Systemic trust in buildings, pipelines, bridges

Recent failures of shared physical structures, such as a condo complex in Florida, have put a focus back on the values required for a trust-based society.

President Joe Biden attends a July 1 briefing in Miami Beach with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to discuss the collapsed condo tower in Surfside.

On May 3, a bridge for a commuter train in Mexico City collapsed, killing 26 people. On May 7, cybercriminals seized physical control of the Colonial Pipeline, shutting down a large fuel supply in the eastern United States. And on June 24, a 12-story condominium tower in Surfside, Florida, collapsed with dozens of residents presumed dead.

These tragedies within just a few weeks of each other have renewed a focus on how to prevent failures of infrastructure, whether public or private, whether a transport grid or a digital choke point. The solutions are not merely physical – stronger steel for bridges, for example, or more secure computer networks. They also require a renewal of shared values that lie behind expectations of fail-safe structures in daily life.

“Trust is built not only in infrastructure but by humans,” said Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology in the Biden White House. In responding to the Colonial Pipeline shutdown, for example, she helped bring together public and private actors to find a common understanding on resilience in critical infrastructure. “We learned a great deal about the need to have standards for the security between, for example, the part of a company’s network that connects to the internet and a part of a company’s network that runs their operations,” she said.

Shared physical structures, in other words, require shared ethical standards, such as integrity and transparency, which are essential in delegating responsibility for today’s complex infrastructure and in reducing the risk of failure.

A similar process is now underway after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condos.

Miami-Dade County has started an audit of older residential buildings. In Boca Raton, Mayor Scott Singer has reached out to condo associations to ensure the boards are using best practices to keep buildings safe. Nationwide, the Community Associations Institute, which advocates for homeowners associations, is focusing on a proposal that would require such groups to use expert advice in setting aside reserve funds for basic repairs of older buildings. (More than 73 million Americans live in community associations.) Such steps are necessary for creating systemic trust in, say, a city’s building codes or legal requirements that a condo buyer is given information on future repairs of a building.

Trust-based societies, according to scholar Francis Fukuyama, share “a set of moral values in such a way as to create regular expectations of regular and honest behavior.” One good example is the small Baltic state of Estonia. After suffering a massive cyberattack from Russia in 2007, it has built up civic resiliency in its citizens to safeguard infrastructure. Whether it is trains, cars, electricity, or digital networks, says Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, society needs to have trust “because we have standards which we can trust.”

In approving a new law in June that will set up a biometric identification system for Estonia, the president spoke about the basis for trusting such a system to work and not cause harm. “What are the principles on the basis of which we’re shaping our state?” she asked. “What are the rights and freedoms of our people and in which cases does the public good outweigh individual freedoms? All these issues are relevant in the case of this law.” 

Trust-based cultures should expect to have fewer infrastructure failures because both regulations and private behavior are rooted in shared values. Renewing those values can lead to better train bridges, secure pipelines, and stable condo buildings. The invisible matters more than the visible.

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