Talking value when talking deficit

What if we measured our infrastructure deficit, not just in dollars, but according to real value? And if we didn’t use the reference point of re-building the same stuff we have, but instead demanded that our infrastructure be real assets to communities, public health, ecosystems, cultures, economies, and public finances? What would be possible?

This park is for walking but not jogging. Is our other single-use, single-value infrastructure just as ridiculous?

This park is for walking but not jogging. Is our other single-use, single-value infrastructure just as ridiculous?

According to Wikipedia, deficit is the amount by which a sum falls short of some reference amount. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities and other similar groups internationally are great at pointing out the financial sum by which our public liabilities exceed our assets. The massive deficit sums references are overwhelming and heavy – especially considering the financial and resource capacities of our local governments.

But what if we looked at this as an opportunity to invest in public infrastructure that can deliver more value? What if, instead of feeling heavy and overwhelmed, we felt inspired? What is the potential?

The connection between specific infrastructure and specific types of value is already quite clear and obvious. For example:

  • Vehicle bridges enhance mobility, contributing directly to trade and productivity –> clear economic value
  • Wastewater treatment plants clean our water before releasing it to the environment –> health and ecological value
  • Public libraries provide a welcoming public space and access to learning for all –> cultural and social value

However, looking at these same pieces of infrastructure, they can be removing value at the same time they’re adding it:

  • Vehicle bridges promote driving, contributing to more cars and more exhaust –> public health impacts
  • Smelly and noisy wastewater treatment plants are terrible neighbours –> local community nuisance and property value decline
  • Some may argue that public libraries are becoming obsolete with electronic information now available everywhere, and are a drain on the public purse (definitely not a personal opinion) –> financial liability

We need more from our infrastructure, and I think we should expect better. Not just more and better in terms of newer roads or water mains that don’t burst beneath major traffic corridors, but infrastructure that doesn’t deliver one type of value at the sacrifice of another type.

This isn’t a stretch – through various green or living building trends in design and construction, we’re already expecting more from our buildings. And there are groups that are working on promoting the same principles in infrastructure. (Personally, I think we have a better chance by changing our process rather than applying a checklist, but that’s for another post).

So when we talk about our infrastructure deficit, let’s just be more clear and holistic about where our current infrastructure is adding value AND diminishing it. And let’s not be timid about expecting more.

(NOTE: I’m not saying ‘spend more’ – innovating our thinking about our infrastructure may not require a greater financial investment. We need to be responsible with our finances – by ensuring we’re looking at whole life cycle costs and value, clear about priorities and tradeoffs, apply appropriate financing mechanisms,  and maybe even adapting our human behaviors to change the demand on our infrastructure.) 

I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I’m confident that there are enough smart people out there who can make some amazing things happen if we think about potential and not just solving problems.


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