Legacy infrastructure and the challenge of procuring urban resilience

Poverty is expensive—not just for people, but for places, too. While cash-strapped cities face a number of challenges, aging infrastructure is perhaps the costliest.

Many cities across the United States are home to legacy water, transportation, and other infrastructure systems, which are not only poorly suited to their current needs but are nearing (or well past) the end of their usable lives after decades of underinvestment. Unfortunately, due to broader budget constraints, community and utility leaders often make incremental repairs rather than invest in more cost-effective long-term solutions.

Despite its enormous expense, significant infrastructure repair or replacement also represents a major opportunity. Over the coming years, cities of every size have a once-in-a-generation chance to shift toward cleaner, greener technologies and create more resilient communities. The simultaneous benefits are undeniable: fewer catastrophic failures (as in Flint, Mich.) and decades of reduced pollution from improved infrastructure performance. To make this leap, cities and states must be able to design, procure, and build entire new infrastructure systems, but current procurement processes steer decision-makers to the same outdated ‘pieces-and-parts’ approach.

Put simply: cities must be able to buy things differently in order to buy different things.

Even when a city knows what it needs and how to get it, public procurement processes are often biased against new, cross-cutting, or resilient solutions.  A few cities, like Boston with its Smart City RFI, have taken steps to foster innovation in procurement, but for most, knowing how to shop for resilient infrastructure or procure resilience solutions  is still a challenge. For many reasons, the time is right to address local barriers to upgrading infrastructure.

First, while many leaders are calling for renewed infrastructure investment—especially at the federal level—Washington will not be able to drive these efforts by itself. Instead, a large influx of federal funding is likely to push everyone toward familiar, so-called ‘shovel ready’ projects rather than investing in more climate-smart and resilient solutions. Cities must lead and collaborate on new investment strategies to ensure that federal funds address local needs.

Second, good money shouldn’t follow bad. Many of the country’s basic water, waste, energy, and transportation assets are already at the end of their useful lives. It is neither cheap, smart, nor sustainable to wait and react only when bridges, roads, power grids, and water systems fail. This approach locks communities into reactive spending in lieu of proactive investments with an eye to the future.

Third, infrastructure projects are complicated and require time to complete properly. Systems that took years to design, finance, and build can fail in a single day. Developing replacement options takes time and money. As the pace of change—climatic, economic, social, and political—quickens, local decisionmakers tasked with keeping crumbling infrastructure intact face growing uncertainty. They need pre-development support now to identify new solutions before a crisis.

The good news, however, is that many communities recognize both the risks and opportunities in their current infrastructure vulnerabilities. In turn, they are already shopping for more resilient infrastructure solutions.

Accelerating this widespread interest is key. For example, elected officials from over 150 U.S. cities and counties have already pledged to make their communities more resilient through the Resilient Communities for America Partnership. Still, even the strongest commitments require support to execute new projects. Local leaders, after all, rarely make big infrastructure decisions. When they do, they typically only get one opportunity, where easy, off-the-shelf resilient solutions simply do not exist.

Building more resilient water, transportation, or other systems requires going beyond traditional purchasing processes that enable the development of existing legacy infrastructure. Standard pre-development and procurement processes will not help cities pursue innovative outcomes, regardless of how much money federal leaders throw at the country’s infrastructure challenges. Everyone is focused on finding new funding streams and financing models for new infrastructure, but someone must also think about how to actually spend these funds and move beyond predetermined procurement structures. Developing new resilience procurement options is uncharted territory for many leaders, and simply off the radar for most.

Nor can local governments afford to function as agency-based fiefdoms. There is a need for more collaborative action, ensuring that capital planners, public works directors, and procurement officers come together to chart a new path forward. Creating a venue of cooperation for these decisionmakers—to identify common obstacles to resilience procurement, develop targeted pragmatic fixes, and ultimately funnel new investment to new technologies and services—is essential, especially for marginalized and underserved communities.

As long as cities keep making unsustainable fixes to their failing legacy infrastructure systems, they will remain trapped in a costly, vulnerable position and possess little capacity to recover and rebuild after a disaster. Understanding how to break free from this vicious cycle of short-term, ad-hoc infrastructure investment is the first step to empowering cities to implement new, comprehensive resilient solutions.

Cities can no longer afford to buy infrastructure the same way they used to, so why not change how they shop for it altogether?