More than green...

It's been a little more than a week since our keynote sessions at the 2008 BE Conference in Baltimore -- plenty of time to decompress and reflect.  I've had the opportunity to speak to a number of people regarding my keynote on Sustaining Infrastructure, so I thought it would be useful to respond to some of the comments I've heard or read as well as re-emphasize some of the points I was attempting to make.

Sustaining Infrastructure vs. Green

One common theme among a lot of the reaction I've heard to BE in general is the tendency to conflate Bentley's concept of sustaining infrastructure with green.  To do this is a significant misreading of what we mean by sustaining infrastructure.  Now, don't get me wrong, green, no matter how you wish to define it, is incredibly important and is something Bentley is undoubtedly committed to, both from a corporate point of view (e.g., reducing our own carbon footprint), as well as what we enable our users to do through our software products.  However,  sustaining infrastructure is a far broader concept.  By almost every definition, green is focused primarily, if not exclusively, on the environment.  However, as we outlined in our BE Keynotes and described in our Sustaining Infrastructure whitepaper, the sustaining infrastructure concept includes three important dimensions:

  • Sustaining society
  • Sustaining the environment
  • Sustaining the infrastructure professions

Any commitment to sustainability must include a commitment to sustaining society.  From my personal point of view, this translates to a commitment to work toward providing every person on the planet with the possibility of realizing a quality of life the includes clean water, sanitation, food, access to critical services (such as education), physical security, and economic opportunity.  While concern for our fellow human being is perhaps reason enough to commit ourselves to the well being of all people, there is more to this than simple altruism.  As convincingly argued in their book, Break Through, Michael Shellenberer and Ted Norhaus make the point that there is a strong correlation between quality of life and concern for the environment, that "thinking ecologically requires prospering economically."  For many of 4 billion people living below the United Nation's Human Development Index threshold for "High Human Development," particularly  the 1.2 billion people living on less than $2 a day, sustaining themselves and their family for another day, week or month overwhelm any concerns about the global environment or climate change.  Simply put, a true global commitment to sustainability requires a global community living with a reasonable quality of life.  Thus sustaining society and sustaining the environment go hand in hand and are completely interdependent.  The corollary is that sustaining infrastructure must necessarily be about growth and not strictly about imposing limits.  Smart growth to be sure, but growth nonetheless.  As our VP of Corporate Marketing (and silky baritone), Chris Barron, says, "green is a passive state of being, but sustaining is an active and ongoing process."  

Sustainability Challenge

This brings me to a slide presented in the keynote to graphically depict the "sustainability challenge," which is to achieve a Human Development Index worldwide greater than 0.8 and a Sustainability Index (defined as the global Ecological Footprint divided by the earth's biocapacity) of greater than 1.0.

As I said during the keynote, the countries with high human development, but a low sustainability factor (which is virtually all of the developed world) will "need strategies for increasing their Sustainability Index without comprising their Human Development Index. This might include things such as clean energy development, increasing biocapacity, and reducing their carbon footprint among other strategies."  On the other hand, those countries with a Sustainability Factor greater than 1.0 but with Human Development Index of less than 0.8 (virtually all of the developing and under-developed world) will "need strategies, and assistance, for achieving fundamental economic development. Beyond that they'll need strategies for smart economic growth that will enable them to continue to increase their Human Development Index without degrading their Sustainability Index below acceptable limits." The common denominator between the two is infrastructure -- basic economic development requires infrastructure; deploying new technologies for smart growth, e.g., clean energy, will require infrastructure.  Of course, delivering and maintaining the infrastructure required to sustain both society and the environment, requires a robust and growing community of infrastructure professionals, the third (and likewise interdependent) dimension of sustaining infrastructure.

To repeat, sustaining infrastructure undoubtedly embraces green but it is clearly not limited to green.  To elaborate on a recent comment from Joe Croser, as a company committed to sustaining infrastructure, it is our duty to support economic development in the developing world, as we do through our initiatives with Engineers Without Borders, HOPE Worldwide, The Hunger Project, the Red Cross, and the United Way; it is our duty to reduce our own carbon and ecological footprints which is the subject of many internal initiatives and even impacted the way in which we conducted the BE Conference; and it is our duty to support initiatives to inspire young people to join the infrastructure professions, which is reflected in our long-term support of the Future Cities competition in the U.S. for middle school students, and the Future City 2020 program in India for high school students.  However, it is our mission to support our users initiatives in sustaining infrastructure, in all its dimensions, through our software products, our solutions, our education programs, our professional services, and our commercial models.

What has Dostoyevsky got to do with Sustaining Infrastructure?

During my keynote, I proposed that the world's goal for human development should be nothing less than 0.8 on the United Nation's Human Development Index scale.  To those who thought this was too optimistic, I asked "who should we say no to?", referring Andrew Winston's "no is not an option" statement.  I also said there was great Dostoyevsky quote that also applied, but that I didn't want to seem to nerdy by bringing up, that is, if it wasn't too late (unfortunately, several of my "friends" confirmed afterwards that it was too late - I was a nerd).  However, several people have since asked me what quote I had in mind.  So here it is.  It's from the book The Brothers Karamazov, and the main character, Yvan, is talking to is brother, who happens to be a priest, about suffering in the world:

"Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last. Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny order to found that edifice on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me. Tell me the truth." 

So tell me, tell me the truth -- when we complain about the World Bank funding another coal plan in India because of the carbon dioxide, to which child to we say, "Sorry, you'll have to wait for that electric pump that will finally bring clean water to your village because we here in the developing world are spewing too much carbon"?  When we rail against genetically altered seeds that are more productive and disease resistant because it's "unnatural", to which starving child do we say, "Sorry, you're crops won't yield enough again this year, so go hungry for a while longer"?  When we refuse to get aggressive about adapting to climate change because people might get lazy about trying to stop climate change, to which child do we say, "Sorry, we can't provide you that mosquito net just yet because we have to teach people a lesson"?  Yeah, tell me, tell me the truth.  There's a saying from the civil rights movement that seems to have the ring of truth to me - "Justice delayed is justice denied."  Sometimes we just have to get over ourselves.