Is the bureaucracy of democracy bogging down our future?

9 May 2017
6 min read

Speaking of his approach to building, the much-venerated 19th century British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel said, “I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.”

He didn’t mince his words. As one British barrister puts it, if Brunel were alive today the construction industry wouldn’t touch him with a bargepole.

But could there be some merit in Brunel’s radical view on the subject? What if we took some of the red tape out of the construction equation and created a less cumbersome bureaucratic process that doesn’t bog down development?

Shifting the focus

Using a modular method, Chinese prefab construction firm Broad Sustainable Building, two years ago built the rectangular, glass and steel Mini Sky City in a mindboggling 19 working days. At the back-end of that process of course was the four-and-a-half months the company spent fabricating the building’s 2 736 modules before it could begin construction.

We often see design and construction phases being accelerated, and construction is often fast-tracked, so even if we employed more efficient building processes and used a just-in-time construction approach, we would still only be able to reduce a small part of the overall project life cycle.

The largest part of the project cycle is pre-implementation: from conceptualising the problem and developing the business case during the initiation phase, to wrapping up the planning phase, which includes community engagement, getting project approval and planning permission, not to mention a host of other approvals.

Quite often, the pre-implementation phase takes months and even years, meaning that we are building infrastructure years after the need arose and, by this time, the challenges it was envisaged to solve are either far worse or, even more concerning, irrelevant.

We need to turn the process on its head.

Democracy in the best sense of the word

In the wake of the digital revolution of the 20th century, the world has been hurtling forward at breakneck speed. Governments and industry have been racing to meet the very real challenges presented by the rapidly increasing demand for infrastructure development. But the industry’s hands are tied to a large extent by the lengthy review processes stymieing progress.

In the US, for instance, a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan will necessitate a reworking of a protracted federal review process. Projects invariably get delayed during the environmental review process; building a new highway can take anywhere from nine to 19 years.

It’s a catch-22: democracy has given people a voice – people who pay taxes and in turn expect service delivery, but understandably want a say in the shape and form those services taken. Unfortunately, as demonstrated in the case of the US, the process is fatally flawed. As a consequence, service delivery is severely impacted – and the end result is an unhappy citizenry and lost economic benefit.

Turning the process on its head

Checks and balances are critical, but it’s counterintuitive to have these carried out at the end of a costly design process.

In a 2014 report, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering notes the importance of “earlier richer community engagement and deliberation on processes for infrastructure development and delivery” which would “result in greater community acceptance of and hence faster and more successful completions of infrastructure projects”.

The Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Meeting Asia’s Infrastructure Needs report projects the infrastructure needs for 32 of the ADB’s 45 developing member countries.

In its report, it emphasises the importance of a well-functioning, multi-stakeholder institutional “ecosystem” for infrastructure development. “Close coordination across government levels  ̶  national, provincial, and local  ̶  is essential for infrastructure development,” reads the report.

If the regulatory mechanisms and public engagement were initiated at the outset of a process, it would influence the design from the very beginning. An oversimplified version of the approval process would look something like this: both government and the public are canvassed for comment; that data is then fed into a parametric design process which produces several optimal design scenarios based on the feedback; the best fit makes the cut and the end result is a plan that has in effect already been approved.

The future should loom larger

The painting that hangs in a corner of Room 34 of London’s National Gallery is a picture of dull light and dark contrasts. Set against a backdrop of gloomy, overcast skies, a train – a blur – steams across Maidenhead Railway Bridge over the River Thames.

The bridge depicted in English romanticist painter William Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed  ̶  The Great Western Railway forms part of Brunel’s most ambitious project; a network of tunnels, bridges and viaducts for the Great Western Railway. The railway transformed travel, pitching Britain into the industrial age and reducing the two-and-a-half day journey from London to Bristol to two-and-a-half hours!

Turner’s painting was a statement on the ascendancy of man-made industrial society – but can we afford a debate over the rapid advances being made today?

Urban populations are expanding at full tilt – and with them a steep escalation in the demand for infrastructure and technology. The ADB’s report estimates the infrastructure needs for 32 of its developing member countries will require an investment of a whopping $26-trillion over the period from 2016 to 2030, including the cost of climate mitigation and adaptation.

Well over a century–and–a–half after Turner’s painting was first exhibited, the question we have to ask is: What are we going to do to ensure that tomorrow’s infrastructure meets tomorrow’s needs instead of merely addressing yesterday’s problems?

It’s a discussion engineers need to lead if we hope to see the world prepared for a future advancing towards it at a dizzying pace.

Safeguards are important – but so is the opinion of the experts. But this hinges on trust. In the same way that we entrust our wellbeing to medical experts, we need to trust professionals in the built environment to do a brilliant job of designing and constructing sustainable, economically viable, future-ready cities. This means rethinking the way we do things.

Massive financial outlays are required to develop infrastructure in both developed and developing countries worldwide – the ADB case is merely one such example. Do we really want to play it so safe that those financial outlays only just meet our current needs?

Or do we need a touch of Brunel-like chutzpah mixed with a whole lot of innovation? It’s those cities willing to take the risk that will be at the forefront of the next revolution.

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Nick Gordge
Written by
Nick Gordge

Nick struggles to combine his motorcycling with his boating: does anyone have an innovative solution?

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