I have an enormous amount of respect for planners – infrastructure planners, economic planners, financial planners, city and town planners – anyone that has to marshal huge reams of data, distil the essence of need and come up with a future path for all of us. Planning is one of the most difficult and contested activities around infrastructure.
Common to all planners is the need to look ahead and determine what investments are made when. More importantly, planners are front and centre in determining why these investments occur in the first place. Often, planners are actively shaping a ‘why’ that communities eventually embrace (or not).
It is often said that plans become obsolete upon first contact with reality. In the sense that a plan is an abstraction of reality, this may well be true.
Recently I completed a short course in behavioural economics that really helps economists understand we live in a world of people, rather than stylised profit maximising agents. And I am seeing how this affects the kinds of investments we make. Toll roads that are hardly used, dams that we barely drink from, office towers that lie vacant. It is sometimes difficult to reconcile perceptions of future use with the use that occurs. It often feels no one is accountable for the herd of white elephants that choke off better investments.
I was reminded on a recent walk to remain humble and remember the whole point of public infrastructure is to serve the needs of the people. Irrespective of drawing a seductive curve of path on a map, sometimes people simply want the utility of getting from point A to point B. The challenge is knowing when function must dominate form. My aesthete is always looking for that balance.