It is often what happens behind the scenes that is most powerful. The ability to turn on lights at the flip of a switch, keep a refrigerator running and maintain access to lifesaving hospital equipment are all privileges most people don’t have to think twice about. The critical infrastructure that generates such vital power — that allows communities to run seamlessly — must be strategically designed and constructed with the people it affects in mind.
However, the concept of critical infrastructure being a people-focused endeavor hasn’t always been the leading perception.
Embracing Diverse Perspectives
A symptom of this disconnect is on display with the gender gap found in those working in the industry. Careers in critical infrastructure and corresponding science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) sectors, are consistently perceived as male dominated. In my experience, women have traditionally been encouraged to pursue people-focused lines of work, such as teaching or nursing, while men are commonly pointed toward careers revolving around numbers or machinery.
However, this gender gap in the world of STEM and critical infrastructure wasn’t always quite so wide.
When computer programming was in its early stages in the 1950s, with few universities offering majors in the field — let alone career opportunities — women were some of the first to take advantage of the new opportunity. Women were stereotypically considered to possess the minds needed to execute detailed computer programming work that required careful consideration. By 1960, nearly 25% of programmers were women.
The last 60 years have seen a dynamic shift in the genders that encompass STEM fields. Even as women have increasingly moved into the workplace, STEM careers still have a shocking gender gap. In 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 27% of workers in STEM were women. There has been much speculation about why the gap is so wide but the loss of STEM being considered a human-centric career path has almost certainly contributed.
I have seen firsthand how less-diverse perspectives lead to a lack of innovation and creative thought, significantly impacting the communities that rely on critical infrastructure. The point being: Everyone is impacted when the best and brightest minds, regardless of gender, aren’t tapped to provide fresh ideas for the next bridge, substation or power grid.
Incorporating People-Focused Design
Creative critical infrastructure solutions are needed for even the most minute components of day-to-day living — even the making of a frozen pizza, for example. An easy, economical dinner option is touched by a lengthy process involving engineers, manufacturers and transportation professionals who work together to deliver the commonplace product. The critical infrastructure needed to make this happen is rarely considered by the average consumer. The automated machinery crucial for adding mozzarella cheese to each pizza; the road system designed to provide direct routes from the manufacturing facility to the grocery store; and the power grid vital for powering the oven to properly cook dinner are all pieces of the pie to make this simple meal possible.
Like in the frozen pizza example, all strategic critical infrastructure decisions ultimately revolve around solving human needs. It’s crucial for people working in critical infrastructure to remember that project solutions are driven by the need to improve communities. This idea of helping people comes with a commitment to provide safety throughout every phase of a project.
Protecting Our Communities
Much like medical professionals, engineers are under an obligation to protect the people they are serving — as well as the workers on the job site. Engineering standards, whether for a highway or apartment building, must be based around the safety of human life. Starting with the early conception and planning stages, projects must be designed and built to prevent assets from failing — with the people using the services considered at every stage.
Keeping people in mind is not only imperative from a safety perspective but also when it comes to social justice. Social justice refers to the fair and even distribution of resources, opportunities and privileges in society. While typically wealthier areas might have the financial means to invest in improved roads and reliable power, engineers have a responsibility to design and construct projects of the utmost standards for every community regardless of the tax bracket it will affect.
The financial burden a project may place on a community must also be taken into account. While residents can voice their opinions in the form of voting, not much else can be done to sway whether a tax is levied, or a project is approved and moved forward. A power project that would progress sustainable initiatives might be better for the environment, for example, but higher rates for power could crush a community financially. Critical infrastructure solutions must make sense from both an engineering and financial standpoint for the people that it will impact.
For those currently working in critical infrastructure, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a significantly impactful project. Seeing the physical size of a wind turbine and thinking about the major contribution such an asset could provide toward decarbonization is awe inspiring. However, the individuals this will impact, whether physically on their land or financially through an increased rate of power, must be taken into consideration.
To maintain human-centric critical infrastructure, it’s important to take a step back and understand the complexities involved with every project. A diverse workforce is imperative to bring together the perspectives needed to implement these successful solutions and consider all angles.