In the world of Twitter and citizen campaigns, of strained budgets and competing needs, infrastructure decisions will always be hard fought. But how are they won, and how should they be decided? Not just with technical arguments to the elite but with hearts-and-minds appeals to the public and a deep understanding of citizens’ and customers’ needs.
Infrastructure leaders who are considering new investments and looking to win public support can learn from their peers in consumer-focused industries, companies that define themselves—and live or die—by their ability to understand customers and to adapt quickly and precisely to emerging trends and preferences.
Incumbent operators, too, can apply these techniques. Holding a monopoly position, as they often do, makes it easy to pay little attention to the consumer. We are in an industry of hard hats and operational focus more than focus groups and customer segmentation.
But in the long term, returns from infrastructure always depend on the end customer who pays the bills. True, there will be regulation and political context, but ultimately, the best strategy for regulation and for stakeholder management, and the right strategy for the country, is a strategy centered on meeting the needs of consumers and citizens.
For example, Thames Water, a UK private utility company that provides water and waste treatment for 15 million customers in London and the Thames Valley, has prices strictly set by an independent, technical regulator. Its formally stated vision, though, is that “if customers had a choice, they would choose Thames Water.”
A strong focus on the customer does not mean every investment should go ahead, and the counterarguments on cost or local impact should sometimes be decisive. It does, though, mean that infrastructure planners and proponents should prepare the right facts and conduct the right research.