Art and Science

Pussain images

In a Rotterdam railway station last month, I spotted a billboard sponsored by Dutch air traffic control. A van Gogh painting of the blue sky over Holland was fitted above a graphic of a controller’s computer screen peppered with flight paths, air speeds and other codes. The caption: ‘It isn’t a job. It’s an art’.

Infrastructure is a strange beast. Railway and electricity networks are masses of concrete and steel that heat up and grind away over many years, according to the enduring laws of science. They’re rather predictable. At the same time, they bring to bear an instantaneous and indefinable quality: human judgement.

Network performance is about flow. An electricity grid, for example, doesn’t make anything “ it simply allows electrons to scurry between power stations and our homes. This adaptive system, which now stretches from Cairns to South Australia, must constantly balance supply and demand. Constraints can appear at any time, requiring on-the-spot decisions that must account for endless contingencies. The inter-connectedness of networks means such choices require considerable expertise.

Sure, there are rules for the smooth operation of infrastructure, but they can only ever be a guide. Railway and electricity workers tackle unique problems occurring in ‘real’ time. Consult the manual or plug the numbers into the computer and it may be too late “ train derailed, lights out plane in strife.

Hence the airport controller’s spruik. It’s true the dry engineering side is a big part of it. But would you really like your aircraft landed by someone who considered their job a purely box-ticking exercise?

The importance of the human side of network management was hit upon recently by the NSW Premier, Bob Carr. The Sydney rail system is in utter disarray.

He has accepted responsibility for ‘the ardour of reformist management’. The inference: it’s a science, but an art as well “ and this can’t be forced. The Premier effectively acknowledged drug tests, threats of privatisation and the usual retributions are incomplete remedies for past failures. Such misgivings are timely, given electricity dramas and the tilt train mishap in Queensland, on-going tension with public private partnerships in Victoria and various other infrastructure-related concerns.

In the early 1990s, NSW Treasury poured billions into its old rail monolith. There were deep suspicions the budget was forking out too much for a shoddy service. About this time, competition policy arrived, championing structural separation and transparency. The industry was busted-up in 1996, with accountants and economists sent in to sort it out. Victoria sold up, while Queensland implemented less cynical changes.

While an understandable move, Treasury failed to see the dilemma it had sprung. Art “ whether by van Gogh or a bloke pitching the right camber on a section of railtrack “ can be appreciated, but never precisely defined or measured. It’s called art because there is no formula. Thus, if it was ever to understand if, when and how rail could achieve efficiency, the Government would need the expert judgement of those it had just branded lazy and incompetent.

The more distrusting and combative it became, the less able the Government was to see the irony: proof of infrastructure performance requires the same gut feel needed to run it properly.

Following the fatal Glenbrook crash in December 1999, the NSW rail chiefs were asked to please explain. One ‘respectful submission’ stated it was caused by a train going too fast through a stop signal. A literal response to the vain belief culpability could be isolated to a few executives. Resentment grew amidst the implicationsomeone was hiding a magical wand for overcoming institutionalised apathy.

Meanwhile, the head of the Glenbrook Inquiry, Peter McInerney, commented on the team nature of rail crises. Performance is a cultural issue, he said, encompassing many parties, including Government, who ‘significantly influence the latent circumstances which might give rise to a serious accident although the influence they might have may not be obvious’.

In Queensland, the budget position has been less traumatic, and rail and electricity systems have, on the whole, been better managed and funded. Nevertheless, there are many latent and not-so-latent pressures driving toward box-ticking solutions.

The controversial Somerville report released in July this year is a case in point. The independent panel recommended a measured ‘n-1’ methodology for the electricity network companies, asserting it would deliver a system that ‘will almost certainly never fail’. But why the qualification? Was the panel, on the one hand, content to impose a formula on Energex and Ergon, while at the same time claiming artistic licence for itself?

Somerville also found Energex had an unhealthy interest in financial outcomes. This may be true. But consider the proposed solution: formal service standards wired with financial penalties and rewards. How can pecuniary threats possibly remedy an obsession with profits?

Governments need to appeal to the hearts of infrastructure workers “ not just their already burdened minds. Science without art makes matters worse. A train off the tracks is surely a concern “ but not nearly as big a problem as our expectation that it can be fixed by applying a mechanistic response targeted at ‘those to blame’.

Premiers Carr and Beattie remain the head of their infrastructure families. But their job or should I say, art isn’t to tell management and workers how to paint the perfect picture. It’s to bring the artist out in their team. The first step in this process involves acknowledging this won’t happen without the trust required to nurture elements of both art and science.

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