POSTED ON MARCH 30, 2011:
The who and the what of redefining Tulsa's Public Works Department
In the film/novel 2001 writer Arthur C. Clark has Jupiter- bound Astronaut David Bowman ruminating on his "odd" background. Bowman, the crew commander, nervously wonders about the mismatch between the very specific skill sets --medicine, astrophysics, propulsion, artificial intelligence -- held by other senior crew aboard the giant spaceship Discovery and his own much fuzzier Ph.D.-level training in "systems engineering."
Last week, I took a look at the outsized opportunities spawned by the departure of Public Works director Charles Hardt -- who retires after a multi-decade tenure at Tulsa City Hall. Tulsa needs, according to folks with lots of material insight, someone more like 2001's David Bowman than a classic civil engineer.
Since Hardt assumed the helm at Public Works, a host of convulsive changes have washed over Tulsa, including an array of transformative advances in computing, synthetic materials, sensor systems and planning and construction methods. The City's varied challenges and Tulsa's spotty, but real legacy as a pioneering community should make us eager to select the very best candidate for the job.
We need an agile, imaginative team leader who can spark Tulsa's behemoth Public Works operation and help our elected officials plot a compelling path forward.
What our next chief needs
Steve Alter, is a renowned Tulsa architect who was architect of record for Tulsa's iconic BOK Arena and is former managing partner of Tulsa giant Matrix Architects & Engineers. Alter is currently a principal at the Development Services Network and AlterArchitects. I talked to him about Public Works, and very specific about what Tulsa needs:
• Someone who need not be a public works pro. Obviously the new chief has to be deeply familiar with engineering systems, design and managing, large complex projects.
• A wide, aggressive, imaginative search ¬. Alter believes there are a passel of design/architectural engineering and construction management practitioners -- some in public service; others in large private shops -- who could excel in the post.
• A pro who is intensely committed to active "transparency" at Public Works. Alter had a recent experience as volunteer coordinator of a now permanent mayor's advisory group.
Alter's group was charged with pushing Public Works and allied city/regional operations to dramatically improve cooperation and public communications of the City's zoning, permitting and planning systems to citizens/business community. He found, via public forums with his peers on the advisory group, that simply getting the word out to people who may be impacted by a zoning change has been a problem in Tulsa. There are a bunch of other everyday problems and making the city's Public Works more transparent would help Tulsans understand the logic of these processes and empower everyone in productive ways.
Make Space. Tulsa needs, according to folks with lots of material insight, someone more like 2001ís David Bowman than a classic civil engineer
• A powerful communicator, and not just with peers and elected officials but also with the general public. The new Public Works leader, Alter said, must be capable of conveying why public works are essential, the logic of Tulsa's development guidelines and planning systems and their nexus to quality of life, sustainable physical growth, public safety and the city's competitive position.
• A party who thrives in a vibrant workspace packed with strong staffers from a wide spectrum, including planning, computing, design, transport/pedestrian systems, environmentals and economics;
• A politically savvy leader who knows how to get things done in a hyper-political setting while insisting on elevated standards and a lead edge conception of the road ahead.
An outline for a new Public Works agenda
In my last piece, I wrote a little about the riveting "net centric" revolution in civil engineering and planning. Executing some variation of this notion should surely be a top priority for a new Public Works chief. For now, imagine a grand goal: The entire city is networked and monitored much like a patient in an ICU ward. Predictive models and fault-avoidance logic of the sort used in state-of-the-art aircraft, robotic planetary probes and in giant server farms drive repairs to streets and other systems. This is the big picture, grand challenge project for Tulsa Public Works.
Imagine a segment of Tulsa's street system covered with solar cells and paved with super-strong textured glass. Scott Brusaw, of Solar Roadways of Sagle, Idaho, is testing a prototype, according to a recent piece in Civil Engineering magazine, "embedded with light emitting
diodes that display safety info, and heating elements that keep the road clear of snow an ice."
Brusaw has already shown a viable demo and constructed a 12-foot, federally funded prototype. He is currently seeking $750,000 in Federal Highway Administration funds to build a larger demo to try out improved designs and seeking to partner with cities to do larger "fly off" efforts. Lest readers think that the "Idaho project" is science fiction, please note that Tulsa has an unheralded, first rate "advanced materials" center that could do high level
partnerships with the city on fixing the streets and other projects via novel efforts of the kind underway in Idaho or by exploiting other inventive practices.
OSU's/Tulsa Helmerich Research Center, is, according to its website, a "$43 million facility, funded through a county, state and private sector partnership, houses laboratories to develop the next generation of composites and materials... Since opening in 2008, OSU researchers have already been successful in securing grants from several entities including NASA ..."
A cardinal task for our elected officials and the next Public Works chief is to find cost effective, imaginative and transformative strategies for moving Tulsa ahead. This means terminating the sterile struggles at City Hall and a spirited effort to advance by using brains, bold strokes and boundary busting teams and strategies.
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