Infrastructure and Resilience

Last week, Bracken Hendricks, Cathleen Kelly, and Adam James of The Center for American Progress released a well-crafted report entitled Infrastructure and Resilience: Forging a National Strategy for Reconstruction and Growth.

The report is worth reading in its entirety. Here are some of the takeaways:

Any such national strategy must accomplish three key tasks:

                        Improving infrastructure planning and making high-quality information about climate change and resiliency more usable for decision makers

                        Increasing the flow of capital resources from both the public and private sectors into those infrastructure projects that are truly needed for national security and economic growth

                        Meeting implementation challenges by effectively linking federal, state, local, and private efforts so as to ensure that projects are built effectively and efficiently on the ground in communities nationwide…

…The president’s dual priorities to both repair our deteriorating infrastructure and develop solutions to climate change are directly related. If the two are more explicitly linked through a well-designed national infrastructure-resilience strategy, they offer the correct approach to both speed up the ongoing economic recovery and build a better, more resilient future.

Such a comprehensive national strategy would have several key benefits. First, by utiliz­ing the proven convening power of the Executive Office of the President, exemplified by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, the Obama administration can sustain federal engagement and momentum on improving investments in the strength and resilience of our nation’s infrastructure. Second, the administration can take advantage of the rare bipartisanship that exists at the state and local level in meeting infrastructure needs and, in doing so, can create a significant number of new American jobs. Third, the process of creating an assessment, marshaling strong incentives for private investment, and ensuring interagency coordination in support of the work of mayors and governors will foster good government even as it positions public institutions to better protect citizens from the growing impacts of climate change. Finally, this process will allow the nation to move forward in establishing a concrete long-term strategy for both reducing the impacts of climate change and adapting to its effects that cannot be avoided. These investments can be made in a manner that both stimulates economic growth and allows the economy to become increasingly resilient to a much broader range of threats to national and economic security.

In this brief, we argue that the president must advance his new infrastructure initia­tives and investment goals in the context of the public health and safety risks of climate change…

…the president should act immediately to:

1. Launch a national infrastructure-vulnerability assessment: Improve the availability and usability of information on infrastructure needs and resilience. It would look systematically at the ability of U.S. transportation, energy, water, communications, and other strategic infrastructure to hold up to both current and future threats.

2. Establish a comprehensive federal infrastructure-investment strategy: This would build on recent commitments in the administration’s budget plan, and would both access new financial tools and better harmonize existing financing authorities within the federal government to more effectively leverage public and private capital in priority-infrastructure investments.

3. Create an infrastructure and resilience council: The council would function as a working group within the president’s own cabinet to support presidential leadership in improving coordination across all federal agencies and in partnering with cities and states to accelerate the development of these priority-resilience projects by increasing public and private investment.

These are magnificent ideas and if the President and Congress are able to carry them forward in a bipartisan spirit, the Nation will be the better for it.

That prompts two small thoughts. The first is that whether rightly or wrongly, climate change has proved stubbornly resistant to bipartisanship. Insisting that it be a explicit driver for building infrastructure resilience may be a bridge too far (no pun intended). It’s also superfluous. Every engineer understands that infrastructure built to last must accommodate climate variability and change.

This brings us to the second notion, which is implicit throughout much if not all of this material, but which could use a bit more emphasis:

These steps will work best and proceed most quickly and effectively if the federal government and partners at the national level focus more on providing resources that will equip and enable  communities across the United States to accomplish these tasks… infrastructure vulnerability assessment, a comprehensive investment strategy, and councils to oversee the work… locally.

If the federal government can resist the urge to go about this from the top-down, but instead equip communities and states to accomplish these tasks from the ground up… and make these communities the center of the action… in the manner of the Project Impact effort initiated by President William Jefferson Clinton and his FEMA Director James Lee Witt…the effort is likely to proceed more quickly, be more effective, and prove more enduring.

In today’s Internet Age with so much material of every kind available on line it’s a bit surprising that so little exists on Project Impact. The material is available is fragmented. Perhaps the Congressional Research Service’s 2009report  FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program: Overview and Issues, by Francis X. McCarthy and Natalie Keegan is as good a place to start your reading as any.

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3 Responses to Infrastructure and Resilience

  1. Michael Cunningham says:

    Bill, I always have concerns about “comprehensive national strategies,” and support your caution on a “top-down” approach. As an economist, I’ve long argued for policies which increase our capacity to deal well with whatever the future brings: policies which support innovation, entrepreneurship and flexibility, “letting a thousand flowers bloom” rather than pursuing centralised control and determination of direction. The community at large is always more innovative and adaptable than a bureaucratic government: while the government might set a broad direction, it needs to depend on others – through free markets and light-handed regulation – to devise and implement solutions.

    Interestingly, a recent publication in Physical Review Letters tends to support my approach from a different direction. The authors pursue the concept of “causal entropy,” suggesting that “a given physical system not only maximises the entropy within its current conditions, but that it reaches a state that will allow it more entropy – in a real sense, more options – in the future. … we explicitly propose a first step toward such a relationship in the form of a causal generalization of entropic forces that we show can spontaneously induce remarkably sophisticated behaviors associated with the human ‘‘cognitive niche,’’ including tool use and social cooperation, in simple physical systems. Our results suggest a potentially general thermodynamic model of adaptive behavior as a non-equilibrium process in open systems. …

    “The remarkable spontaneous emergence of these sophisticated behaviors from such a simple physical process suggests that causal entropic forces might be used as the basis for a general—and potentially universal—thermodynamic model for adaptive behavior. Namely, adaptive behavior might emerge more generally in open thermodynamic systems as a result of physical agents acting with some or all of the systems’ degrees of freedom so as to maximize the overall diversity of accessible future paths of their worlds (causal entropic forcing). In particular, physical agents driven by causal entropic forces might be viewed from a Darwinian perspective as competing to consume future histories, just as biological replicators compete to consume instantaneous material resources.”

    So policies which increase our future options will generally (almost always) be superior to those which limit them. Government and bureaucratic initiatives too often impose limits and favour vested interests over emerging ones, and stifle initiative rather than promoting it.
    [And, of course, I endorse your praise of Judy Curry.]

  2. George Leopold says:

    Bill writes:

    “If the federal government can resist the urge to go about this from the top-down, but instead equip communities and states to accomplish these tasks from the ground up… and make these communities the center of the action….”

    Neal Peirce of the Washington Post Writers Group and founder of a group called addresses this and related federal-state-local issues in a recent “lessons learned” column:

    Peirce’s column amplifies some of Bill’s points while examining the appropriate role of federal agencies in empowering local and regional officials, then getting out of the way.

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