A crack in the asphalt or a crack in the monument of sustainability?

A sustainable strategy for the future. A sustainable infrastructure. Sustainable public works.

Sustainability is heard in many contexts, and it is perhaps the most important word we use in our society right now. What does it mean?

Sustainability from a social perspective; where everybody’s equality is central, where the value of humanity is central, yes quite simply where humanity is centre-stage.

Sustainability from an environmental perspective; where flora and fauna are central, where sea and soil are central, yes quite simply where earth and the atmosphere are centre-stage.

Sustainability from an economic perspective where the long-term profitability of a plant is central, where a region’s long-term economic competitiveness is central, or, quite simply, where the robustness of the world’s financial system is centre-stage.

These three points of entry are undoubtedly far-reaching, important and relevant in the highest degree; but they are obviously problematic nonetheless. They present a simplified and reduced image of sustainability; one that’s certainly not altogether wrong, but definitely incomplete. It may be that the small issues disappear in the wake of the broad brush strokes – in the media to say the least. Maybe we should start out from the smaller perspective sometimes? But who wants to write an article about building robustly so that things will last? About the importance of caring for what we have already built? About the thickness of an asphalt layer or corrosion protection on lighting posts in a turnkey contract in Växjö? About the crack in the asphalt on the road outside Luleå, which maybe an earthworm at most might notice after rainfall, but which means that the body of the road is slowly, but very surely, eroding with considerable damage as a consequence? About the railway switch south of Stockholm that’s frozen-shut, which in all its simplicity is causing 1,200 people to sit silently in their train carriages, staring out at the beautiful star-filled winter night, feeling their frustration rise?

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Audit report after audit report demonstrates the same thing: infrastructure showing premature damage and neglected maintenance is no good. Not good at all. And it is more the rule than the exception that the state, the municipality, county councils, private property owners, are ending up in just that situation.

We can continue to find examples where maintenance has been neglected almost to infinity. But why do these situations arise? One can answer that this is because it is not as exciting to add resources to the infrastructure’s material selection or to the maintenance of the existing one as it is to build a new wildlife corridor, a new square, a new school or some other examples of important public, appreciated, civic initiatives.

But in the name of all honesty and reality the answer is probably something else, since obviously most decision makers know and understand that choice of methods and materials for new, extended or renovated construction and maintenance is both important, profitable and necessary. The real answer is most likely that it is difficult. Difficult to justify higher construction costs for a not always quantifiable benefit stretching well into the future. Difficult to maintain. Difficult to choose the rightmethod of maintenance, at the right time, with the right operator and at the right price.

The latter answer probably causes most people to raise their eyebrows; since no one can seriously believe that it is difficult to fix a crack in the asphalt? But as surprising as it might seem, the answer is yes, without a doubt; and for the simple reason that it just has to be done, and it has to be justified in a well-founded manner, from concerns emanating from all sorts of areas.

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To be able to move forward, a much broader and more solid cooperation between different competences must be developed. A collaboration involving lawyers, economists, natural scientists, economists, statisticians, engineers, logisticians and humanists working together to make the sustainability issue complete.

We see examples where many competences are required to bring about complete solutions covering all perspectives, like really long operating agreements providing incentives for wise material choices that encourage the strong support of the contractors, perhaps even allowing the builder to maintain the facility for several decades. This requires in-depth knowledge of the technology as well as the use of the facility, but also in-depth knowledge of both financing and long-term profitability models, all covered by well-written, clear, forward-looking and well-thought-out contracts. Including the users’ benefits, experiences and costs of completing the life cycle in the analysis is obvious, but perhaps other stakeholders ought to be included too.

Generally, there are interesting interfaces that can make a big difference when adopting an interdisciplinary approach. So why not combine knowledge about material fatigue, polymer technology, meteorology, energy consumption, hydrology, work environment, friction, current value calculation, contract structure and maintenance methods the next time you’re fixing a crack in the asphalt?

Seems exciting, doesn’t it?