A DISCUSSION OFCan Infrastructure Keep Up With a Rapidly Changing World?
There’s much to applaud in Mikhail Chester’s “Can Infrastructure Keep Up With a Rapidly Changing World?” (Issues, April 29, 2021). I’d like to offer two reservations and one alternative from a different perspective—that of real-time operators in the control rooms of large critical infrastructures such as those for water and energy.
My first reservation is that the premature introduction of so-called innovative software has plagued real-time systemwide operations of key infrastructures for decades. Indeed, as long as there are calls for more and better software and hardware, there will be the need for control operators to come up with just-in-time workarounds for the inevitable glitches. System reliability, at least in large systemwide critical infrastructures, requires managing beyond design and technology.
Second, talk about trade-offs when it comes to the design and operation of these large systems is ubiquitous. Control operators and their wraparound support staff see real-time system demands differently.
Reliability in real time is nonfungible: it can’t be traded off against cost or efficiency or whatever when the safe and continuous provision of the critical service matters, right now. No number of economists and engineers insisting that reliability is actually a probability estimate will change the real-time mandate that some systemwide disasters must be prevented from ever happening. That disasters do happen only reinforces the public’s and the operators’ commitment to the precluded event standard of systemwide reliability.
What do these reservations (and others for that matter) add up to? Remember the proposed congressional legislation—introduced in 2007 and reintroduced in 2020—for the creation of a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to fund major renovations of the nation’s infrastructure sectors? What was needed then and now is something closer to a National Academy for Reliable Infrastructure Management to ensure the tasks and demands of the rapidly changing infrastructures match the skills available to manage them in real time.
Coauthor of High Reliability Management (Stanford University Press, 2008) and Reliability and Risk (Stanford University Press, 2016)