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Futurestructure starts here: Seeing communities as systems of systems

FutureStructure is a new framework for thinking through and solving the challenges faced in building economically and socially robust communities.

by John Miri / June 1, 2013

FutureStructure exists to help overcome the constraints inherent in haphazard and siloed approaches that communities often face when conceiving, investing in and building their futures.

FutureStructure starts from the premise that a community or region is best envisioned as a large system comprised of deeply interdependent smaller systems. These systems include hard infrastructure like transportation and utilities, as well as soft assets that support human capital, including education and economic development. By harnessing new developments in technology like the “Internet of Things,” (See “Making Connections”) and designing communities as systems, 

FutureStructure begins with the question of “what gets built.” More importantly, though, FutureStructure is about how those systems get built and how they connect with everything else. It is no secret that our nation is facing a crisis when it comes to building the future, evidenced in the outsized demands required to repair the country’s physical infrastructure. In his most recent State of the Union Address, President Obama noted that our hard infrastructure wasficient bridges across the country.”These problems go beyond shoring up hard assets to deeper, systemic challenges, such as effectively educating and employing our nation’s young people and engineering communities that are economically and environmentally sustainable. 

Repeated adherence to old ideas isn’t helping. In many ways, progress has been bogged down by the “problem of specialists.” In a quest to solve larger and evermore-complex challenges, our government agencies have become increasingly focused on a narrow set of problems. The private sector, for its part, responds with narrowly targeted point solutions that inadvertently exacerbate the problem. This leads to the creation of silos — barriers among communities of experts who need to work together toward common goals. Too often, transportation leaders only talk to transportation leaders. Educators only talk to educators. Elected offi cials only talk to elected officials. The only thing that we can all seem to agree on is that someone else is the problem. 

By convening an interdisciplinary dialogue among those who represent traditional hard infrastructure, emerging technologies, and the soft assets of people and skills, new solutions can arise. In this manner, FutureStructure invites everyone to come together: the elected official and the corporate CEO, the environmental activist and the transportation secretary, the educator and the workforce chairman, and so on until the problems of today are fully addressed. FutureStructure exists at the confluence of five big-picture trends: aging infrastructure, government financial constraints, changing demographics, sustainability and technology. It is a positive partnership to approach problems in a holistic way.

And a string of early successes seems to indicate that it is a real way forward.It is also worth saying a word or two about what FutureStructure is not. FutureStructure is not simply an updated approach to traditional infrastructure. It is not some sort of “Infrastructure 2.0,” although such a thing is part of the picture. 

This is not about building more of the same roads and bridges. It isn’t about education reform in isolation, or a new strategy that targets only economic development. At its core, FutureStructure is about taking a sytemic approach to crafting healthy, robust and vibrant communities. Time is short, and the stakes are high. Economic analysis conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute noted that $57 trillion was needed globally for infrastructure investment from 2013 to 2030. 

That’s $57 trillion. As Dee Meador, chief information officer at the Texas Workforce Commission, once remarked, “We just can’t afford business as usual.” No one would argue that America’s aging infrastructure is in good shape. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), in its latest national report card, gave the nation an overall grade of “D+” when it came to a wide range of factors from drinking water to schools and energy. As one speciic example of the general conundrum, the rise in fuel efficiency of vehicles has worked a curious magic on transportation funding. Vehicles now consume far less fuel per mile than they did decades ago, but the federal gas gas tax hasn’t kept pace with the cost of road system maintenance. The transportation system connects to our economic, social, political and even educational systems. All of them, to one degree or another, are in danger as a result.But the potential benefits of FutureStructure are almost eye-wateringly good. The same economic analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute noted that there was a possibility to save $1 trillion every year by using our existing infrastructure in a more productive way. Consider:

  • “Intelligent transportation systems for roads, rail, airports and ports can double or triple the use of an asset.”
  • “Smart grids ... could help the United States avoid $2 billion to $6 billion a year in power infrastructure costs.”5
  • “Reducing transmission and distribution losses in water and power … often costs less than 3 percent of adding the equivalent in new production capacity and can be accomplished significantly faster.”  

Leaders at the highest level realize that it will take an integrated approach to bring a big idea like FutureStructure to fruition. Perhaps that is why President Obama recently called for a public-private “Partnership to Rebuild America” that will bring together private capital, ports, roads, pipelines, emergency management, education and more.7Robert Palter, director of Infrastructure Practice at McKinsey & Company, also espouses a systemic approach.

“We are highlighting the need to think about things on an integrated basis. Today’s lack of integration results in suboptimal decision-making and excess capital being spent.”In Palter’s view, “If you’re able to use a systemic approach, not only could you get better sequencing of projects, but you could also obtain integrated design, more standardized procurements, better project oversight and a reduction in the amount of capital needed to complete an infrastructure project.”



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