The Trillion-Dollar-Plan

Four Ways to Co-create a Trillion Dollar Infrastructure Upgrade.

Have you ever been to a public comment session? It’s not fun. Or productive. Whenever a state, local, or federal agency wants to do something big, they have a public comment period, usually capped by some kind of open forum. They almost all look like this: a few government officials huddled defensively at the front of the room behind a table with microphones and a bunch of chairs with one or two microphones for the “public”. After a few opening remarks from the officials, the “public” – in reality mostly representatives of various special interests – starts cuing up behind the mics to yell at the officials.

In President Trump’s joint address to Congress last night he addressed many of the goals his administration would achieve for the American people. But the big-ticket item, the Trillion-Dollar-Question, was infrastructure. Most Americans agree, our infrastructure needs reform. Our own American Society of Civil Engineers gave us an overall D+ in their 2013 report card and there’s bi-partisan support to do something about it. But do you know what comes with infrastructure spending? Public comment sessions.

No one likes this process. The government officials only come because the law requires it. The few actual members of the public that come feel intimidated or downright bullied. Even the special interest reps would rather do almost anything else. Nothing about this process or even the room invites actual substantive comment or collaboration. Just think about the room set up: government officials on a dais each with microphones while the public crams into uncomfortable seats and has to line up to talk. What does this say? We (the government) are more important than you the public (we’re literally sitting above you) and our voices count more than yours (we each have mics, you get in line).

The result: lowest common denominator solutions – if any. Many infrastructure projects have become bogged down and fail to get off the ground or they only get through with a major fight. Case in point: the crawling rollout of a “smart” energy grid, the Keystone XL Pipeline, and the Dakota Access Pipeline. In my own hometown, a small upgrade to our part of the energy grid – burying the above-ground power lines – died a quick death after only the written comment period. Apparently people would rather suffer through periodic blackouts or buy individual home generators than suffer through the plan proposed by the local utility company.

So, before we go back down this rabbit hole and fail to prepare America to meet the needs of the 21st Century, let’s re-think how we engage communities in conceiving, creating, and ultimately approving infrastructure projects. We need new methods for bringing together governments, businesses, civil society, local residents, other concerned citizens, and whole communities. In short, we need to use proven techniques for co-creation.

Back to those public comment sessions. Instead of “experts” and “officials” writing plans and then presenting them to the public for comment, engage the whole community up front. Many building projects already use “charrettes” but most of them are terrible and just replicate the worst parts of kumbaya handholding and public comment sessions. Here are four specific upgrades we should adopt to ensure the President’s trillion-dollar program gets off the ground:

  • First, fall in love with the problem. More often than not, people come to the table to advocate a specific solution, e.g., build this bridge, repave that road, etc. Instead, drop back and focus on the problem you want to solve: how to connect disjointed communities, speed up the movement of people and goods, etc. This may seem pedantic, but getting to the root problems and agreeing on those first, makes it much easier to get consensus on a specific project later. If nothing else, letting the community share in the definition of the problem dramatically increases the probability of their acceptance of a specific solution solution.
  • Invite people in inviting ways. The typical public comment period gets announced in tiny print in the local newspaper or buried on a website. Instead, make the invitation sincere, inviting, and ideally personal. Make it feel more like an open house than a root canal.
  • Change the room, change the outcome. Think back to how I described the typical public comment room. Ditch the dais, ditch the head-table, ditch the microphone cue. Instead, put everyone on the same level, seated at round tables, with equal access to the mic. You’d be surprised how much this little change will alter the atmosphere and the outcome.
  • Rapid and constant feedback. While not every decision needs consensus, iterative design and implementation maximizes the amount of information learned per dollar spent, ultimately leading to a better outcome. Think about how you can quickly “prototype” an idea by coming up with rough sketches, models, 3D tours, or other physical representations of the idea that will let people experience it, touch it, feel it and give their feedback.

Last night the President said:

 “To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States financed through both, public and private capital, creating millions of new jobs.” [emphasis added]

Achieving this vision will involve the active engagement of the public sector (“…Congress to approve legislation…”), the private sector, (“…financed through both, public and private capital…creating millions of new jobs”), and

By bringing together governments, private enterprise, and civil society to co-create a plan we can make actual progress and significantly change the course of American infrastructure. 

By Richard Crespin, CEO at CollaborateUp

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