Will Miller Discusses Why Bridges Matter – in Public Works and Public Life


October 1, 2011

Initiatives that bridge the public and private sectors, researchers, communities and individuals are essential to solving tough public problems, Wallace Foundation President Will Miller told the American Academy of Arts and Sciences October 1 at its annual induction ceremony for new members.

Miller spoke at Sanders Theatre in Harvard University’s historic Memorial Hall, where he was one of five Academy members chosen to represent each new class of the Academy: mathematics and physical sciences; biological sciences; social sciences; humanities and arts; and public affairs, business, and administration. What follows are his remarks: ​

Why Bridges Matter – in Public Works and in Public Life

On our way here, my wife Lynne and I drove over the Anderson Memorial Bridge that links North Harvard Street in Allston with JFK Street in Cambridge. This three-arch bridge over the Charles River, made of reinforced concrete, is not especially large or long. At 440 feet, or about a tenth of a mile, it takes less than fifteen seconds to cross in a car. So it’s easy not to give it a second thought.

But if you take a closer look, you might observe that in 1913, the engineering firm of Wheelwright, Haven & Hoyt took pains to cover the concrete in rather handsome brickwork, giving it a Georgian Revival character that ties it visually to the Harvard University buildings on the Cambridge side. You might see a small plaque erected by the bridge’s donor, Larz Anderson, in memory of his father, expressing the hope that the bridge will serve a high purpose. In fact, through careful placement and durable design, the bridge has united the people of two communities for nearly a century.

There are other kinds of bridges that are easy to overlook, that are difficult to build and sustain, and that also play an important public role. By that, I mean “bridging institutions” like the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that connect those with different perspectives and roles on behalf of some common, public purpose. This bridging purpose is visible today in the breadth of disciplines the Academy represents, in the ways in which it shares ideas externally through Dædalus, and in its inclusion of Class V members from public affairs, business, and administration, on whose behalf I am honored to speak today. Let me share three stories about how bridging institutions can make a difference.

I have spent most of my life in Columbus, Indiana, a small city of about 44,000. For many years, the main route to Columbus was through a nondescript, congested stretch of four-lane highway. In the 1990s, a number of us decided to try to make improvements, forming a group of local officials and community leaders called The Front Door Project. We wanted an entry that, like the Anderson Bridge, would help establish a sense of place to reflect our community values of innovation and striving for excellence. We brought in experts from outside the community: architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to help us rethink how a commercial strip looks and functions, landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh to design a greenspace, and bridge designer Jean Muller of Switzerland. For the interstate bridge, Muller proposed a radical new design in which the roadbeds of Interstate 65 were cantilevered on the outside of a cable-stayed structure.

The effort took more than a decade. It made me realize how hard it is to build bridges and connections. After five years of little progress, I took to calling our group The Eternal Door Project. But persistence pays off. Today if you visit Columbus you will be carried into our downtown over two stunning and innovative bridges, between which are a vigorous commercial center and a dramatically landscaped parkway. More recent community initiatives have similarly strengthened the regional public education system and revitalized our downtown. I believe that all these efforts were successful because we assembled the critical ingredients of public-private partnerships – in other words, bridging institutions.

Meanwhile, The Wallace Foundation in New York City, whose presidency I assumed in July, has been trying to tackle the national challenge of strengthening how school principals are trained and supported to become instructional leaders. This also was not easy. Conventional wisdom held that principals were mainly responsible for the three Bs: buildings, budgets, and buses. Today, after eleven years of effort, improving school leadership is a federal priority. Leading districts across the country are creating promising new ways of preparing and supporting principals. Here, too, bridging made the difference: the Foundation brought together researchers, who generated objective evidence that effective principals are crucial to school improvement; policy-makers, who passed new laws; and practitioners, who developed ways to improve their practice. The Foundation is helping share the lessons as widely as possible.

Closer to the Academy, Tufts University professor Christine Economos spearheaded a citywide effort in Somerville, Massachusetts, to combat childhood obesity among first through third graders by combining the efforts of government, educators, restaurant and gym owners, and volunteers. Shape Up Somerville yielded a modest but statistically significant reduction in the BMI (body mass index) among the city’s young children between 2002 and 2007. The influence of this kind of bridging activity is spreading. The Healthy Communities Initiative back in my hometown is now working with Professor Economos to replicate the Somerville program in Columbus.
Let me offer a few thoughts on why these and other institutional bridges matter and what makes them work.

The problems we face today – whether reducing childhood obesity, strengthening public education, or improving economic opportunity – tend to be complex and complicated, with few “silver bullets.” That means we need everyone’s best thinking and perspectives, from the Ivory Tower to Main Street.

Second, taking action on these problems will rarely be the province of one sector alone. In a time of strained fiscal resources, many believe governments are more likely to make progress when allied with other sectors.

Finally, we need bridging institutions because of the narrowing of political discourse and hardening of ideological lines. Bridging institutions respond to and are the best hope to counter the tendency of people in power or seeking power to pursue a narrow agenda. The key is to tap into the strength of diverse perspectives, thereby embracing the pluralism that is at the heart of our democracy.

What makes bridging institutions work? Drawing on research from John Kania and Mark Kramer as well as my own experience and that of The Wallace Foundation, here is a short list:

  • A shared agenda and approach, with metrics based on agreement about what success looks like;
  • The development of trust among partners who closely coordinate their actions;
  • Persistence over a long time frame; and
  • A team to plan, manage, and support the effort.

Perhaps most important is a respect for the role of evidence and a willingness to acknowledge failure and learn from it, traits that great bridge designers share.

In other words, like bridges, bridging institutions need to be strategically placed, tied to the communities they represent, well designed, and there for the long haul. Partnerships for the public good are not easy to form; many of them fail. But the ones that work are among the most effective tools we have for social innovation and progress.

As you drive home, your route will likely take you over a bridge at some point. As you cross it, I would invite you to think of the words of Henry Petroski, the poetic and prolific professor of engineering and history at Duke University. Bridges, he said, “have become symbols and souls of cities.” Perhaps it is time we accorded their institutional counterparts some of that same affection and regard. Solving some of our most pressing problems may depend on it.

Founded in 1780, the Academy is an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems, and fosters the exchange of ideas through meetings, conferences, symposia and the journal Daedalus. Its elected members of 4,000 American fellows and 600 foreign honorary members are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business and public affairs.