Lean infrastructures for starting up again

Planning while fighting wastfulness: this is the objective of a way of thinking about the infrastructures; one that takes into account the real needs of the users and of the territory, anticipating the evaluation of the costs and benefits of a project. This is the philosophy of ‘lean design’: doing away with waste while acquiring value.

Delays in infrastructures and problems related to the construction of new infrastructures in Italy have been evident for some time. Over the years, and especially since the economic crisis of 2008, there have been many proposals from prestigious institutional actors as well as individual experts. Although most contributions are primarily of a legal and economic nature, there is often a recurring exhortation to revise by ‘slimming’ the design of Italian infrastructures, which are deemed to be too heavy and unduly expensive: in short, badly designed. This request is indicated in various ways: from the need to reduce over-designing, to more sober infrastructures, up to frugal engineering. But what does this really mean? What are the technical and cultural bases that are being referred to? Essentially, they are calling for less expensive infrastructures, but saying little about how to achieve this result. And anyway, is this really the goal? Is a less expensive infrastructure always preferable, no matter what?

That cannot be true because, then, it would be better not to build any new infrastructure, thus contradicting the starting assumption. I would like to make a contribution to this debate by proposing the concepts of lean design and lean infrastructures. NETlab is the center for research and development of the NET International Engineering Group, which works in collaboration with the Department of Transportation Engineering of the Federico II University of Naples and the Department of Industrial Engineering and Systems Management of the University of Padua. The ideas that we are working on in NETlab are based on the application of the principles of lean production and lean manufacturing in designing transport infrastructures. It is well known that lean production is a concept that comes from the field of industrial organization, specifically from the automotive industry. It was launched by Toyota, it was applied to many sectors in the manufacturing industry, and it is now beginning to be used in the service sector too. Lean techniques, and especially the lean way of thinking, are based on the concept of waste reduction. The Japanese word for wastefulness, muda, has strong ethical connotations. Something that goes to waste is not only a futile consumption of resources, but it is also a socially deplorable act.

All resource consumption that doesn’t correspond to an added value for the client is considered a waste. When this way of thinking is applied to infrastructures, it leads to some important conclusions, which, however, haven’t been applied to Italy’s design practices. We have summarized these conclusions into the seven principles of lean design:

  1. The basic choice of the type of infrastructure must be substantiated by a study of its progressive feasibility, comparing the greater cost to cheaper solutions: from not doing anything, to technologically upgrading existing infrastructures, up to the more expensive solutions (new infrastructures with features of progressively higher performance and/or capacity). All of this must be justified by a proportional increase in value for the project’s ‘clients’ (users of the infrastructure and of the transport system as a whole, the territory, local institutions, and businesses).
  2. The project must be flexible and dynamic, and wherever possible, it must identify the functional phases of construction and operation. You build what you need, when you need it: what is needed now is more useful than what might be needed tomorrow. An infrastructure made too early compared to the real needs is wasteful; therefore, lean projects must take into account the possibility of developing them in stages corresponding to internal and external changes. However, even if the usefulness of building only the first part of an infrastructure is demonstrated, the conditions for its subsequent development should be made clear from the outset (i.e. expropriations and planning constraints) if further developments may be useful over time (for example, another portion of the infrastructure).
  3. The project elements specific to the type of infrastructure must be designed to minimize costs. Design choices must be justified by the value they create for users and the community, and not by applying pre-defined standards (regulations are intended as guidelines, not as binding rules). We are in Europe, but Italian standards are often much stricter than in other European countries that have also achieved higher levels of security than ours, from railways, road tunnels and subways, to highway barriers. The so-called ‘regulatory design standards’ are old-fashioned, they make the project designer unaccountable, and they do not stimulate the search for new solutions.
  4. The design phase must have the time and resources necessary to carry out the necessary assessments. A poorly designed work will result in wastage, higher costs, and longer timeframes. Extensive accumulated experience indicates that fewer time and resources are spent in the early stages of design, especially for pre-feasibility and technical and economic feasibility studies; yet those decisions have the greatest impact on the value of the infrastructure. The distribution of the costs of design almost always follows an opposite trend: very little is spent (or more correctly, invested) in the early stages, while the final stages of the project absorb a considerable amount of resources and affect an increasingly limited fractions of value. Pre-feasibility and feasibility studies are considered a waste rather than an investment since a decision about what to do has already been made... How many feasibility studies have there been that have concluded that an infrastructure is not feasible or not convenient?
  5. The project must include consensus- building concerning the choices. An infrastructure project for which there is no consensus is wasteful, it costs more, and it takes longer. Therefore, lean design should include Public Engagement as an integral part of its design. The feasibility study must include an initial approval assessment for the various intervention hypotheses, which is why adequate resources are necessary. Public Engagement should be pursued in the following stages of design, according to the level of decisions involved.
  6. The value of an infrastructure is not only based on its functionality: a beautiful, eco-friendly infrastructure may cost a little (or nothing) more and it has a symbolic value that enriches a territory and facilitates consensus. Not grasping the symbolic or aesthetic value and the potential consent for an infrastructure would be a waste. Therefore, a lean infrastructure will be aware of the aesthetics in its geometry, its insertion into the landscape, in these works of art (bridges, viaducts, stations, and terminals). This focus should not be in search of sterile sensationalism, with costs spiraling out of control: it must be proportionate to the ‘value’ (symbolic, of consent, of use) that it creates.
  7. The infrastructure must be designed together with the technologies for monitoring, communications, control, management, and energy production. These can even reduce construction costs (for example, by substituting or reducing the physical elements) and management costs, thus avoiding wastefulness. Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) are now widely used in various fields, but they are still conceived and designed independently of the physical component of the infrastructure. But combining the design of infrastructures and technology systems can result in much better savings and/or quality of services: just think of the possibility of eliminating toll booths thanks to electronic toll collection (freeflow tolling), or increasing the number of trains that can use a railway line with dynamic control systems of circulation, which, in a few years, could even be via satellite.

Ultimately the goal of streamlined design is to plan infrastructures that have clear value for the customers. Streamlined infrastructures need not necessarily be modest or minimalistic infrastructures; they are infrastructures that will have a greater chance of being built and with better quality. Some critics of lean thinking believe that, in the end, it is nothing more than an orderly way of presenting common sense: that is probably true, but that is also exactly the strength of lean thinking.

Be that as it may, in my opinion, a little common sense is absolutely necessary for completing and/or redoing the far too many transport infrastructure projects that fill planning documents today. A serious project review, a good natural ‘slimming’ process is needed to set in motion the investment machinery.

(Abstract from Autostrade per l'Italia's Magazine "Agorà")