Fixing the present, planning for the future

Bob Freudenthal
APWA President

Ahh! Spring—time of rebirth and renewal! Spring also means a change from the present. It seems to me that we rarely live in the present anymore. I know that I am currently looking at the next round of trips I have planned to chapters in the upcoming months—three months away; that the APWA staff is busily working on preparations for the Congress in September—four months away; and that a lot of you are preparing budgets for the next fiscal year—five months or so away. So, what happened to the present?

The unfortunate reality of both our daily personal and business lives demands that we plan for the future while physically being in the present. Public works employees have always lived in both worlds: planning for construction or reconstruction while picking up storm debris from yesterday's natural disaster; scheduling coverage for next week's impending snow storm while running trash pickups every day; drawing up a new traffic calming plan while at the same time fixing traffic signals down on 10th & Main.

One could call ours a fractured existence. And, I'm pretty sure many of you are identifying with that feeling right now. Perhaps this is what growth is all about—worrying about the future while fixing the present.

The first quarter of this year brought the meaning of appreciating the present a little closer to me and the APWA leadership. We lost a sitting Board Member, Jack Pittis, at 59 and a key staff director, Bob Browell, at 57—both at relatively young ages in a population that no longer thinks hitting 100 years is extraordinary. And my own father passed away this year. It was bittersweet to sit through these individuals' memorial services and hear all their incredible accomplishments. I realized how much we don't know about the people with whom we associate until they are gone.

In this month's issue we are honoring the Top Ten Public Works Leaders of the Year—all of whom have a list of impressive achievements both in their profession and in their community. I hope you will take the time to read their stories. One of the common links we find among these outstanding individuals is their passion for what they are doing. I believe one of the factors of personal success is knowing yourself well enough to choose the correct path in life and then to zealously pursue it. These Top Ten have done just that and in the process are leaving a great legacy for future public works professionals.

But who will be the Top Ten twenty or thirty years from now? Will there be new factors that qualify one for success in the profession?

I have just been reading the preview for our upcoming Congress in Kansas City in September and our opening keynoter caught my attention. Daniel Pink is the author of A Whole New Mind, Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. The premise of his book is that the era of the "left-brain" dominance and the Information Age that it engendered is giving way to a new world in which artistic and holistic "right-brain" abilities delineate those who succeed and those who fall behind. (He plays this out by describing what he calls the six essential aptitudes on which professional success and personal fulfillment now depend. They are: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning—whose further explanation I leave to those who read his book or hear his presentation at Congress.)

However, I was intrigued by the second chapter of his book in which he attributes this future shift to: "Abundance, Asia, and Automation." Quoting from his book, "In an age of abundance, appealing only to rational, logical and functional needs is woefully insufficient. Engineers must figure out how to get things to work. But if those things are not also pleasing to the eye or compelling to the soul, few will buy them. Master of design, empathy, play and other seemingly 'soft' aptitudes is now the main way for individuals and firms to stand out in a crowded marketplace."

Pink continues by saying, "This coming upheaval will be difficult for many, ... they'll need to do what workers abroad [referring to outsourced jobs] cannot do equally well for much less money—using R-Directed [right-brain] abilities such as forging relationships rather than executing transactions, tackling novel challenges instead of solving routine problems and synthesizing the big picture rather than analyzing a single component."

Many of the leaders and players in this profession of public works have excelled in these right-brain qualities though schooled primarily in left-brained systems. One can't maintain a city or town filled with vocal citizens, or plan a community around the elements of "Smart Growth" and context-sensitive design, or manage the politics of weekly council and commission meetings without the right-brain abilities seriously kicking in. We have had to master this balance of left- and right-brain aptitudes to accomplish our jobs.

Public works professionals actually have been creating the "future horizons" and living in the "present reality" simultaneously. Unfortunately, too often we do not take enough credit for the design efforts and big-picture thinking that compels so many of us to be passionate about our profession. Which brings me back to my beginning—spring, the season for renewal, should also be the time for us to take stock and renew our appreciation for the really outstanding service public works delivers and our personal role in making the present better for so many and planning a wondrous future for those who follow.

Congratulations and Best Wishes to all APWA Members, both you, the right- and left-brained thinkers, during the celebration of National Public Works Week this month. You are the foundation of our daily existence and the inventors of our future lifestyles. Keep up the good work! Recognize and celebrate your contributions!