By Sander Dolder and Devin McIntire
During a recent World Environment Center roundtable in New York City, it became clear that modern challenges including urbanization, climate change and economic woes are forcing the public and private sectors to revamp their thinking about infrastructure.
Opportunities abound for successful and sustainable infrastructure projects. For example, designing an enduring vision, establishing an effective communication plan, and embracing data that will measure real value, are all things that can influence behavior and drive better decision making. But to do it right, businesses of all sizes must consider three key issues: resiliency, behavior and Big Data.
Resiliency is the ability for a system to recover, adapt, and grow in the face of unforeseen changes. Companies can use the concept of resilience to help grow or transform their business, including things like where to locate, where to source materials, or what energy systems to invest in that would optimize their adaptability to climate change.
The Walt Disney Company, for example, has developed an internal carbon tax, charging its business units a fee based on how much carbon they emit. Resilience is also providing an ideological guideline to New York City and how the city is approaching its plan to adapt to climate change.
While reducing the carbon footprint may be difficult for some businesses to justify on their balance sheets, from a resilience perspective we can see the systemic innovation such a carbon tax can produce. It dis-incentivizes GhG emissions and helps to ensure that the infrastructure of its individual business units don’t over-rely on carbon-intensive fuel to make money. This helps reduce exposure to potential supply shocks and, by enabling businesses to allocate funds to research and design for improving fuel efficiency, they can create a system that reinforces sustainability.
NYC’s resiliency plan, Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, addresses changes that need to be made to prepare for future catastrophic storms and other natural disasters. The innovation lies in the fact that it specifically targets the behavior of various agencies. This isn’t simply a list of prescriptions for better infrastructure; it is designed as a guiding governance document for all city agencies. Instead of ordering each department to produce its own plans for natural disaster, the city chose to create real resilience by facilitating collaboration and standardization of planning and action among city agencies and infrastructure.
Behavior is critical when rebuilding an infrastructure. Communication is often the bottleneck in climate adaptation – not a lack of technology advancement or financing. To be sure, there are strategies that can help steer behavior change. Ingersoll Rand, for example, created connections between the C-suite and operational managers that speed innovation and helps the company adapt to change. Such collaboration helps the company understand its tolerance to risk. But it also enables them to holistically plan sustainability initiatives and gain cooperation across departments.
When it comes to collecting and analyzing all this Big Data, it’s important to remember, that it’s only going to get bigger. Befriend it, and it will do good things for you. Consider that the Millennial generation is becoming an important factor in how businesses and governments operate. This demographic, the first generation born in the computer age, is not only more trusting of information and data, but also deem sustainability as an important issue in their lives.
For example, using a data-driven “triple bottom line” scorecard, AECOM has seen a complete transformation in how they assess infrastructural challenges, which has deeply impacted how communities make decisions. NYC has understood that providing consumers with utility pricing and information can play an important part in changing resource consumption behavior. As Big Data becomes more integrated into our decision making, cities and corporations can provide faster, more impactful and more accurate evaluations of different infrastructural proposals while limiting risk and unnecessary budgetary expenses.
By integrating resiliency into strategic decision-making, addressing behavioral change, and using Big Data to drive innovative solutions, the public and private sectors can craft better strategies for sustainable infrastructure projects. In turn, doors will open to help cities spur economic development, improve the health of their citizens, and speed their adaptation to a changing climate and world.
Sander Dolder and Devin McIntire are recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute Global Sustainable Enterprise, a joint masters program with the Ross School of Business and School of Environmental Science and Natural Resources. Both were part of the Erb-WEC Fellowship, sponsored by the Erb Institute and the World Environment Center and supported by IBM as part of its commitment to environmental sustainability and developing next-generation skills.
Sander Dolder is Senior Project Manger at the New York City Economic Development Corporation; follow him @sanderdolder and www.linkedin.com/in/sdolder/ ; Devin McIntire is a sustainability consultant specializing in organizational innovation and peer=to-peer markets; follow him @Devinmc and www.linkedin.com/pub/devin-mcintire/2/a28/4b4/