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Surviving Today, Building Tomorrow

By Ted Sturdevant

Director of Strategic Initiatives

Center for Sustainable Infrastructure

We hope this finds you and your families healthy, safe and secure, and receiving what care you and they need to get through this time.

And to all those who are putting themselves at risk for the sake of the rest of us, we offer our very deepest gratitude. The COVID crisis has shined a spotlight on how much we rely on a strong social fabric that ensures everyone is taken care of and our communities continue to function safely. And it reminds us that this fabric is made of people who are committed to helping others, even at great risk to themselves.

While our collective focus is appropriately on helping each other through this time, we can’t help but be reminded of this essential fact: our quality of life, and sometimes even life itself, absolutely depends on the vitality of our civil society. Whether we’re surviving a pandemic or designing a sustainably prosperous tomorrow, whether and how we thrive rests on how strong the bones of our civil society are. Community infrastructure comprises much of that skeleton, and its strength and resilience matter most when needed most – at times like now.

Like you, we at CSI had all sorts of great plans that we’ve had to either shelve or shift because of the pandemic. And like you, we’re having to adapt to a new world that won’t stay still, even for a second.

Crises often demand a change in course. How well we turn, and in what direction, are up to us. To turn well, like a dancer or a skier, we lift up and unweight, so we can pivot with grace, before sinking back down onto our new course. This is such an unweighted time, and pivots will become possible that weren’t possible a few months ago.

As we adapt in real-time to this fast-changing landscape, we had what qualifies as a Big Realization – that much of the infrastructure we are designing and building today will still be operating in 2050! We are literally building the future today! If we want that 2050 future to be bright, its infrastructure has to be up to the job. Smart, integrated infrastructure systems vitalize and sustain communities. Outdated, inefficient or polluting infrastructure constrains and corrodes a community’s health and vitality.

So we see this time as full of promise and urgency. We’re looking hard at public and private investment streams for opportunities to help communities advance integrated projects that extract maximum social, economic and environmental value from those dollars. If infrastructure stimulus dollars are passed by Congress, those opportunities will grow – maybe by a lot.

In the coming month we’ll release our Clean Materials Report, two years in the making, re-envisioning the Northwest’s entire waste system instead as a Clean Materials system that would support health and prosperity for the century ahead, and serve as a model for others to follow.

Just last week we culminated a months-long effort with Gresham, Oregon’s 4th largest city, in collaboration with the University of Oregon, to help reimagine their entire range of water infrastructure and take bold steps toward a future of greater resilience, sustainability and fairness. We’re advising our partners in state and local government on how we can foster integrated solutions at scale as we recover from the Covid19 crisis. We’re continuing to advance industrial symbiosis in the Northwest, a Danish concept where co-located industries cycle each other’s waste into another’s resource, driving big economic and environmental gains. And we’ve recently expanded our staff and our strategic partnerships, to grow as effective change agents.

We’ve also been thinking about what this experience has to teach us, and noticing an even deeper appreciation of what resilience means to life on this planet in the 21st century. The resilience of many of our most fundamental systems is being tested. How our systems meet those tests will have a big impact on people’s quality of life and the quality of our communities, because this isn’t the last big, scary curve ball we’re going to see in the coming years.

Resilient infrastructure helps us make the best of a bad situation, while infrastructure that fails when it’s needed most can lead to chaos and suffering. Health care, effective governance, economic health, functional food systems, electricity, communication, transportation, clean running water, sewer and waste disposal – the quality of all these services have really mattered in these days, and will help determine the quality of our long-term recovery. These services undergird and influence our quality of life, and they all rely on the same thing – infrastructure systems that work when they’re needed.

As we aim for a bright future, it’s clear to us our focus on sustainable infrastructure makes sense. If we needed a reminder of how essential it is to our lives, we have it. In our preferred future, we’ll need our infrastructure to be resilient in the face of crisis and change, and offer more value for limited local dollars, without causing harmful, unintended consequences.

The good news is we know how to do this, and we’re seeing more and more examples of success. New tools like value planning and industrial symbiosis, that through broad collaboration and pairing local values with world-class expertise and cutting-edge technologies, help communities build innovative, integrated solutions to infrastructure challenges that grow community value, shrink waste and pollution, and support economic vitality.

We’re excited to share more about this work of building our future in the coming months, and we look forward to you coming along with us on this journey. In the meantime, be safe and well.

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