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Communication Breakdown – City vs Asset Management Perspectives

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

By: Mark Reiner, PhD, PE; Steve Fisher, PhD, PE; and Andrew Fang, PhD

Communication breakdowns between a utility’s choice of key performance indicators (KPI) and the goals of the city being served has resulted in aging urban infrastructure. Effective communication requires the city-leadership to define their own language around the aging infrastructure consequences of the Roads and Buried Infrastructure Decay (RABID) paradigm.

The term ‘infrastructure’ [1] is often used in ignorance to describe how basic services, essential for urban living, are mysteriously delivered to end-users in a city. The stark reality is that a city’s viability, and vitality, is utterly dependent on heavily trafficked roads and the vulnerable buried utilities underneath them. This blog identifies a basic communication breakdown between the key performance indicators (KPIs) that utilities [2] use to assess its best practices and asset management, and the missed opportunity to correlate with the goals of the city it serves. While the utility is concerned with maximizing the value of its assets [3] and optimizing the cost of replacing them to maintain sector [4] performance, the city it serves is concerned about the disruption caused by any road closures due to frequent maintenance, repair, operations, and failures (MROF). For example, a typical KPI for water utilities, promoted by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), a professional trade association, is to maintain a water system that experiences 15 water main breaks, or fewer, per 100 miles of pipe annually. Critically, this water utility KPI considers the frequency of the water main breaks, but does not consider how each of the 15 breaks may have a very different geospatial impact – economic and social – to the city that is disrupted by the water main break.

For the end-users of infrastructure services in a city – residents, businesses, government, and non-government – the Out-of-Sight-Out-of-Mind (OSOM) phenomenon is powerful enough that one’s depth of vision stops at the road surface, and potholes become the only obvious indicator of urban decay. The condition of infrastructure does not warrant serious discussion until MROF has occurred and has caused a disruption to everyday life. Is it not an interesting correlation that while little attention is paid to urban infrastructure by its end-users, it is common knowledge that the United States is facing an aging infrastructure problem? Yet there is not a common term that refers accurately to how basic services are distributed across the city. That is, urban roads literally cover: a) infrastructure assets from multiple sectors; b) each asset is critical to system performance; c) each asset is in a different state of decay; and d) each sector is governed by a different department or utility. In a nutshell, this blog adopts the term Roads and Buried Infrastructure Decay (RABID) to describe this paradigm. A schematic of RABID is provided as Figure 1.

Figure 1: The Cross-Section of the RABID Paradigm

Communication Breakdowns between Owners, Operators, and End-Users

In order to resolve a misalignment of a utility’s KPIs with the goals of the city it serves, effective communication and common definitions need to be established. While the public and elected officials have heard the alarms regarding aging infrastructure, e.g. “D+” as an overall infrastructure grade in the United States by the American Society of Civil Engineers, an example of miscommunication centers around how utilities define the age of an asset.

The consequences of OSOM include an end-user belief of not wanting to pay anymore for what is not seen, and that utilities and city-leadership (e.g. city manager, mayor, and senior staff) are jointly at the helm and maintaining the complex system of reliable urban infrastructure. The term ‘belief’ is very relevant to the city as there is an assumption that, regardless of ownership of each utility, any failure is the fault of the city. And, when a utility fails, the elected officials, whether responsible or not, will shoulder some blame. To eventually address this paradox, city-leadership needs to evaluate what proactive, pre-failure, actions could be taken. This begins with understanding how a utility’s KPIs have led to a disruption in city-life. Consider that the utility is focused on maintaining their KPI within a constrained budget due to OSOM. This has created the economic argument in asset management to extract as much useful life from their assets as possible – regardless of the actual age of the asset.

Asset Service Life vs Remaining Useful Life

Consider that engineers typically design new infrastructure with an intended service life (the period for which a component, device, or system is expected to function at its designated capacity without major repairs). In fact, the American Water Works Association has identified the service life for water mains ranges, depending on material type and geographic location, from 75 to 100 years. In the utility's management of infrastructure, the age of infrastructure becomes less important than the remaining useful life (aka, ‘economic life’ as defined by the estimated time that a depreciable fixed asset can be expected to contribute to utility operations before failure), trying to extract as much service from every asset as possible. Capital Improvement Planning (CIP) then becomes a process of replacing those assets that, regardless of actual age, are not expected to survive until the next CIP round. And, hidden behind the complex algorithms in asset management, city-leadership cannot offer a valid counterpoint. What the city-leadership misses in the CIP process is an understanding of the overall aging of the city’s infrastructure systems. A complementary perspective of system aging is required for a more thorough understanding of infrastructure vulnerabilities beyond simply utility projects dictated by asset management. These two perspectives are illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The Perspectives of Remaining Useful Life and Service Life of Assets

Having different definitions of ‘age’ impacts the effective communication between the utility and the city it serves. City-leadership does not have the technical capacity to argue that overall aging of the system also has a significant role in disrupting city-life. For example, on large pipe breaks, spokespersons to the media are often heard explaining how ‘they didn’t get as much out of the pipe as they thought they could.’ A more accurate assessment might be ‘this pipe was well over its intended service life and was asked to do too much.’ As a result of this siloed communication, infrastructure maintenance in the U.S. is consistently underfunded and reactive rather than proactive. (discussed in Parts to this blog). This series of blogs will cover the topics below. Other Parts to this blog series:

Part 2a: Calculating the Total Cost of Infrastructure Failure and the Role of Indemnification

Part 3: Defining the Total Economic Disruption of Failed Infrastructure for a City


[1] ‘infrastructure’ in this paper refers to buried sectors, not overhead and does not include buildings.

[2] ‘utility’ is the entity that operates and maintains one or more of these infrastructure sectors. And each utility may be a department in municipal government, or a concessionaire granted a monopoly over a geographic area, a private infrastructure provider, or a public-private partnership (PPP).

[3] ‘asset’ is defined as a component of an infrastructure sector (e.g. energy) or subsector (e.g. gas main)

[4] ‘sector’ refers to the individual infrastructure systems that delivers an essential service to the city, for example, transportation, energy, water, sewer, solid waste, stormwater, etc. through pipes, cables, vehicles, pavement, etc.

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