Tina York, “Fluid Dynamics” (1995), mixed media, 32 x 40 inches. As a NASA Art Program artist, Tina York visited the Ames Research Center in California to study the principles of fluid dynamics. This piece shows the way gases move as a solid body passes through them.

The Grind of Infrastructure Maintenance

If we were to try to define the molecules of infrastructure, how those molecules interact, and how their structures and functions result in the systems we rely on today, we’d have to unpack the myriad people, tasks, bureaucracies, and environments that define infrastructures. In “The Grind Challenges” (Issues, Summer 2022), Guru Madhavan describes how infrastructures continue to function and reliably deliver services due to a plethora of mundane tasks performed every day by engineers, planners, inspectors, managers, and maintenance workers. This army of infrastructure workers goes largely unnoticed while navigating impossible constraints, bureaucracies, and increasingly challenging conditions (including underfunded systems increasingly in disrepair, changing environments, new players exerting influence in their systems, and hyperpolarized stakeholders). While attention and excitement are generally given to moonshot projects, these grind challenges define the success of infrastructures. In reading Madhavan’s article, I couldn’t help but think about how collectively these grind challenges define what infrastructures are, and affect what they are capable of, today and into the future.

Infrastructures are increasingly wicked and complex systems defined by grind challenges. Think of infrastructures as decisions and negotiations across numerous stakeholders, multiple governance layers, and old and new technologies. They are not simply amalgamations of hardware. Making things happen in this complexity requires satisficing, finding good-enough solutions given many competing goals from diverse stakeholders. Those who undertake grind challenges on a day-to-day basis to make infrastructures function collectively perform that satisficing, negotiating across multiple goals, limited financing and time, and increasing disruption. Essentially, they are confronting the wickedness of a reality where legacy infrastructures, often in disrepair, are increasingly asked to function in environments they weren’t designed for. To adapt and transform our infrastructures, we need to eliminate some of the grind and create new opportunities for innovation.

While attention and excitement are generally given to moonshot projects, these grind challenges define the success of infrastructures.

Infrastructures are constrained by legacy processes and technologies that slow transformation, and grind challenges define this lock-in. Grind challenges embody how decisions are made, and too often we constrain those people who are in the best position to see changing environments. It’s necessary to ask what we’re grinding toward. Often I find that infrastructures are locked in to legacy processes that result in system outcomes that perpetuate legacy goals. As we rethink the goals and functions of our infrastructures (e.g., sustainability, resilience, adaptation, equity, justice), it’s necessary to restructure the grind and the outcomes it produces. Infrastructures are tightly coupled systems where particular elements are given little ability to change, making wholesale transformation of the systems difficult. We need to give space to those who do grind challenges to amplify change.

Madhavan concludes by positioning grind challenges as mechanisms to affect future visions for infrastructures. This will require transformations of who is associated with infrastructure processes, the technologies emphasized, the structure of governance, and educational models. A sensible grind is where adaptation and transformation unfold at a pace commensurate with changes in the environment, and produces systems and services that support future generations to thrive.

Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering

Arizona State University

We read with great interest Guru Madhavan’s essay in the Summer 2022 Issues. Madhavan argues that our engineering attention should emphasize the “interlocking grind” of maintenance underlying the “valor” of grand challenges.

He unfurls this central point along what we see as three key conceptual turns. First is the focus on infrastructure producers to understand the challenges with updating such systems. Focusing on producers more accurately situates infrastructure in its social and institutional realities.

Second is the disjointed timelines between social and physical systems. Physical infrastructure is designed to last for decades. In the interim, the social systems around them change; engineers learn better techniques, societal needs evolve and even shift in location, and political priorities ebb and flow. Across our own empirical work, we depict infrastructure as “institutional relics.” Institutional in that infrastructure was built with the most authoritative standards of the time. Relics in that as physical systems age, the social systems around them change and learn, thereby updating the standards in ways that outdate the ones that originally built the system.

Third is emphasis on the workforce carrying out the grind. Our past work shares Madhavan’s “allure that emphasizes other aspects of engineering” via a refocusing on all the skills, training, and tools needed to carry out all aspects of the grind, from conducting standard operations and maintenance tasks through complete life-cycle project management. Overall, Madhavan offers wonderfully rich language for honoring the grind required to update an infrastructural institutional relic, beyond even the starting vision of the grand that erected it.

Can grind challenges not just divert attention from but also undermine the achievement of grand challenges?

However, Madhavan stops just short of the more provocative next question: Can grind challenges not just divert attention from but also undermine the achievement of grand challenges? An organizational study by Stine Grodal and Siobhan O’Mahony, published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2017, suggests that grind challenges (using Madhavan’s language) may displace ambitious grand challenge goals. Once mired in the existing structure, the grand simply becomes the grind. An example from our own empirical work was the construction of the Abraham Lincoln Bridge, which spans the Ohio River between Kentucky and Indiana. The original proposal intended to disentangle the preexisting spaghetti junction footprint near the bridge to better reflect current engineering best practices. For the myriad reasons that Madhavan cites regarding the reengineering of the Bayonne Bridge between New Jersey and Staten Island, this, too, would have run up project costs exorbitantly, so the existing system was kept. The realities of the grind even undermined the original hopes of the grand.

Madhavan notes that society takes for granted seemingly ordinary engineering work. We take this further and argue that the very engineering-social “pact” in the grind is precisely where we most perniciously block transcendence to the grand. We welcome the important dialog that this article should certainly incite.

BT Professor of Major Programme Management

Saïd Business School

University of Oxford

Doctoral students, Department of Engineering & Public Policy

Carnegie Mellon University

Cite this Article

“The Grind of Infrastructure Maintenance.” Issues in Science and Technology 39, no. 1 (Fall 2022).

Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, Fall 2022