(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 314: Infrastructure Only Limited by Our Imagination
This week we’re talking with Katy Knight, Executive Director of the Siegel Family Endowment. We chat about the endowment’s recent Infrastructure report entitled Rebuilding America: The Road Ahead which discusses a future where digital, physical, and social infrastructure connect. Katy talks with us about the importance of governance, the two way conversations we should be having with elected officials, distributing investments intelligently, and the importance of greater thinking about social infrastructure.
Click below the fold for the full unedited transcript. We’ll edit this in the next few weeks.
Jeff Wood (0s):
You’re listening to the Talking Headways podcast network. This is Talking Headways weekly podcast about sustainable transportation and Durban design. I’m Jeff Wood. This week, we’re talking with Katie Knight, executive director of the Siegel Family Endowment. We chat about the endowment recent infrastructure report entitled rebuilding America. The road ahead, which discusses a future where digital, physical, and social infrastructure connect stay with us. Today’s podcast is brought to you by our super generous patron supporters. Thank you infinitely for supporting the show. You can support the show by going to patrion.com/the overhead wire today’s podcast is also brought to you by the numerous projects of the overhead wire, our 14 year old daily newsletter, where you can sign up for a two week free trial by going to the overhead wire.com and our audio book production of Raymond Edwin’s 1909 classic town planning in practice.
Jeff Wood (53s):
Pick it up and listen to it as a podcast, by going to the overhead wire.com or Raymond unwind.com. Before we get to this week’s show, I want to let folks know that they can get this podcast wherever you find your podcasts, including I heart radio, Spotify, overcast, Stitcher, and of course, Apple podcasts. Make sure you subscribe. So you don’t miss an episode and subscribing means to get both this show talking headways and Mondays at the overhead wire where this music I’m talking about comes from on the same feed to fun podcasts. One great channel subscribe today. Well, Katie, Nate, welcome to the talking headways podcast.
Katy Knight (1m 35s):
Thanks. Thanks for having me. So before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Sure. I’m the executive director at Siegel family endowment, which is a foundation based in New York, focused on the impact of technology on society for better or for worse. So we think about how to leverage the good that comes with tech and innovation, and also how to mitigate the potential harms that come with pervasive technology everywhere. I actually sometimes joke that my current job is a little bit of penance because I used to work at Google, which is great. It’s a great place. I’m not saying anything bad about Google. I would never, but I used to work in the tech industry. And before that I worked the nonprofit industry.
Katy Knight (2m 15s):
So a little bit of everything and yeah, I’m just a general transportation enthusiasts. Do,
Jeff Wood (2m 22s):
Where did that come from? Where did the transportation enthusiastic
Katy Knight (2m 25s):
You come from? I think the most important pieces came from growing up in New York city, riding the subway to school, to work in life, to get anywhere. Like just, you start to wonder how all this stuff works and how it goes. And I think once you dig into it, it’s really interesting. And so it’s hard not to be an enthusiast, although maybe I’m just a nerd, but I’m telling myself that if you only look, it’s hard not to be an enthusiast. And then also just like, I’m the sort of person who always tries to get down to like the root of a problem. So when presented with an issue as a societal or otherwise, like I always am trying to figure out well, what’s at the heart of this issue. And infrastructure is often at the heart of many issues.
Katy Knight (3m 6s):
It’s the root of many problems.
Jeff Wood (3m 9s):
And why did the Siegel Family Endowment get involved in infrastructure?
Katy Knight (3m 13s):
So again, it was a mix of personal passion and sort of practical considerations around what philanthropy should be doing. So I am an infrastructure and transportation enthusiast. Our chairman David Siegel is also a transportation enthusiast. We sort of connected on a personal level, talking about trains and, and all sorts of things like that. But really as a foundation, we started thinking about this work when the sort of convergence of many interests started to come together. So we had been working in the digital infrastructure space, which wasn’t really called at the time, but we’d been looking at open source and kind of online work and started to just wonder about how a foundation like ours that is trying to really fulfill the mission of philanthropy being society’s R and D lab could influence the conversation about infrastructure.
Katy Knight (4m 7s):
And that’s where we started to think about this work and look at it a little differently and try to make a contribution.
Jeff Wood (4m 14s):
So infrastructure is really important, especially recording podcasts. I do want to admit that we recorded a whole episode before this, and then I forgot to press record. And so it’s a part of the disguise. I want to acknowledge it because it’s funny to have me ask similar questions or the same questions over and have them answered the second time, but it’s really important. I mean, the idea of the internet as infrastructure, just the idea that my computer can record or not record as infrastructure. And what happens when that happens. I’m also wondering what the definition of infrastructure is to you. Yeah.
Katy Knight (4m 49s):
To comment a little bit on sort of the infrastructure of the internet and this podcast. I think also just the notion that this podcast is like a piece of the social infrastructure, right? That there’s communication platforms and communication channels are part of our social infrastructure and make this, this overlap between social and digital. And this is part of that, and you don’t have to be a journalist or run a huge media organization to be able to be a part of the kind of social infrastructure. But for me, the definition of infrastructure and, you know, starting with actually looking at up in the dictionary, because that’s what we, we went to the dictionary when we started this work infrastructure is about the systems and organizing principles that are the foundation for society.
Katy Knight (5m 30s):
And so for a lot of people, the word infrastructure calls to mind, physical things, we think about infrastructure, not just as the physical or the physical is important, but as being this sort of multi-dimensional intangible thing that it’s physical digital and social infrastructure and that each of those things has its own definition, but that they all need to exist in concert and kind of be respected equally and considered equally to make the right decisions about what we need as a society. In
Jeff Wood (5m 58s):
The first part of the paper, you talk about a reset of infrastructure. What might constitute a reset. I think if we could,
Katy Knight (6m 6s):
We’ll be thinking about infrastructure as physical, digital, and social equally, that would be the start of a reset. It would reset our conversations. It would reset the way that we think about, you know, what we should be building who needs what, where we should be funding it. So, you know, a reset really for us is not just about knocking everything down and building it over, but really integrating this new way of thinking into the decision-making that we’re doing now for
Jeff Wood (6m 34s):
The future. What’s the importance of libraries.
Katy Knight (6m 38s):
So libraries are really exciting to me because they’re this great example of the overlap of physical, digital and social infrastructure. So libraries are the spaces that you traditionally think of as being homes for books or places where you can go to borrow books or maybe movies, if you were a cool kid going to the library to bar movies, but you know, more and more we, and we see this in, in some of the case studies that we have in the paper libraries have evolved to serve the needs of their local communities in ways beyond just having access to physical books. They’re about having access to the online world and digital spaces.
Katy Knight (7m 18s):
There are about having social infrastructure and community programs. And so libraries, I think are just like a great example of what you can do. If you think about this piece of infrastructure, the physical building of a library, and you approach it differently. If you take this lens that you can do more than just be a physical space, a physical space,
Jeff Wood (7m 40s):
And librarians knew this. Yeah,
Katy Knight (7m 42s):
A friend of mine, I can’t take credit for this. My friend, Diane Levitt told me the other day, you know, what we probably should realize is that for the librarians and the information scientists, the libraries were never just a place to house books. Like they always had a broader perspective on this and the limits of our own imagination around what a library could be, never limited their perspective on what a library could provide for them
Jeff Wood (8m 2s):
Community and that imagination limit. I think we often have that ourselves. I mean, I think that we limit what we think infrastructure can possibly be. What keeps that limit there, what keeps that kind of ceiling there that we continue to think of infrastructure as only the physical manifestation of concrete.
Katy Knight (8m 19s):
I think it’s a lot of things, probably chief among those things is just the fact that, you know, it’s easiest to think about a physical construction. It’s easiest to think about a road, a bridge because there just in popular culture, what is considered infrastructure. They’re what politicians are concerned with. When they talk about infrastructure there, what provides you kind of a big moment to do a groundbreaking or to launch a new rail service or whatever the case may be? So the limit that we have on the way that we think about infrastructure, I think is, is really bound by this kind of idea that it needs to be tangible, that we have to be able to touch it for it to be infrastructure. We have to be able to drive our car over it or to be infrastructure that it has to be, you know, electricity, which you shouldn’t touch electricity.
Katy Knight (9m 2s):
But we see the wires I took, I took that too far, but there’s so much intangible, like social infrastructure. And so many of the building blocks the internet, the digital infrastructure, you can’t physically see them, but they matter so much to making society functional.
Jeff Wood (9m 22s):
There are many case studies in the report. One talks about the library. There are a lot of other ones I’m curious, which one is your favorite?
Katy Knight (9m 29s):
I will not have a favorite case study. We in part, because they are all very good case studies, they all represent, you know, really important points that we couldn’t have made the paper without any of them. What I love about all the case studies is that they represent what you can do, even in imperfect situations with like imagination, creativity and, and a multi-dimensional lens. And so, you know, take the Poughkeepsie uncharted power case study. For example, Poughkeepsie is such an interesting place. The mayor, there is a really great guy, really interested in like this novel, innovative project. You have this startup company that wants to, re-imagine the way we deliver electricity and data infrastructure.
Katy Knight (10m 9s):
And they just were open to sitting down together and potentially making something happen and showing that this is the way that you can do something new and that we don’t have to be beholden to the way that we’ve always done things. When we think about moving forward. And I think all the case studies represented, they could just imagination and represent innovation in the way that I think is really valuable. Like innovation is a buzzword and it’s such a Silicon Valley favorite, but creating the next, you know, Uber for board games or whatever, that’s not necessarily innovation. I think innovation is about like doing things that serve people in new ways.
Jeff Wood (10m 49s):
I think that’s a good point. And I think we should focus on trying to generate wealth for people and the folks that should have wealth generated for them are the folks that aren’t necessarily, you know, skimming it off the top. It feels like a lot of times we build infrastructure and then there’s certain folks that take advantage of it. And then there’s other folks that are left behind. I’m curious how we can be more equitable in our discussions and you know, the distribution of monies for infrastructure and for building committee.
Katy Knight (11m 14s):
Yeah, I think there are a few things there. So one is just like infrastructure in and of itself is foundational for justice, for economic justice, for equity. Like we have to have equitable infrastructure across all neighborhoods where all people live. It should be the responsibility of government to make sure that that happens. There are a lot of ways to think about the way that corporations or other private actors are able to leverage infrastructure or take advantage of infrastructure to serve, you know, a profit motivation or to serve themselves and not necessarily having to contribute back to the community. I think one of the things that we talked about in the paper that we want to explore more in the next couple of years is how we can change the ROI calculation for infrastructure so that we can be smarter about who is benefiting and how much they should be responsible for contributing to building this infrastructure.
Katy Knight (12m 10s):
So that it’s not just about the funding allocation from the government to build a thing, but that it might be about convincing these private companies that they should make investments in infrastructure because they’re deriving huge economic benefit from it that it’s also about involving local communities and their voices in the conversation about what is getting built, where it’s getting built, you know, what is needed and who it serves. So I think those pieces, and we really would like to actually think about whether we could develop new formulas for calculating the ROI of infrastructure investments, but also in the, in the more ephemeral, like conversational sense. We want to think differently about the ROI of infrastructure and think differently about who’s invested in it. And who’s a decision maker in the process of designing infrastructure.
Jeff Wood (12m 55s):
Have you thought of any of those ROIs, like the actual numbers or metrics or benchmarks that might be available?
Katy Knight (13m 2s):
I haven’t, because I am not great at math. We’ve had some good early stage conversations, I think in the research world with economists who are thinking about this, and there are also, you know, some organizations trying to do it in a practical sense. And so one of the things that I would love to see happen that we’re hoping to do, and that some of my team members are rotating responsibility for is kind of knitting that academic research and that practical work so that we can maybe get some of these answers. And we try to do that, you know, across all of our work at the foundation is knit together. The theoretical stuff that tends to happen in the ivory towers with the practical applications and the knowledge that practitioners have so that we can do things that serve more people.
Jeff Wood (13m 50s):
We had a good conversation about governance and how people can get to that sort of expertise and the ability to make those measurements, but also listen to the people I’m wondering how much good governance impacts, how you can actually get to those results that we want.
Katy Knight (14m 7s):
Yeah. I think governance is a form of infrastructure in and of itself that, you know, it’s social infrastructure, the way that we are able to kind of collectively exist as a society is a form of social infrastructure that matters. I think if we had both more transparent governance so that people, your regular average citizen had access to information about the decisions that are being made when they’re in progress, as opposed to, you know, five years after the fact, when someone submits a foil requests to get that information, that would be really helpful. But also, you know, if our elected officials had access to expertise, both technical expertise and the expertise that comes from the lived experiences of people in communities that are impacted, we would all be better served by that.
Katy Knight (14m 56s):
Because right now we have a pretty, pretty odd definition of what makes a good elected official. And I think, you know, I was saying earlier, if we did a needs assessment of what kind of expertise you need to make good governance decisions, we would come to a very different conclusion. I think about what sort of people we wanted to elect to government. And that would be my dream in the longterm is to see that change in the short term. I think we can do a better job of getting technical expertise and community expertise to people who are in positions of power or decision-making or authority,
Jeff Wood (15m 33s):
What keeps the people out of those positions of power that can actually access the technical expertise, have those good skills, rather than the people that we want to have beers with.
Katy Knight (15m 43s):
I think, you know, government doesn’t pay, well, it’s not super accessible taking a role as an elected official or striving Earl as an elected official requires you to give up lots of your privacy and to sort of submit yourself to the court of public opinion in interesting ways. And that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I think it’s just, I, I’m not saying that public officials shouldn’t be public because they should. I think if the payoff felt different, if we weren’t constantly caught in these cycles of kind of partisan back and forth, or kind of just work, that feels so thankless more smart, interesting people would be attracted to government. I think even if we don’t get a host of new people running for office, if it were easier to offer your services as a technical expert to your local government, that would go a long way in getting more people involved.
Katy Knight (16m 35s):
I think even for me, as someone who’s really, really, really interested in local politics, it can be hard to figure out how you in an efficient way can talk to like a local elected official. There are channels for you to file a complaint channels for you to request help, but they’re not usually channels for you to offer help to your government. And so how do we make that happen?
Jeff Wood (16m 59s):
Yeah. And the two-way street part is really interesting. I hadn’t really thought about that. Usually. It’s just me emailing my supervisor here in San Francisco and being like, I don’t like this thing. That’s all they answer here. Right. And it should be more like, and I, and I try from time to time when I can to, you know, say, Hey, Bart, I got to where I wanted to go or thank you for doing this thing. But it’s the reward center in our lizard. Brains are a little bit different, right? We get angry and that makes us want to talk. And this is a silent majority thing. Almost. It feels like,
Katy Knight (17m 28s):
Yeah, for sure. And you know, voting is really important and we should all vote, but so much has to happen between election cycles. So much goes on in terms of decisions that are made. Like once you have elected someone, or even if they’re not the person that you wanted elected, like you still have a voice and you’re still a constituent and that doesn’t have to just be a factor for you when you’re dissatisfied. Granted, if you go to my Twitter and see what I have tweeted that the New York city transit authority, you will find that most often it is questions about, you know, where is my train and why is this the train station in ice skating. Right. But I promise you that besides that I have also tried to help in productive ways and be like a thoughtful citizen and provide, you know, I think I have very limited expertise, but, but provide expertise where it can,
Jeff Wood (18m 17s):
But you are an expert in writing cause you’ve been doing it for a while. So there’s expertise in that, right. I’m being real. I’m not, I think we, we dismiss sometimes people’s lived experiences for, you know, quote unquote technical expertise. I’m also glad that you had a section in the paper about thinking about distributing investments. There was a really great change in the way Houston thought about doling out flood investments, where it was initially. And it, this came from people voting the changing the County board, but initially money was going to the most expensive investments, which usually meant people’s houses though had insurance. And they were well off, but it’s changed to actually thinking about community resilience. I’m curious, what’s a good starting point for thinking about that type of equitable spending.
Katy Knight (19m 2s):
So I think if we, you know, look again at the ROI for the investments that we make, it should be about how people are benefiting. And we couldn’t, I mean, again, not a math person, but we can even, we can even weight certain outcomes in our calculation and value them differently, value them higher. And so, you know, for example, if you want to serve the most underserved populations, you should sort of weight that outcome in what you’re designing so that it is serving people who need it most. I think one of the things that I was reading recently about Vermont and how well Vermont has done in the face of the COVID pandemic made the point that perhaps much of the success is attributed to the fact that Vermont was kind of designing for edge cases.
Katy Knight (19m 51s):
So they sought to address the homeless shelter population and get people into socially distant motel rooms, as opposed to large open shelters, they were designing for the fringes. And if you talk to, you know, disability advocates or people who work with underserved populations, they’ll tell you that when we designed for the middle of the road, when we designed for the average so-called average user, we’re always going to leave out the populations that, you know, often most need services. And we’re always going to be then working to fix things that we’ve built, as opposed to, you know, if we design for people who need accommodations, we will usually serve the middle of the pack and not have to go back and rework things that we’ve done in order to serve people who are not the sort of standard that you have in mind.
Katy Knight (20m 47s):
So Josh is quoted in
Jeff Wood (20m 48s):
The report is saying something should be considered infrastructure when a number of other essential things depend on it. We discussed before how we often think about infrastructure as just roads or just the physical infrastructure of light poles and things like that. But it’s also related to search engines and social media. What might a well-regulated internet utility look like?
Katy Knight (21m 7s):
Yeah, I think we owe Josh a lot for coming up with that. We’ve called like the inbound dependencies paradigm now. And he’s a really brilliant thinker, I think beyond just a well-regulated internet. Like it needs to be an inter the internet, that’s a collective, right? And so we have now lots of private companies in the wild West of the internet, and we’ve come up with some really interesting products and services because of that, those things do not necessarily serve the greatest number of people do not serve the people sort of a native services. And they don’t leverage like the real power of what the internet can provide.
Katy Knight (21m 47s):
Like if you think about the access to information, the communication channels, like the things that we’re able to do because of connectivity and because of being able to access the internet, I think we have, again, like the limits of our imagination are so small. We could be doing so much more than creating copies. You know, Snapchat came up with this idea of disappearing messages and then Instagram built stories. And then Facebook built stories, even though they already own Instagram. And now Twitter is building it’s, what are we doing? Right. That I think is problematic. So, which is not to say that innovation shouldn’t be, you know, a free field where anyone can come up with whatever they want. But just that if we were focused on actually meeting needs on serving people and on asking people what they wanted out of this incredible utility, we might get really great answers that would lead us down the road of kind of a better internet for everyone.
Katy Knight (22m 43s):
So I think regulation is key because we have, I think some unchecked actors that are creating the new town square and they don’t have a responsibility to actually be a sort of neutral town square, but we also have like a lot of possibilities. And so the first step for me, even besides regulation, and this is something where I want to give credit to Ethan Zuckerman and Lucy Bernholz who I was on a panel with a few weeks ago, we were talking about, about some of the stuff that like the internet should be designed for governance, which is to say that we should be striving to build something that serves like the collective of all people. And that is actually something that’s easier to govern and to regulate than this kind of wild West, where things are popping up and then make it really big and become bad.
Katy Knight (23m 32s):
And we have to figure out how to take them apart.
Jeff Wood (23m 35s):
And what does that look like? Is that just serving everybody with internet access? Is that making sure everybody has, you know, a portal into this digital space or is it just making sure that, you know, People have limited access? I mean, it feels like a lot of these companies claim that they’re serving certain communities, but it’s only going to the edge of the block group and they say, okay, well, we’re getting to this part. So it serves them yay, but it doesn’t actually work like that.
Katy Knight (24m 0s):
Yeah. Access alone does not create equity. And so, you know, yes, you can hook up the internet and give people something to plug into. They may not have a device to plug in. They may not have a functional device that allows them access to, you know, rich information. Like I think it depends on what you want to use the internet or so if you want to be able to get on zoom and have a video chat, you need higher bandwidth, you need the right kind of device. You need to be able to do certain things. And so creating kind of a bare minimum for access, first of all, should be really related to what are the most common uses and needs and what are the needs that the community calls out for, you know, what they want to have access to when they think about the internet.
Katy Knight (24m 44s):
So it shouldn’t just be that we provide you an internet. That’s good enough for you to get on Facebook and therefore you’re good. It should be that you have access to this tool, this utility and all of the potential power of it, whether that is, you know, being able to get on zoom, to do your schoolwork, as we’ve seen during the pandemic, or getting on these new communication platforms, or actually being able to build and create your own new product or service on the internet. Like that’s something that I think is even beyond the scope of what we’ve talked about before, which is just, there’s more to getting online than just being able to consume the products and services that other people have already created.
Jeff Wood (25m 28s):
It’s so interesting to think about how people see access to the internet. We had Jermaine Halua on from the university of Kansas to talk about her book. And one of the things that I’ve, I remember reading in the book was it was really interesting how people kind of get their access and how Google fiber in say Kansas city wanted to give them access. So in one instance, they wanted to say that every single house is a point where you can access it. But if you have a multiunit building, if one person gets it and then they can give it to everybody else, that’s their version of access. But the technology companies are like, no, no, no, that’s 10 units. We should be selling 10 versions of this instead of just one where everybody can access it. I’m wondering how that plays into things too, is how the outside world sees infrastructure versus how the companies that provide it, see it as a way to create value for their shareholders.
Katy Knight (26m 15s):
Yeah. Our motives are not aligned like societal motivation and corporate profit motivation are not always aligned. And so how do we think about, you know, whether it’s regulation or whether it’s the just big picture conversation about infrastructure and who should pay for a while? Like how do we think about that differently and not just make it about, I think corporate voice and the voice of the tech companies or the providers has a really, really outsized in these conversations. And so we need to be thinking about, again, that balance of community need and understanding that the companies that build these things certainly want to need to turn a profit, but what are the limits on that profit potentially?
Katy Knight (26m 60s):
What do we think is actually important when we’re prioritizing access? And it can’t be a question that’s answered by any one participant in this. It has to be something where we solicit the opinions and feedback of multiple stakeholders and come to some conclusion, ideally, you know, government could play a role in helping come to that conclusion. Do you have a favorite piece of infrastructure? I love all infrastructure. Where would we? We would be nowhere without it. I think you can love all infrastructure. I think that, you know, I’m very fortunate to live in a major city.
Katy Knight (27m 39s):
So I have really strong internet access and like I’m super appreciative of that. I probably, you know, right now my connection is there’s my favorite piece of infrastructure. I think, you know, last year I would have told you that the New York city transit was my favorite infrastructure that the subway and those bus or my favorite, I think there’s also a lot of unseen social infrastructure that I feel is really important and doesn’t get enough credit. And one of the things that has come up for me is that care work is a form of social infrastructure and that the individuals who provide care, whether that’s care to young children, to elderly parents, whoever we can, they are performing a critical social function that allows other individuals to contribute to the economy in different ways to be productive citizens.
Katy Knight (28m 30s):
And like, we don’t value that enough.
Jeff Wood (28m 32s):
True. I like the reframing that’s happened of essential workers during the pandemic. And it might be one of the few good things that comes from the pandemic is kind of treating people who, you know, keep society going. As you’ve mentioned before, as worth more than they were valued before. I think I mentioned this before, but I read a piece the other day where the title, and I understand that the headline writers are different from the article writers, but the title said, no one is writing transit anymore. And even if 25% of people are writing, transit those 25% of people, aren’t nobody right. It’s super frustrating to see that kind of framing and the treating of people who deserve more.
Katy Knight (29m 7s):
Yeah. And not only are they not nobody, but you know, in our current circumstances, we should probably count them twice. And so maybe instead of saying that, you know, ridership is at 25%, we should say, well, yeah, the number of physical beings is at 25%, but every one of those people is providing a service or doing something that is so, so valuable considering where we are right now that, you know, if we’re talking about how the transportation system should look or, or, you know, whether or not it’s worth it to keep investing or, or whatever, we’re asking ourselves. When we talk about that, like maybe we should be counting those people twice and talking about 50% capacity rather than 25 or whatever it is.
Jeff Wood (29m 45s):
Yeah. Yeah. For sure. Do you have any questions for me?
Katy Knight (29m 52s):
I’m happy to flip this around.
Jeff Wood (29m 53s):
Yeah. I I’m curious. I mean, as somebody who read through the paper, I’m curious, you know, if there’s anything that you would want to know from somebody who’s read it.
Katy Knight (30m 0s):
Yeah. There are lots of things. I wonder if people would read it, like the first thing that I have asked people is like, how is this relevant to your work and your life, if at all, like, does this change the way that you think about what you’re doing or the conversations that you’re having about infrastructure?
Jeff Wood (30m 16s):
Yes and no. I mean, we talk about infrastructure and it’s environs a lot on the show. That’s going to happen in 311 episodes, but in reading it, the reason why I wanted to talk to you actually was because I liked the reframing of it as those three pieces, right? The physical social and the digital and social is something you don’t think about as much. And so if you can have a discussion about, you know, those things that are kind of intangible, it’s almost like the essential worker discussion. I like talking about that on the podcast and asking people about that, because I think it’s a critical reframing of a discussion that we’re all having. And so I think that social aspect and thinking about care, work as infrastructure, thinking about people as infrastructure, I think that’s an important piece to bring to the ballgame as it were, because, you know, we have these grades for infrastructure.
Jeff Wood (31m 1s):
Oh, you’re, you’re an, a, B, C, D F. And it’s all about that technical stuff. And I find those lacking a lot of times because they’re so siloed and they’re so focused on their individual thing. Whereas on the podcast, we talk a lot about the ability to unsilo things and thinking about things together. And one of the reasons why my newsletter is the way it is and that it just doesn’t talk about transportation. It talks about urban design. It talks about urban issues is because I think it’s important for the transportation, people reading the newsletter to understand that there’s more things outside of it than just transportation.
Katy Knight (31m 33s):
Yeah. We talk about money and funding and it’s always a battle for who gets the dollars. Do you think that whether you’re coming from the physical perspective or any other, that this conversation feels scary or difficult because you might somehow have to acknowledge that that funding should be distributed differently or that the conversation should change around funding?
Jeff Wood (31m 55s):
No. I mean, we’ve been advocating not forever. So I don’t think, I don’t think it’s scary. I think it’s necessary. I think getting out of our, I think I mentioned before 80 20 split, it drives me nuts because the people who are benefiting from the investments are not the people who need to benefit from the investments. You know, when people are spending X amount of money on housing and transportation, housing should be considered infrastructure as well. It seems like the way that we can help the communities that need the most help is providing them a way to generate value. And we’re not doing that. We had Andre Perry on from Brookings, talk about his book, know your price, which is about black neighborhoods and the value that’s not being given to them because of the way that we’re measuring how much the value is actually in the appraisal, right?
Jeff Wood (32m 40s):
Like how certain neighborhoods that look exactly the same as the neighborhood next to them, aren’t being valued the same because the people that live there are black. And it’s that discussion about who should benefit from the investments that we’re making and who hasn’t benefited in the past. And maybe it doesn’t need to as much in the future because we need to straighten it out a bit, the wrongs that we’ve done over the past year. So I think that’s one of the things that kind of crosses my mind. And when we’re thinking about distributing money differently, I’m not worried about the 80% getting a short shrift because they’ve had the benefits and the tax breaks and all that stuff forever.
Katy Knight (33m 12s):
Yeah. That makes sense. It’s heartening also as someone who’s trying to push this narrative too, to hear that. And I think one of the things that we struggled with or thought a lot about in writing this paper was how do we in a very, very polarized world right now keep this from becoming super partisan in some way. And we tried, you know, both practically to kind of balance the case studies and making sure that they came from different places around the country and making sure that we weren’t talking about, you know, specific policy proposals that came from one person or another. But I think my hope is that this work and what comes next can also help reframe some of this very polarized conversation where people immediately default to either you’re for something or you’re against something.
Katy Knight (34m 0s):
It is so much more nuanced than that. And infrastructure influences everything. So you can’t really be against it if it exists, it’s there, you’re reliant upon it regardless. So how can we make the conversations that we’re having about these really, I think crucial topics that are, that are easy to fall into our camps on how can we change them so that we’re having productive, thoughtful conversations about what we want to build for the future, because also any infrastructure, the decision that we make now is for the future. It’s not just for tomorrow because it will not be built by tomorrow. And we want to make sure that we’re doing things that make sense and that will remain relevant. And that will serve with the greatest number of people for the longest amount of time.
Jeff Wood (34m 44s):
I think one of the reasons why transportation infrastructure lasted in terms of bipartisanship, as long as it did was because of the earmark system. And I know we decried projects and silly museums of whatever that were popping up along the side of the road. But for the most part, you know, a lot of those projects that senators and congressmen proposed were ones that people in their communities asked for. Some of those were a little bit Porky, but, you know, for the most part, it allowed them to make these compromises and have the pieces that focused on their community valued. And so I think part of the problem with, with what we’re talking about today is this kind of the shift in people moving to certain parts of the country and not seeing where the value is in other types of investments, right? The urban investment in a subway is not going to make sense, obviously to someone who’s a farmer in Iowa, but that the investment in the broadband to that person might not make sense to the person who wants the subway in a major city.
Jeff Wood (35m 34s):
So I think we need to kind of step outside of ourselves to a certain and think about, you know, the whole, I mean, we can’t live as cities without the areas that farm and that provide us our food. And, you know, a lot of the rural areas can’t survive without the economic power that the cities generate. And so there’s a synergy there that’s not talked about very often these days, which should be. And I think, you know, the policies that govern the two different spaces can be more attuned to each other than I think people think.
Katy Knight (36m 2s):
Yeah, for sure. And you know, I think one thing that you just made me think about that I hadn’t before, and it probably will be too difficult to research, but I wonder we talked in the paper about the decline in investment, in infrastructure spending over time. And some of that has, I mean, there’s lots of reasons it’s declined, but I wonder how much of it could be attributed to the reduction in pork. So did, has infrastructure spending declined because Congress members are not able to allocate to special projects?
Jeff Wood (36m 27s):
I, I, well, I, I you’re right. It was probably too much to research now. I don’t actually think so. I think it’s the lack of kind of the larger projects that we’re building, where we’re not building a Hoover dam. We’re not building building a Tennessee Valley authority. We’re not building those types of things that were major investments. We’re actually spending less. I think, you know, the high-speed rail investments in Houston to Dallas and California, those get kind of pushed aside. And so if you don’t have those billions of dollars that go to those types of projects, whether you like them or not, then that might be the reduction too. I mean, you have the second Avenue subway, but should you have built like five of them by now? Because that’s another question is like, if something so expensive that people don’t want to build more of it, you know, how does that impact the, the investments that we have over time too?
Katy Knight (37m 10s):
Yeah. It’s so expensive. It takes so long. The payoff is so far off for so many people and you know, you can’t control timing at all. So the second Avenue subway finally is complete. And now here we are where suddenly ridership is down and I’m sure, you know, those fancy stations are not getting a lot of traffic. And so you now can really question the purpose and really wonder about the future of any subway exchanges. I’ve read some very interesting hot takes on, you know, we will never build another model of subway because it is just too much of a mess. And so I think that it’s really a shame because, you know, there’s two pieces of that. One is that we should be building more new, interesting infrastructure that there’s so much we have to do to, you know, prepare for climate change impacts to get more people access to the internet, to, you know, there’s a million things that we could do that would be sexy, shiny objects for people to invest in the other side of it is that we have not done a good job with maintenance in any way, shape or form.
Katy Knight (38m 11s):
And so we could also be spending a ton of money on maintenance of existing infrastructure on improvements, and we don’t do that. And that’s really unfortunate. So, you know, the point that I am trying to make is not supposed to be that we need to spend more money on everything, even though money is always great. But I think it is just really a shame that we’ve allowed ourselves to get into like this sort of slump with where we don’t have the same energy and enthusiasm for it when really we should, especially if you think about it with this multidimensional frame, and you think about the digital, physical, and social and, and kind of how far behind we are and how much there is that we could do and how exciting it would be if we could achieve some of these things
Jeff Wood (38m 52s):
Most excited. Now, when I see these really cool projects in other cities, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a big infrastructure project, I mean, what Paris is doing right now with their biking streets and they’re reducing car access to the center city is really cool, but like, you know, Venice just opened up their barriers, their flood barriers. And that was really cool. It took them years and it was under like lots of stress. And there was like Trump like tripled in price, but that’s really cool what the Netherlands has done in the zider Z project. All of that stuff is really cool. There’s so much really cool stuff that when I was a kid, the popular mechanics and all that stuff came out and they was like, you know, when you saw that cool new thing, and now maybe it’s just me being cynical. And now I see you on Musk, like talking about his Hyperloop. And I’m like, Oh my God, you’re such a like, stop.
Jeff Wood (39m 32s):
Like I think the idea is cool, but at the same time, like the kind of excitement about it as dwindled, just because of like, I dunno if it’s just the reality of the technical aspect of it, or if it’s just like, the reason why you’re selling this is not the right reason or, you know, cause I want to be excited again about these things. I don’t know if you feel the same way.
Katy Knight (39m 49s):
Yeah. I, you know, that’s so funny that you mentioned that because I, I look at the Hyperloop idea. It’s just, there’s a, there’s a lot of things wrapped up in that for me, but I think a lot of them are aligned to what you’re talking about. Really. I think there’s this sense that I’m a little bit aggravated that we feel like the only thing that can attract excitement is something like a Hyperloop, because like we’ve gotta be moving humans at a hundred miles per hour underground to get people to care about infrastructure. That bothers me. That’s not right. It’s not fair. Like we should be excited about much more innovative things. Yeah. You know, I think it feels a little bit like a distraction. It feels a little bit ridiculous. It feels a little bit overblown.
Katy Knight (40m 30s):
And so many factors contribute to just, I think that dwindling excitement about what could have been a very cool idea, but you know, is it serving the people who most need to be served? Is it doing something that, that matters and it’s going to make a huge impact on, you know, the commute for people who really don’t have other options? Probably not. I was saying this earlier about, about buses. And so I live in Queens in New York and Queens is not really rich with subway access. We have big concerns about buses and there are easy solutions to improving the quality and speed of people’s bus commutes. And most of the people riding buses are lower-income.
Katy Knight (41m 12s):
People are going to lower wage work, maybe essential workers where 15 minute difference in their commute is incredibly material to them where it might not be to someone like me. Who’s just right now working from home. But in normal days sort of commuting to a high wage job while I listen to podcasts on the long Island railroad, like let’s get excited about buses and let’s also like, there are also new shiny objects that we could build too. So I think the other piece around the Hyperloop or projects like that, or, or Elon Musk is that we don’t need one iron man, like hero technologists to save us all by inventing the new infrastructure that we need. Yeah.
Katy Knight (41m 52s):
We need to look at, you know, all of these dimensions of infrastructure and talk to the people who are impacted by them and tap lots of different types of technical expertise. And like, we need to do the less Tony stark, like, but ultimately more important work of like collaborating to build new, exciting infrastructure.
Jeff Wood (42m 14s):
Yeah. I’m trying to think of a collaborative superhero, but I don’t know if, I don’t know if there is one, maybe the fantastic four
Katy Knight (42m 19s):
And the justice league were fighting amongst themselves all the time.
Jeff Wood (42m 25s):
Well, I, I feel like I could talk to you forever, but I do want to ask where can folks find the report?
Katy Knight (42m 30s):
So it’s online at infrastructure dot Siegel, endowment.org. Also, if you just go to sequin dama.org, or we will see one dominant and you can find it really easily from our website. And then my sincerest hope is that one day you will Google infrastructure and this will be near the top of the search results because it will be so important to how we think about this work
Jeff Wood (42m 52s):
And where can folks find you, if you want to be found,
Katy Knight (42m 54s):
You can find me and my email and contact information on the seagull endowment website. And then I’m also on Twitter and many other forms of social media as says, Katie, Katie with a Y, which I landed on several years back and have not come up with anything better than says Katie. It feels like I I’ve Chris and myself in authority by making that mantra.
Jeff Wood (43m 16s):
I like it though. It’s good. Last question. What’s next for you all. What’s next on the focus and you know, what do you hope folks get out of the report?
Katy Knight (43m 23s):
The two big things are really, you know, I hope that we’re able to influence these sort of conversations that we’re able to get the people who talk about infrastructure care about infrastructure, to talk about it with this framing in mind, and to sort of influence like a, a certain narrative shift that hopefully then has the ripple effect of impacting the way that we build this stuff. And you know, that I’ll be able to look at some new piece of infrastructure in the future and maybe harken back to this time and what we did to change the conversation in a more practical, immediate sense. We’re also really interested over the next couple of years in partnering with organizations or communities that are looking to do more of the sort of work that we highlight in our case studies and connect them to funding opportunities, or even just to each other and Chu and into our broader network of people who care about this and, and find more proof points for how we can rethink infrastructure and make the case for multi-dimensional infrastructure in the U S and globally.
Jeff Wood (44m 21s):
Awesome. Well, Katie, thank you for joining us twice. I really appreciate it.
Katy Knight (44m 26s):
No problem, but would happily do it again
Jeff Wood (44m 32s):
And Thanks for joining us. The talking head podcast is your project out the overhead wire on the web, the overhead wire.com sign up for a free trial of the overhead wire daily or fourteen-year-old daily city’s news list by clicking the link at the top, right of the overhead wire.com. And please, please, please put the pod going to pitch on.com/the overhead wire many thanks to our current patrons for their ongoing support. And as always, you can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, overcast, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts. And you can always find a traditional home at USA dot Street’s blog.org. See you next time at talking headways.