The more I work with graduate students, and with clients, the more I think about ... thinking. A lot of people have heard me use the word "epistemology" - a word I heard in the context of product development for the first time in conversation with Anthony Green. Epistemology is the study of knowledge; I think of it as "thinking about thinking".
Given all the changes of the last year or so, it seems like a good time to ask: how do we think about thinking, when the way we think has changed? The way I think about thinking is now rooted in the concepts of arguing from first principles, and with framing and reframing problems. Put together, you'd be right to think that I'm not that interested in optimization, but in invention and reinvention.
With a background in political science, journalism, law, marketing and research - I can't help but be interested in the systems around me (legal, political, social, economic). I am not interested in burning things down. I'm especially not interested in nihilism. Design stands in opposition to nihilism.
Anyway - that's what's going on in my head.
Here's something else!
Infrastructure Isn't Sexy. Duh.
Journalists and pundits constantly remind you that this is true, and this is meant to explain why infrastructure investment by the federal and state governments is nowhere near where it should be. In many ways, solving the problem of infrastructure in America starts to take on the early days of scoping a complex project with a client:
- No shared understanding of the issue: We don't even hold a common idea of what infrastructure is - sure it's bridges, tunnels, railroads, sewers, roads, highways. But what about broadband internet? Libraries? Post offices? Do they count?
- No shared values & objectives: We also don't agree on why we spend money on infrastructure. Is it to employ blue collar workers, or skilled labor? But isn’t the unemployment rate already below 5%? And what will they do when all the projects are done? Is it because interest rates are so low we don’t really have to raise taxes to find the money to get started, we can just borrow the money and get to work? What gets improved first?
- No buy-in on strategy: We don't agree on where to start. Where do we invest the money and the effort? Some things seem obvious: fixing cracked roads, add lanes to overburdened highways, repair and upgrade rail lines, fortify bridges and tunnels. But then what? Do we fix the pipes in Flint? It's economically depressed, folks are poor - what's the ROI? Do we build a new highway through South Dakota? How many people would that really help? Do we improve mass transit from the East Bay to Silicon Valley, or in the NYC-metro area, or add a highway into Austin? Lots of rich folks live in those places - aren't we just optimizing at the edges? What about building big, beautiful new whatevers - bridges, tunnels, train stations, airports to rival Asia's and Europe's? Is that wasteful? What problem does that solve?
- No clear OKRs: And we don't agree on what the outcome of all this infrastructure improvement and investment would be. When we're done doing any of it, or all of it, how will America be different than it is today?
- No diversity of perspectives. Legislators and government contractors talk about "infrastructure". People talk about potholes and train delays and gridlock. Generalities and jargon aren't helpful; insiders are often stuck in tactics rather than strategies. Involving new stakeholders who have expertise, speak freely and provide input rather than solutions might change the whole way we think about - and therefore the way we talk about - infrastructure investment. Who are these outsiders? How do we get them involved?
If you've ever been a consultant or worked on a cross-discipline/multi-department project, you've encountered these problems. During an episode of The Weeds by Vox, where this exact conversation played out. Despite having a moment in the political headlines, as it does from time to time, it was clear listening to the pundit-journalists: infrastructure just isn’t sexy. Nobody cares about it, nobody can agree on how to do it, and nobody wants to pay for it. And you know what happens to your client projects when that's the mood. Projects that lack shared values and common interests and desirable outcomes die. No matter how critical they are to the business.
A lot of times it's got nothing to do with how feasible or viable the solution is. It’s not impossible to fix infrastructure, to upgrade it, to build new, useful things. It’s not frivolous. Better roads, more mass transit, better access to rail and air travel, better ports - these all improve access, improve opportunity, lay the groundwork for industry growth and jobs. And the work itself is worthy - there are people who are underemployed with the skills to do it; there are people who could gain the skills to do it - even if it takes a year to get trained up, staffed, funded, at the end there will be better (and more) bridges, tunnels, railroads, highways. That means jobs - jobs that create taxable income, that increases revenues for states and cities that can reinvest that money in education and well, infrastructure. Communities with improved infrastructure attract business, provide better quality of life, lift all boats.
But these can be technical arguments. Better infrastructure isn't just an economic good - it's a social good, and an emotional good. It's a matter of pride. If you’re lucky enough to travel outside the country, you may have seen places with worse infrastructure than ours - but if you’ve been to major cities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, you've seen how old-fashioned and decrepit our infrastructure is, how depressing our airports are, how bumpy and loud our roads are, how filthy our train stations can be, how ancient our mass transit. Returning to NYC from London or Singapore or Hong Kong, I am frequently struck by a feeling of having entered a Second World country, not a First World superpower. I live in a tourist destination, a Hollywood backlot, but I find myself embarrassed to welcome people whose public standard of living is so much higher to my town. Modern, efficient, well maintained infrastructure could be a manifestation of our values - of innovation, democracy, civic duty, a strong work ethic, and yes, pride. America, the Beautiful.
So why aren't we more excited about infrastructure? Why aren't voters? Maybe it's because we start by assuming it's not exciting.
But Roman Mars and his squad over at 99% Invisible are almost constantly excited about infrastructure, thereby disproving this assumption!
(isten to any of these, or all of them, and then tell me that infrastructure is inherently unsexy.)
To tell a great story, you need a great story to tell - so part of what makes the 99PI stories so compelling is in how they frame the subject. Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg explores the topic of framing in a recent article for Harvard Business Review. How we understand the problem defines how we develop solutions.
So - let's say the challenge of infrastructure isn't feasibility, or viability, and it's not even desirability (people who use infrastructure want it to be safe and attractive and well-maintained). It’s a framing, positioning, storytelling, campaigning, persuasion, involvement and salience problem.
Here's a design question: how might we reframe the need for infrastructure investment so that citizens demand it (as opposed to legislators using it as a political football)?
Next time I'll write something shorter. I'm out of practice.