first time they've been allowed to actually innovate and be creative and so I think there's a huge hunger among students for this new way of being and new way of working and thinking. Universities have got to do much more to encourage this and so I'm hopeful, but this is a generational shift. I think we're going to see the millennial generation wanting to create a very different kind of world than the world that baby boomers have created for them for example.

Chuck: That's one of the things that has inspired me about you is when I was an engineer I went into engineering because I wanted to think. I wanted to solve problems and I got out and all the problems were solved. I just had to apply them.

Tom: Right. Exactly. That is what I'm worried about. If that's what we're gonna do in this next round of infrastructure investment, I'm very worried that we're going to end up a lot of money and making the financial situation of so many municipalities even worse than they are now as you've always been pointing out and so I feel like we're in a kind of race. It's like how can we get this new way of thinking in younger engineers into the marketplace fast enough so that when the money and opportunity becomes available they have enough clout to actually change things before a lot of older engineers just take it and do what they've always been doing.

I think we're at this kind of pivot point right now and how the next few years goes I think is going to be very telling in terms of do we build a 21st century infrastructure or do we keep building a 20th century infrastructure.

Chuck: I feel like part of your vision includes an embrace of what we would call here, "the chaotic but smart" which is a fancy way of saying, "a certain level of failure" and learning from your mistakes. It seems like, and I'll just speak for engineers, I can't speak for architects as well, but it seems like in engineering we are very adverse to failure and as a public we generally have very low tolerance of failure from government. What are some of the things that we could do? Is it cultural? Could we do this through legislation? Is there a way we can kind of loosen up the system a little bit and maybe make things a little bit easier for people who are going to be willing to try things and fail and learn from those mistakes?

Tom: For example, I'm teaching another class with a couple of colleagues in the business school and there's an idea in business called 'minimal viable product' or what we might say design or kind of a prototype and this is to develop something that's extremely cheap with the idea that you want to see if it works or if it fails and we don't go through that step enough in our civil engineering work. We tend to think, "Okay, here's a project. This community needs a water treatment system. It needs new roads" and so boom, as you were saying. We already know the answer we just have to plug in the numbers and what we need is a phase of saying, "Okay, what's a minimum viable alternative to this, that in fact we can prototype, see if it works better, differently and learn from those failures."

It's what science does all the time. It's why they do experiments in laboratories. They fail a lot and they accept failure because nobody's hurt by it. It's low cost. It's in an environment that in which things are supposed to fail in order to learn from them. I guess what I would say in terms of infrastructure, is we have to actually go through a kind of what we would call a design thinking process, which is to say, "What do we actually need? What are alternatives to what we've been doing? Are there better alternatives? Let's build a very small low cost set of tests to see if these work better and we'll learn from those failures.

You learn quickly. The failure has to happen fast in order to prototype new ways of doing things. That really demands that we not think we already know the answer and so, again, this is just kind of mindset shift we were talking about earlier that has to happen and, again, I worry that if we have too much money flooding the system from Washington with the demand that it's really here for economic development purposes and so spend this money as fast as possible, that we're actually gonna preclude a lot of the innovation and creativity that is needed right now.

Chuck: This does seem like something that is at odds and I've been pondering this a lot lately because it goes to some of my core assumptions about our economics. We're trying to live off an economic system that needs to grow at three, four percent a year just to be viable. The kind of more slow burn methodical, what I would call more resilient approach seems a little bit at odds with those fundamental assumptions of our economy. Is that another constraint that we're just gonna have to try to work our way through?

Tom: I agree. I do think the Obama administration's been criticized a lot because growth has been slower, but I actually think this rapid growth model of our economy is completely unsustainable. For most of human history we didn't have economies that were growing at three, four percent and yet when you step back and you look at that really what we're trying to do is to put everybody to productive work, have people engage in doing productive things so you don't have masses of unemployed people. I think that we need, and I talk about this in my new book, that we need a different kind of economic model. The model can't be, we either have four percent growth or we have massive unemployment.

In fact, ecosystems don't work that way and the human ecosystem doesn't work well that way. Instead, what we should say is, "What is the work that needs to be done? Who are our human assets available to do that work and our physical assets and our ... What other forms of capital we have? We have some financial capital, we have natural capital, we have human capital, and how do we leverage all of that capital to do the work that needs to get done." You can have, in that way of thinking, a much slower growing economy but also have full employment and it can also have people doing meaningful work in their communities that they value.

I think this is, again, a 21st century way to think about economics because the 20th century economic model is simply not sustainable environmentally nor is it ... I would argue sustainable economically.

Chuck: Tom Fisher, thank you so much for being on the program today. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Tom: I enjoyed the conversation as always, Chuck. Thank you.

Chuck: Hey, thank you. Thanks everybody for listening. Keep doing what you can to build strong towns. Take care.

(Top photo from ESRI.com)

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