The missing middle is increasingly human

Talking Resilience with Seth Schultz

When you go to your tap and turn it on, you know that water will come out, and you may take a guess that it comes from a lake, an aquifer or a cloud. But most people won’t generally have much understanding of what we call the ‘missing middle’. How that water gets pumped, treated, stored, shared, recycled and so on. Or how much energy it took just to fill up that glass of water.

Increasingly we forget or don’t understand the basic critical infrastructure on which our society depends. The missing middle is a way to describe an increasing lack of connectivity and awareness that people around the world have with their daily reliance on infrastructure.

At The Resilience Shift, we want to help people understand how things work, fill in the knowledge gaps, and raise the level of awareness globally of the critical infrastructure systems that we all depend on every day. By doing so, we can help to make these systems more resilient so that infrastructure is fit-for-purpose moving forward.

To increase the speed with which we enhance the security, flexibility and the resilience of critical infrastructure, it takes planning, money, policy, data, and above all prioritization.

Increasingly it’s hard to prioritize infrastructure investment among a slew of other things that we, as individuals and/or local governments or national governments, are faced with – education, safety, health or food, for example. We prioritize what we understand. If people more generally understood how important the infrastructure that we take for granted is, we would prioritize its funding and investment.

Our infrastructure systems are also increasingly complicated and intertwined. As a result of more awareness of the complexity and fragility of those systems, we would be more willing to invest in their reliability and their resilience.

The invisible power and value of infrastructure enables global society to continue working even through the midst of a global pandemic. Through our recent Resilient Leadership project, we have been gaining insights by listening to and learning from senior leaders around the world faced with the Covid crisis. One of the main things we’re learning about is the critical importance to resilience of human infrastructure.

We’ve discovered through our interviewees, the degree to which we rely upon each other even though we’re remote. It’s another form of the missing middle, of invisible mutual support. It’s not engineered, it’s something we co-create in the background, but during this crisis, it is front and centre for everybody to see. Indeed, it is so important and yet often completely overlooked.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen some incredible examples of human social infrastructure in action. Who would have thought that our heroes would be the people restocking grocery shelves and working at checkouts in those same locations where there is a risk of getting exposed to Covid. We are seeing extraordinary resilience and bravery of retired healthcare workers, often at the highest risk based on their age, coming out of retirement and going back into the frontlines of hospitals as their former colleagues are stricken with Covid.

The missing middle is about assets and systems and behaviours, and a combination of all of these. As much as Covid is revealing the strengths and vulnerabilities of our infrastructure, our supply chains, and our societies, it is also bringing to the fore the importance of this invisible infrastructure and the army of humans that support it day to day.

We are seeing incredible strengths, of resilience and personal fortitude as communities, indeed whole nations have been isolated. It is a remarkable and a deeply moving feat of human infrastructure the world over, and it gives me great hope that we can apply this learning to invest in the critical infrastructure that we all need and ensure its resilience for the future that we all want.

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