Infrastructure for the Future We Want

**From the archives. This piece was originally published on on February 13th, 2008.**

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.



I recently learned how difficult it can be to take back our infrastructure and repurpose it for a better use. My case in point was an effort to install some traffic calming measures (chicanes) on a short stretch of road near my home. After a lot of work the houses next to the proposed traffic calming measures exerted their veto power over its implementation. An effort to get an on-street bikelane on the same road was also defeated by the department of transportation as too expensive. No construction was required in this scenario just a stripe of paint.

Posted by: Brett Lovgren on 13 Feb 08

Solid cutting edge infrastructure has been the secret weapon of every successful country/kingdom/empire. Our (US) interstate highway system is one of relatively few key reasons for our success. Without it we wouldn't have been able to transport goods (metals during the war, food always) across our vast country quickly and efficiently. We took one giant step forward after WWII, and it was because we put building a national infrastructure for transportation, water, power and food as well as communications on a double-step fast track. We are still working with that infrastructure in all parts of the country today, and more places than you would think still run entirely on that old system.
It is my belief that it is time to close up the foreign lending shop for a while, hang out an 'Under Construction' sign and get to work re-working our workings! We have the information and technology, the manpower the money and most of all the WILL to remake our systems into more efficient, longer lasting, safer systems that will once again throw us headlong over the goal post of expectations just as we have done in the past.
Internet communications lends itself to working from home or local 'communal' office spaces, lends itself to fewer flights, fewer buildings spewing carbon, fewer drivers, fewer accidents. The technology noted above is only a fraction of what is available.
There are still going to be jobs to be done, but new and different jobs. There will still be things to be sold, but different things. Business will not come to an end, it will just change. I think this will lead to more business ending up in the hands of the small business owners, the local communities. Working, shopping and eating local.

If we could do it in 75 years then, we can do it in 20 now. And now IS the time.

Posted by: Morgan on 13 Feb 08

Without getting too icky, this is the most compelling blog posting I (think I) have ever read.

Perhaps because we are inheritors of the work of utopian (and secretive) social planners of another age - perhaps because we live in a (brilliant) age of thrills, rather than context - infrastructure has been a major bore.

But I *do* think that any route to target of engaging with these issues needs to think about social infrastructure first and then - or in parallel - work with the larger systems or issues.

For example, there are huge property interventions at present happening in towns and cities across the world and the (more enlightened) people behind this development are engaging with the physics of delivering this - and trying (let's give them the benefit of the doubt) to do this sustainably.

However all of this work - e.g. trying to make cities and communities 'work' - isn't linked with surrounding or linked social infrastructures. So issues such as skills deficits, consumption-linked supply systems, gentrification and other personal and personalised links and catalysts to services hardly figure - other than a population who can or might be taxed or act as some form of asset-backing for infrastructure development.

A message needs to go out that yes, all of these tricky and immensely important infrastructure issues needs to be addressed.

But also that imagination and innovation involves ways of involving people in the process of change - and that nothing happens without stable, participatory, inter-linked development and support of social infrastructure.

Posted by: David Barrie on 14 Feb 08

This may be contained within your "whole system mission" point Alex, but I think a key to this process comes from the Permaculture principle of stacking functions. Much of our current infrastructure is compartmentalized, with near complete disconnect between the goals and stakeholders of different structures. Systemically integrated infrastructure will have to re-draw the boundaries and connections between structures and services.

Your last several posts have prompted me to think more closely about structural and infrastructural change, so often taken for granted in forecasts with horizons shorter than 50-100 years. Thanks for the food for thought!

Posted by: Miriam on 14 Feb 08

Perhaps planners need to take a wholistic approach to infrastructure that better emulates natural systems, with an eye to regional differences that mimic the biodiversity found in geographically isolated regions. Todays industrial style of manufacturing has led to cookie-cutter housing and distribution systems that could be more efficient by using a greater variety of locally sourced materials. Consider the Southwest, where a solar "dome" could produce energy while reducing cooling costs and U-V damage to exterior surfaces the way a forest canopy would.

Posted by: Paul Barthle on 14 Feb 08

Yes, we take infrastructure for granted, until it fails us, in dramatic ways, as in bridges collapsing, for instance. Kind of like not taking care of one's health, and then one day feeling sorry when illness strikes.

The other problem is the current infrastructure, even it were to last, is not adapted to the challenges ahead, particularly in regards to climate change. So that, in a way, the obsolescence problem is a blessing in disguise. The old stuff's got to go, and needs to be revamped, or replaced altogether by a smarter infrastructure, that is designed to sustain us, rather than contributing to our demise.

The good news is infrastructure means work, and jobs, and more 'fuel' for the economy. The challenge is how to plan, how to pull together such a major project, and where to get the trillions that will be required to jumpstart that process. Our next president, better have some ideas on how to make it happen.
'Listening to the Planet'

Posted by: marguerite manteau-rao on 16 Feb 08

Cambridge, MA has its own reservoirs and water supply system. It was built about a century ago, the golden age of American engineering IMHO. Cambridge at that time was a manufacturing center and the designers built with at least a century in mind. When I started looking at it, I was astonished at the depth of thinking that went into our infrastructure.

In the late 1940s, that generation of engineers thought it was a good idea to build a highway on the borders of the reservoirs, highways that drain right into our drinking water. At one time, there was a chemical tanker truck spill that didn't become a disaster only because a drain was clogged.

At one point, we could think in terms of generations and whole systems. For most of the 20th century, it seems like we couldn't. We need to learn that perspective that we once had.

Posted by: gmoke on 16 Feb 08

Hi Alex,

Congratulations on another great post. Infrastructure is core to the way we run and live our world, our society etc. (see Bill Mitchell's writings for some fascinating stories). Infrastructural challenges - especially in countries with an ageing infrastructure in place - are enormous. They do not have the start-from-scratch, tabula rasa advantage.

Reading your article, a few things crossed my mind ...
Maybe it are not as much the ideas about 'future-oriented' infrastructures which are lacking (sic), but mostly efficient ways and systems to bring them to reality at the levels of speed/cost/scale/flexibility/... we need them. Think: decision-making, policy-making, planning, soci(et)al innovation etc.

Technologically speaking there are 'relatively' few barriers to turn the concepts you mention into reality, to employ this new vocabulary and concepts-base on a broad scale. They represent a paradigm shift from industrial age to knowledge/systems age thinking (and acting) (or bio-age, as natural systems stand model for many of the concepts mentioned, ideas not as much new as now finally made possible by technological innovations).

The need to assess envisioned impacts on society and environment exemplifies a more contextualized approach to thinking about infrastructure design & planning, yet this also forces us to look in the other direction, i.e. outwards, to the extent to which current-day policy, planning, decision making mechanisms etc. are adequate or 'up to date' to allow for such projects to be carried out at the necessary scale/speed/..., for such ideas to find widespread uptake? Isn't some radical innovation needed on this front? The sense of urgency with respect to societal challenges (ageing, climate change, resource scarcity, etc.) however is increasing which always plays in favour of radical change and tends to bring about courage, persistence, leadership and maverick behaviour, so who knows ...

Although public-private partnerships, participatory policymaking etc., are making headways, the old top-down, centralized planning metaphor is still very much engrained in the minds of local and national government bodies across the world. Yet in many cases the context has changed in several ways and will continue to do so in the future.

Systems theory teaches us that to move from one equilibrium state to another, often a few small events are enough to ripple through the system, generating waves of change and toppling the whole system/moving it beyond its tipping point. These 'few small events' are hard to predict in advance however, which makes planning (for) them tough, pushing us into a complex systems world where experimentation and trial and error is a reality, or should we say, a current day must. Nevertheless new insights shed light on the dark spots every day.

'Massive change' or radical change can start small, but we need to find new fast, efficient, responsible ways for the ripple to become a wave. This involves new kinds of systems (in the broad sense), new kinds of solution-oriented coalitions/partnerships, decision making mechanisms, etc.

Posted by: Nik on 21 Feb 08

From a development point of view infrastructure-lite is already in use.

African countries have leapfrogged telephone wires and gone direct to mobile, basically dispensing with most of the costs of building and maintaining a hardwired network.

But in other ways this concept of going straight to low cost high tech hasn't been developed at all.

Consider that the best way to provide sanitation services is not with a roman piping system straight to the river but rather with composting toilets. The infrastructure required for composting toilets is a bucket, a compost heap and some elbow grease.

Consider that the Nabateans of Petra (the stone city where Indy's 3rd movie ended) had a water management network built around cisterns dug to collect and use water where it is needed and compare that to the cost of building today's huge reservoirs. Also consider what swales (essentially water harvesting terraces on slopes that gravity feeds water into the soil rather than allowing flows to wash down the surface) would mean for the production of natural springs and sustained water flow off a hillside which has been turned into a green covered reservoir.

Picture electricity generation onsite using solar, wind and gasifiers and you could dispense with the grid altogether for domestic use.

Flying vessels combining the lighter than air techniques of airships with the aerodynamic efficiencies of planes could drastically reduce the size and maintenance costs associated with the highway network by taking the transportation of people into the air,straight line "as the crow flies" point to point 150 mph transport with no traffic jams using nothing but GPS, chip radar and hydrogen. Why stop with people take lorries off the road too. Ships as docking stations would dispense with ports, warehouses etc. There'd be no need to cut roads into virgin territory because utilising a resource would mean dropping in from above.

Everywhere you look there are ways to drastically reduce infrastructure requirements. Water collection, sanitation, energy creation and distribution not to mention transport and telecommunications down to next to nothing.

I'm starting with compost sanitation in developing nations simply because it's incredibly simple and it's also a waste processing business -earthworms, enzymes, soil, methane etc. Do it right first time and it creates the money for the solar. Do that right first time and it creates the money for the telecoms tower. And so on down the line...

Posted by: Ian Gordon on 23 Feb 08

Thank you for an interesting post. Daring infrastructure is really nothing new. Nor is planning for the long term. Perhaps we have just turned away from it more recently. The railroads, although certainly part of a land grab, were the basis for future cities. Some of the early light rail was designed to transport people from what would only later become bedroom suburbs (and was paid for by developers or landholders). All included (or excluded) externalities. Perhaps it is time to invert the idea and instead of opening up new frontiers, open up old frontiers. Build the infrastructure to encourage density, walkability, conditions that encourage living near work (maybe the toughest of all) and minimize the externalities.
Barcelona did some of this prior to the Olympics. The City saw an opportunity to not just build venues, but to radically improve infrastructure.
Because there will inevitably be winners and losers, one of the biggest challenges will be to engage this as a common civic investment rather than a cost because costs are almost never defensible, particularly if costs disadvantage any vocal stakeholder or advantage another group clearly. The design, the ideas are relatively easy. Leadership will be more difficult, and may have to coalesce around either major opportunities (like the Olympics) or major calamities. One of the instructional aspects of Barcelona is that the CIty Planners built deep reserves of trust well in advance of the major changes by building small parks throughout the city that became centers of neighborhoods. And by using design competitions that were very public, the level of discourse rose throughout the city. Familiarity with the issues and some of the potential solutions to smaller problems built trust when the larger issues were introduced.
As you mention, one of the biggest challenges will be the silos that exist either in government, or our economy. We just ain't used to working together at this scale. This may get us back to the railroad model. Build enlightened infrastructure with the idea that the rest of the development it sparks will start to fall into place. And be ready to adapt as time goes by, because the best laid plans will definitely need to play catch up to reality.

Posted by: James Jackson on 27 Feb 08

As I think our next President may be Sen. Obama, I wrote him asking him to create a cabinent position Chief of the Office of Sustainability, and an office to match with staff focused on bringing sustainability into the discussion on all fronts. I don't know where Clinton's initiative is now, but I'm guessing Bush, if he let it exist at all stocked it with lobbyists for big ag and oil interests....

Posted by: Cityzenjane on 1 Mar 08

Re: Putting the kilbosh on a painted bike lane and traffic - calming: I hope Mr. Lowgren did not give up, as that is such a typical example of absurd abuse of power I've heard.

Posted by: KAW on 3 Mar 08