Appealing to the Heart of America's Infrastructure: Why Public Works Should Connect With the New Generation

The Circular Economy, Part 3/4: People have a vested interest in public infrastructure, but because it's invisible day to day, it can be hard to develop a relationship with the citizens it serves. Here's why a utility system that contributes to the circular economy is poised to attract and educate the students and homeowners who will increasingly support these operations in the near future.
SPONSORED | May 29, 2017

Appealing to the Heart of America’s Infrastructure

Great utility systems don’t just provide for their citizens every day; they educate.

Generally speaking, wastewater facilities and related utility systems operate quietly in the background — only if there’s a service interruption are they noticed. But with more technological solutions available, and a young community to connect with, these utilities have the opportunity to inform the public about the critical nature of their infrastructure.

Consider the Consumer

Most people agree we need to invest more in our infrastructure. We may debate which areas of it deserve focus, but motivating future residents and taxpayers — and the students who are considering these industries as they start their careers — is objectively important to the growth of the local economy.

Studies suggest people view the things they consume as opportunities to be environmentally responsible. The carbon footprint of a product is directly tied to their commitment to that product. Infrastructure is no retail item, but the chance to inspire a more sustainability-oriented generation to learn about it is important to investments in it. Additionally, as this generation begins making major decisions, such as where to live and where to work, sustainable infrastructure can help communities market to new professionals and potential homeowners.

A Lesson in Milwaukee

Milwaukee’s water reclamation plant on Jones Island has become a cornerstone of the city’s culture. More than 2,000 guests have toured it on a single day, over 27,000 since 2008, and it’s a direct result of its outreach to families, businesses and field trips from the local school system. From recycling landfill biogas to power the facility, to building a peregrine falcon nest to promote biodiversity, it communicates the value of the city’s environment in a way that resonates with the public.

Efficiencies, in conjunction with the operational expertise of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s (MMSD) private partner, Veolia North America, are expected to save ratepayers and the district $35 million over 10 years.

“It’s one thing to try and present information in a museum exhibit behind glass, but it’s much more meaningful when you are sharing this story in person with residents wearing hardhats and safety gear,” observes Scott Royer, Milwaukee-based VP and General Manager at Veolia North America, the group operating the facility.

Not every utility system calls for an onsite falcon home to connect with the neighborhood. But utilities and their operators must be willing to go beyond the pumps and pipes to develop a relationship with a generation that will drive the future of this infrastructure. This is just another reason to think circular; if the rest of the community values sustainability, their infrastructure needs to as well.

Where to Begin

Developing this relationship is a twofold endeavor. Investing in infrastructure that makes water and energy more efficient is the critical foundation, but engaging the public will dictate how far this investment will go over time.

Rialto, Calif. has become a model for this way of thinking. In collaboration with Veolia, its operations partner, the city has committed to STEM education by showcasing the wastewater treatment process, fostering interest in an industry that will benefit from their knowledge and participation in the coming years. Together, the partners have launched a scholarship program called Generation STEM to drive awareness of our natural resources — allowing the city to connect directly with kids and their families as they grow their careers and make new homes.

Science and technology aren’t going anywhere, but great infrastructure can if it doesn’t enter the classroom and the minds of the people it’s supporting. Luckily, cities just like Milwaukee are primed to create a higher interest in these operations such that they can grow their economies and become more resilient in the process.

Read Part 4 of this series here.