A Luke-Warm Embrace

April 2, 2018

About the author: Brooke is former vice president of sales and marketing of LifeSpan Technologies, Roswell, Ga.


There’s a big gap between recently developed, commercially ready technology and its widespread use, or adoption, in the public sector-especially with those who are responsible for building and managing this nation’s infrastructure. Undoubtedly, you’ve already heard the most common excuses:

  • Risk aversion;
  • Uncertainty of added value;
  • Reluctance to change;
  • “Try it somewhere else first;” and
  • Lack of time due to heavy workload.

Those reasons, most typically offered by engineers and mid-level management, are really not the problem. An organization’s culture, developed over many years, drives the adoption rate. DOT secretaries, commissioners and directors need to aggressively evangelize the adoption of new technology and techniques to ensure a constant stream of added value for the taxpaying public. Without consistent, top-down emphasis on new technology adoption, engineers and mid-level managers, who are rightly focused on the operational aspects of their jobs, won’t perceive that rewards for increasing productivity, decreasing costs and increasing value override the time investment or the perceived risks of failure for proposing new technology adoption. Taxpayers of this nation will be best served by a high-level, consistent and meaningful focus on the adoption of promising new technologies, especially in the public sector.

How did we get here?

While it seems intuitive that most employees would want to add value, why is the technology adoption process so slow? According to industry experts this author interviewed, there are a number of reasons.

Engineers are conservative

“The civil engineer is taught to be conservative in school,” stated Jim Cooper, P.E., former FHWA director of bridge technology. “It’s all about factors of safety and not risking any type of catastrophe. The mindset has been to use AASHTO’s prescribed design standards to avoid any chance of risk or criticism. If a new technology isn’t addressed by these standards, there is no incentive for the staff engineer to use it. If the owners and lead engineers don’t see an immediate cost benefit and insist on its use, the tried and true standards are relied upon.”

“Many organizations haven’t fully integrated the long-term strategic thinking that the asset management methodology requires,” stated Peter Vanderzee, CEO of LifeSpan Technologies. LifeSpan Technologies identifies and commercializes emerging asset assessment techniques, particularly those related to precision measurement technology. “We can show organizations how using objective, high-precision asset assessment techniques can provide robust financial returns. Unfortunately, many organizational managers say they can’t afford to even spend the first dollar in today’s fiscal climate. However, if they adopt a 21st Century asset management mindset, they would clearly see that investments in emerging technologies in all areas of highway engineering offer exceptional returns on investment,” concluded Vanderzee.

Approval processes are slow

For many emerging technologies, two things hinder their adoption: track record and prescriptive design standards. Engineers in the public sector demand proven track records for new technologies, but shy away from being the first or second adopter. Compounding the track record dichotomy, many new technologies, especially outside the materials area, do not have generally accepted standards by which they can be evaluated.

Dr. Dimitri Grivas, professor of civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, feels new technology and products must be evaluated in practice. “Academia should develop the ideas, but pilot projects and commercialization must happen in a commercial environment,” stated Grivas.

Using the argument from Robert Moore’s book on technology adoption, “Crossing the Chasm”, Grivas feels that state DOTs are on, “the far right-hand side of the curve and last in line to adopt new technologies.” While a DOT’s mission is to solve problems in the most cost-effective manner, they are not in a research business, trying to adopt new technologies based on promises alone. “Implementing new technologies requires a partnership (of the technology developer) with the DOTs,” asserted Grivas.

The Civil Engineering Research Foundation (CERF) started the Highway Innovative Technology Evaluation Center (HITEC) program as an attempt to resolve evaluation standards and related issues. According to Harvey Bernstein, president of CERF, HITEC gathers a number of potential users and develops evaluation criteria for the new products and technologies. The product developers and users work cooperatively to prove the product or technology for use by state DOTs. “While HITEC evaluates and documents the product’s performance, all purchase decisions are still up to the state DOTs,” said Bernstein.

One of the biggest successes of HITEC is the work done on Seismic Isolation Devices. Caltrans and FHWA asked HITEC to lead an evaluation of available technologies that resulted in adoption of some of these technologies in less than two years—light speed compared to typical DOT technology adoption rates.

At the other end of the spectrum, a new all-plastic stop sign technology, developed by All Sign, costing less and many times more visible than existing stop signs, was stopped dead in its tracks. While the HITEC evaluation documented the higher level of performance of the All Sign, they could never gain enough brand recognition and market share to gain momentum.

Awareness is limited

Most new technologies seem trapped in the academic environment. While some new technologies are presented at trade shows and conferences, many others don’t have widespread publication. The public sector lacks an open and free-flowing forum. While organizations like AASHTO, FHWA, HITEC, NCHRP and TRB publicize, evaluate or develop new technology, they only address a few of the many new products and technologies available every year. Additionally, the author has not seen an emphasis on synergies resulting from the adoption of new technologies and 21st-Century asset management.

The techniques of asset management emphasize knowing what the assets are, what they are worth and what they are contributing to the economy and people’s quality of life. As agencies adopt the tools for quantitative-asset cataloging, condition assessment and economic and financial assessment of asset productivity, they also begin to change their DOT culture, shifting from the traditional management strategy of simply “build and maintain” to the more sophisticated concern for return on investment.

“The question that DOT managers ought to ask themselves,” said Andy Lemer, founder of the Matrix Group and long a proponent of more effective public-sector asset management, “is whether the assets under their stewardship are providing the service the public demands with the lowest possible costs of ownership.”

Answering that question requires information about how the assets are performing now and how agency practices are likely to influence future performance. Spending to apply a new technology that promises to improve reliability, for example—maybe to reduce the chances that a bridge will have to be de-rated within the next 10 years—could be a great investment but is tough to justify when you focus only on cutting the costs of current operations. With an effective asset management system in place, the information to make a reasoned analysis is available.”

Agencies have sufficient incentives for adopting new technologies

With state staffs shrinking due to budget cuts and revenue shortfalls, staff engineers are being asked to do more and more, often with less and less. Given the uncertain process and perceived risks from using new technologies, it’s no wonder few engineers are willing to invest the time and energy to try and push innovation. However, the same budget cuts that seem to hinder the technology adoption process actually create an environment where technology adoption is more crucial. While an investment of time, energy and up-front capital is required to reap the lower life-cycle costs of ownership new technologies can provide, accelerated adoption of new technologies must be considered one of the best methods to deliver added value to the taxpaying public.

Make a champion

Introducing new technologies takes champions. To find and propose use of a new material or technique, typically one person needs to act as the technology champion. “Without a champion pushing the technology forward from within the organization, adoption will simply not occur,” said Jim Cooper. “Even those technologies that have gone through CERF’s HITEC process need a champion to learn how to apply them and evangelize their use,” added Bernstein.

Being a champion takes time and involves some organizational risks. With engineering staffs stretched to the limit, and little incentive for taking the risk of proposing something new, there is little wonder few employees are willing to put on the champion’s mantle. However, delivering added value requires just that, someone who will seize the champion’s mantle, despite the perceived risks.

Leading the charge

Two leaders who are setting the right tone in their organizations are Johnny Gresham, chairman of the board of commissioners for the Georgia DOT, and Gary Hoffman, deputy secretary for highway administration with Pennsylvania’s DOT.

Hoffman leads Pennsylvania’s efforts in adopting new technologies. According to Hoffman, “Pennsylvania has a 20-year history of changing the conservative engineering mindset and culture to foster change and emphasize improvement.” For instance, in 2003 nearly $18 million were invested in the implementation of new technologies and innovations to include material and ITS.

Hoffman is very active in AASHTO’s and the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) efforts to develop new technologies and serves as chair of AASHTO’s subcommittee on Materials and Technology Implementation Group. According to Hoffman, one of the reasons many DOTs don’t adopt new technologies is that they don’t realize it takes “ . . . real effort and resources to implement innovation. Additionally, that effort may not be supported by the executives of the organization.” He agreed that each new technology needs a project champion to hand-hold and guide it through the adoption process.

Gresham, chairman of the board of commissioners for Georgia’s DOT, is another leader committed to innovation. Gresham, while very proud of his organization and the employees in Georgia’s DOT, is doubling efforts to make further improvements in the way the DOT conducts its business. “Employees should always look for new and better ways to do their job,” he emphasized. He takes a sober and serious approach that the DOT is a steward of the people’s money. Gresham also is a believer in technology and the benefits it can bring.

“We are evaluating a new program developed by local Atlanta firm Launch-Right called ‘Bridge the GAPP’,” stated Gresham. “The program emphasizes and rewards the adoption of new technologies. It provides our management a program template to introduce this emphasis to all our employees. Additionally, they will have a website to discuss new technologies and provide an information exchange with other DOTs. It will encourage our employees with annual recognition at both at the state and national level. While the program is still being evaluated and initial sponsors recruited, we think the potential benefits this program can produce are significant.”

What’s the reward?

Based on the experts quoted above, the issues that slow technology adoption are based on conservative training, the organization’s culture and lack of executive emphasis. There are literally hundreds of new technologies ready to save DOTs, municipalities and private organizations millions of dollars annually. The real challenge is to create an environment that rewards innovation and adoption of promising new technologies. Here are some specific suggestions:

A top-down push is essential: The technology adoption process must be emphasized top-down, starting with executive management. Such emphasis must be diffused throughout the organization and become a part of the daily culture. Also, the technology adoption process itself should have a champion who will be responsible to ensure that appropriate opportunities are being uncovered, evaluated and implemented.

Reasonable risks should be rewarded: Part of changing the culture requires encouraging employees to take reasonable risks in proposing adoption of new technologies. Staff engineers must feel as passionate about the use of the taxpayer’s money as their own. They should be encouraged to look for better ways to design, construct and maintain public assets for which they are responsible. Executive management also must be prepared to reward their efforts, even if specific proposals are not adopted.

Technology developers should make adoption easier: Developers should partner with internal champions to speed the adoption process. While it will require an investment of time to assist the champion in doing the technical and financial analysis required for developing a detailed proposal, technology developers also must derive input from the champions to make an honest and realistic assessment of commercial readiness. Nothing will cause more harm to the cause of increasing adoption than to invest time and money in evaluating a new technology that isn’t ready for commercial adoption. If a limited commercial track record is a problem, the developers should consider industry-wide evaluation programs such as HITEC and the AASHTO Technology Innovation Group.

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