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Systems that Enable the Future We Want

This article was written by Alex Steffen in February 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Infrastructure bores us. Most people in the developed world spend a significant portion of their incomes primarily to avoid ever having to think of the infrastructure we use, or the implications of the way we use it. Therefore, we ignore it.

But like most of the ignored products of our minds, infrastructure is about to demand that pay it attention once more. Throughout the developed world, so called infrastructure deficits -- large accumulated backlogs of needed work on existing infrastructural systems, and newer demands for infrastructure that go unmet -- are growing rapidly.

Nowhere is this more true than in the U.S., where a study done last year by the Urban Land Institute, Infrastructure 2007: A Global Perspective, found that we'd have to spend $1.6 trillion dollars to bring our infrastructure up to date.

Now you don't have to agree with ULI's ideas about what up to date means (they're long on totally discredited ideas like new freeway construction and automotive infrastructure) to realize what numbers like that mean: America is falling apart at the seams. Our power grids, our rail system, our roads and bridges, our drinking water and drainage systems, our dams, our ports, our dumps: they're all failing, sometimes in visible catastrophic ways, often in just slow losses of service and usability.

There are three major schools of thought about what to do. The first is the status quo among politicians: do nothing, and hope nothing major happens on our watch. The second is the status quo among many chambers of commerce: rebuild the old systems with updated versions of the old technologies, paying a bonanza to construction and engineering corporations and turning the repaired systems over to private, for-profit utilities. These are both terrible ideas. There is, though, a third way. We might look into this unfolding disaster and see an opportunity for real change.

Most of the infrastructure we use today was designed a century ago: some of it is based on ideas that go back to the Roman Empire. Almost all of it is at best industrial in its thinking. Essentially all of it was designed for a world without climate change, resource scarcity or any proper understanding of the value of ecosystem services. In other words, most of the systems upon which we depend are not only in a state of critical disrepair, they're out-dated and even out of touch with the realities of our century.

As we undertake their repair and replacement, we ought to be thinking like people native to the 21st century. We ought to be imagining systems which aim to provide the end services we want (access, communications, food, water, sanitation) in the most efficient, flexible and sustainable ways possible.

Here are a few things I suspect that means:

1) Adaptive and creative re-use:

We're not going to just junk the nation's entire infrastructural backbone, so we need to figure out how to make the best use of what's there to meet new needs in unexpected ways. Turning abandoned overpasses and rail bridges into parks is one kind of example, as is dedicating whole lanes of arterial roads to bus rapid transit (essentially replicating trains on the cheap, without laying tracks). But I suspect there are whole realms of innovation as yet undiscovered here.

2) Whole-system missions:

These new systems need to take into account their impacts on society and nature as a whole, and not just their effectiveness at providing a particular service divorced from all consequences. For decades, American transportation planners have measured their skill by getting cars from one place to another as quickly as possible, with completely disastrous results. We need to do better this time around. This may need to be reinforced by law.

3) Resilience and survivability:

The one thing we're absolutely sure about for the next century is that things are gonna get weird. The climate will be weird; society will find itself facing new strains (from epidemics to mass-migrations); the kinds of resources and energy available will morph and flex. Our national ability to respond to disasters quickly and comprehensively will be strained even further.

Because of these things, the systems we build need to promote local resilience and survivability even as they promote sustainable prosperity while times are good.

4) Distribution:

One strategy I suspect we need to wrestle with much more seriously is distributed infrastructure. Some ideas, like smart grids, seem to be fairly ready to integrate into our current infrastructure to produce a better hybrid model. Others, like distributed water infrastructure, still seem to need some work. But the model as a whole is a powerful one, and one we need to bring more directly into this conversation.

5) Wild ideas:

We need big new thinking to change the spectrum of the debate. One recent example: networked hydrology.

As ally Geoff Manaugh explains he architecture firm IwamotoScott offered up this idea for the History Channel's city of the future contest:

The project reimagines the entire San Francisco peninsula in the year 2108 A.D., having been overlain, if not completely replaced by, a kind of prosthetic hydrological landscape – complete with underground rivers of algae which will be cultivated as a source of hydrogen for fuel. Architecturally speaking, the city will sprout a whole series of new structures, including multi-angled fog harvesting machines, tendril-like towers along the waterfront, subterranean transport tunnels, and biologically active reservoirs buried beneath the streets.

Go check it out for yourself. It's weird and science-fictional and in many ways insanely impractical, and yet it's also new and bold and in other ways far more engaged with 21st century problems in a realistic way than most of the infrastructure plans coming off the desks of state bureaucrats today. We need thinking like this to expand our sense of the possible.

We are just at the start of this discussion, but we can't have it fast enough. The next American administration is likely going to be forced to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure. That infrastructure will impact the whole world, both directly through its environmental impacts, and indirectly as models and market signals to developing world megacities. We need to make sure that the systems we end up with in 2030 actually enable the future we want, not rebuild the past.


Infrastructure for the Future We Want is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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