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October 2017

RAND Gulf States Policy Institute

From the Director

RAND's Ben Preston

Ben Preston, Director, RAND Infrastructure Resilience and
Environmental Policy Program

It is hard to deny that the U.S. Gulf Coast region has one of the most critical infrastructures in the nation. We have our share of roadways, airports, railroad, and reservoirs, like other regions do, that need to be maintained to meet community and regional needs. Louisiana alone has 30 ports that handle at least 60 percent of all raw grain exports from the Midwest. And rubber, produce, and coffee imports come through the ports and are shipped elsewhere in the United States by trucks and barges on a daily basis.

Our region might not be the biggest. But the products that travel through our ports, on our roads, and up and down the Mississippi River are those on which the entire nation depends.

On that note, I am pleased to introduce you to Benjamin Lee Preston, Ph.D., director of RAND Infrastructure Resilience and Environmental Policy. Ben recently joined RAND after serving as the deputy director of the Climate Change Science Institute at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. There, he was engaged in research on vulnerability and resilience of U.S. energy systems to climate variability. Today, he is at the helm of a diverse research portfolio that spans environmental planning and policy, infrastructure resilience and finance, analysis of energy systems and technologies, and workplace health and safety.

As always, if you have any questions or would simply like to know more about RAND, RAND Infrastructure Resilience and Environmental Policy, or the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute, please contact me.

All the best,

Gary Cecchine

Researcher Spotlight

Q&A with Ben Preston

1. Why is the RAND Infrastructure Resilience and Environmental Policy research portfolio important, and what are its possible impacts?

Urban areas in the United States and across the world are finding themselves at a development crossroads. They are increasingly challenged to change and grow in ways that promote economic growth and human well-being while managing climate change, land use, and infrastructure depreciation. Social and economic inequities also complicate everything.

The research in our program provides methods and analyses that help decisionmakers navigate this difficult junction. We are dedicated to addressing the hardest questions being asked daily at the national, state, and local levels:

  • How can we design transportation infrastructures to achieve multiple benefits—mobility, human well-being, and environmental protection?
  • What are the options for financing next-generation flood protection measures?
  • How can we assess the opportunities and trade-offs associated with the rapidly changing U.S. energy landscape?

As you can see, our program is fundamentally grounded in the real world.

2. What are the two biggest infrastructure challenges that the country faces right now?

The first concerns our nation's infrastructure needs and how we are going to finance them. And the needs are complex. They include not only new infrastructure to keep pace with ongoing urbanization but also the replacement of infrastructure that is often well beyond its planned life span. There are many competing demands for public revenue at all levels of government, which is leading to exploration of other sources of capital, such as private equity and philanthropy. We are also seeing novel financing instruments emerging, such as environmental impact bonds, that are attempting to link investments to outcomes on the ground. There's a lot of innovation happening in the infrastructure finance arena but also a significant need for analysis and evaluation to generate evidence of what works and under what conditions.

The other big challenge is to fundamentally change the way we think about infrastructure, the services it provides, and its impacts on society and the environment. For example, we are now aware that our transportation infrastructure doesn't simply affect human mobility. It also affects human health, economic opportunity, flood risk management, and ecosystem conservation. This is creating new demands for infrastructure planners but also new opportunities for more integrated and efficient infrastructure systems.

3. What do we need to know before we start addressing these infrastructure-related challenges full-on?

One of the first things we need a better understanding of is what people value and what preferences they have regarding the future development of their communities. Moreover, we need better understanding of how those values and preferences influence behavior—the performance of infrastructure and the quality of the environment are contingent on how people choose to interact with them.

We also need to be able to assess the opportunities and risks associated with current and emerging technologies. Understanding these will better enable their successful deployment from the start.

Finally, I think we need to improve our capacity for foresight. Greater investment in efforts to anticipate future trends and emerging risks can help us better identify leading indicators of threats, as well as the near-term policies that can help society achieve long-term objectives.

4. What challenge or question first got you interested in this kind of research?

As an undergraduate student in the biological sciences, I became interested in the complex ways in which human decisions regarding environmental management and regulation influence environmental quality. Once I was exposed to public health as a graduate student, I became interested in the feedbacks that exist between the fate of the environment and the fate of human health.

Working across disciplines can be a bit of a slippery slope that eventually drives one to find important connections across a broad range of physical, social, and economic systems. But being able to engage that complexity is fundamental to sustainability research and policy. So, I am still very much interested in human–environment interactions, but the questions and research that interest me most are those that don’t sit comfortably in any one discipline.

The RAND Gulf States Policy Institute provides objective analysis to federal, state, and local leaders in support of evidence-based policymaking and the well-being of individuals throughout the U.S. Gulf States region. We invite your suggestions for researchers, projects, centers, and funding or collaboration opportunities to highlight in future issues. Write to director Gary Cecchine at Gary_Cecchine@rand.org.

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