Interview with Bob Prieto
Invest in infrastructure throughout its life cycle

Bob Prieto is senior vice president of the industrial and infrastructure business group at Fluor Corp., an international provider of engineering, operations, and project management services. He has participated in city-level initiatives aimed at delivering critical infrastructure to bolster security. Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, he co-chaired the New York City Partnership’s Infrastructure Task Force and chaired the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Engineering & Construction Governors meeting. Under his leadership, the WEF initiated the Disaster Response Network.

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Bob Prieto

Can you discuss your framework for building resilient infrastructure?

Infrastructure is a system—not just the physical system but the processes, training, operation, and maintenance of that system. Post-disaster, you might have two or three different ways to build out a system so that it’s able to resist, respond, and recover. And each of those approaches will have different levels of inherent resilience.

More complex systems may have less inherent resilience, because in complexity there are risks as well as opportunities to fail that are not immediately obvious. Unanticipated events—black swans—love complexity; they invest and breed in complexity.

So resilience to me is a system-level property. Therefore, less complex, more transparent, easier to understand, more flexible, more adaptable, responsive systems will have higher levels of resiliency.

In the wake of recent disasters, what examples of this type of resilience come to mind?

After 9/11, the New York City subway system showed itself to be highly resilient, even though it’s one of the oldest pieces of infrastructure in the city. There were two main reasons for this: Decision making was highly decentralized and system reconfiguration was possible.

Stationmasters in the vicinity of the World Trade Center were able to stop trains from coming into their station when smoke appeared. They didn’t need central approval because they make decisions like this every day, responding to unscheduled events of scale, such as a broken water main or a police action. Stationmasters were used to making decisions to reconfigure the mode of operation and to isolate the stations in some form from the system.

Then, when the nature of the event became apparent, New York City’s subway system reconfigured itself into evacuation mode. Trains didn’t bring new passengers into Lower Manhattan, but were dispatched to Lower Manhattan to take passengers out. Fares were bypassed.

Over the next days and weeks the system was reconfigured again as different parts of the system were either taken out of service or put into the system and new trains were realigned. Ultimately, the system proved resilient because of an operating mode that constantly tested its flexibility, adaptability, and responsibility.

How about Superstorm Sandy? Did we learn any lessons from 9/11 that could apply?

With Sandy, there was awareness of an oncoming event, as opposed to what happened on 9/11 or what might happen after an earthquake or a tornado where you don’t have a lot of lead time. So there were actions taken to help improve survivability of infrastructure or enhance the resilience of infrastructure—such as taking subway cars out of subway tunnels that might flood.

They may have taken some trains in some of the systems to the wrong places, but that’s a lesson learned that will be remembered. We are continuing to learn with our infrastructure systems—maybe not as quickly or as broadly as we should, but yes, I do think people are learning.

What I fear though is that we’re learning tactical lessons but we’re not yet learning the more systemic lessons. I think that will happen with time.

Where are we on the resilience continuum?

Every day, our country’s infrastructure is becoming less resilient for two high-level reasons. The more important one is that our investments in sustaining the operability and maintenance of our infrastructure do not keep up with the amount of decay and degradation that our infrastructure incurs. We do not invest sufficiently in sustaining our current infrastructure—especially throughout its entire life cycle.

Our infrastructure has to deal with changing externalities. We make much higher demands on those infrastructure systems than what they were designed to withstand, and in many instances, we use them well past their designated lifetimes.

The physical environment has also changed. We have higher levels of air and water pollution as well as more frequent instances of natural and manmade events of scale.

The good news is some of our infrastructure was designed to be fairly resistant to those attacks—and some of our newer infrastructure systems and operating and maintenance practices are incorporating more resilience. But on average, the resilience of our infrastructure systems is diminished with every passing day.

What changes are necessary for infrastructure to be sustained over its lifecycle?

We always talk about having a lifecycle focus, but we’re going to have to reflect that in our codes and standards. We need to design, build, operate, and maintain infrastructure more holistically.

I think that’s an important mental shift.

Similarly, how we fund these things is going to have to be on a lifecycle basis. We’ll go out and assemble money to build the new bridge. But having built the new bridge, have we put in place the funding to actually sustain the new bridge, to maintain it properly so that we don’t have to replace it after 40 years? Can it be operated with the same level of safety and quality and inherent resilience that it had on the day it was originally delivered, or are we going to accept degraded infrastructure?

And then the question becomes, “Do we understand the cost of that degraded infrastructure to our economic output?” The short answer is, “No, we don’t.”

Why is that?

We don’t seem to be able to have effective public debate on this. And we have a hard time recognizing that infrastructure may or may not be a public entitlement and that all infrastructure systems are not necessarily created equal. So we need to have an informed debate, but quite frankly, we’re trying to have a debate around assets that have lifetimes of 35 to 100 years in what is effectively a two-year political cycle.

I think political will is a scarce commodity today. In some ways, public-private partnerships, or at least the toll-setting aspects of them, represent almost an outsourcing of political will. At one level that’s a sad commentary. At another level, if that’s what it takes in order to have the infrastructure that this nation requires, then so be it.

We seem to learn only in failure. And that’s an expensive way to learn.

How do we shape the discussion to invest in this kind of resilience that will pay off in the future?

There are a couple of drivers. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the affected parties get it, and so they will build back better. Plus, good or bad, there’s usually a bucket of money from outside the traditional funding streams that becomes available, whether it’s federal or state or local.

Second, because of homeland security concerns, we actually do see more attention being paid to critical infrastructure. The third thing that is starting to pervade our thinking is concern about global climate change.

Finally, my own profession can do more to influence outcomes. The general tendency in standards development is to move toward lifecycle-performance-based standards—but as a profession we can do more, faster.

All of us must do better. And, quite frankly, all of us together have no choice but to do better or we’re going to have a future that none of us wants.

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