The Long Life of Infrastructure

Posted on Posted in Cities, Culture, Development, Systems Engineering

A bit of a dichotomy exists between the pace of innovation and urban infrastructure design as we know it. Municipal, state, and federal governments fund projects through taxes or bond measures based on long-term cost projections. Planning for decades in advance is necessarily inherent in the system. The infrastructure we possess lasts a long time, as evidenced by North American and European cities using 100+ year old sewer systems, or Mediterranean cities building around (or using) ancient Greek and Roman infrastructure. Legacies last longer than we might think prudent and it is habitual that infrastructure lifespans (think bridges and highways) are extended by decades due to political realities.

This is in contrast to concepts of innovation in the 21st century industrialized world. Innovation happens quickly. Moore’s Law is in full effect. If you blink today, you will miss the next startup or technology wave. The built infrastructure of today seems quaint considering the capability of new technologies for monitoring, analysis, and feedback. Distributed sensor networks can provide near real-time information to control sensors regarding the status of water flows in sewers or ridership on public transit. Fantastic research from the SENSEable City Lab at MIT and others shows the promise for futuristic urban design to incorporate sensing technology as part of an overall strategy for a smarter, more sustainable city. Some urban data centers are moving in small steps towards this goal. Nevertheless, our infrastructure persists and professional engineering groups (though somewhat self-interested) consistently give the U.S. poor marks for infrastructure upkeep. Any visit to an airport or ride on an Autobahn in Germany will convince one that smarter design and greater investment can reap benefits, if not comfort.

Yet a visit to an older European or African city makes one realize just how long urban infrastructure persists. Urban residents are shaped and molded by the combination of their own decisions and the infrastructure surrounding them. While they make conscious choices based on economic or social influences, they are unconsciously influenced by the limitation of the physical systems around them. Thus, smart infrastructure would be responsive, adapting to changing conditions while limiting necessary capital inputs. Great nations pursue building sprees during the boom times, but a truly innovative nation figures out how to keep its infrastructure maintained when capital is harder to come by.

As the world moves towards greater urbanization, the ultimate model of innovation and adaptation may lie in the evolutionary construct of ecological processes. We can imagine and even implement Zero Net Energy (ZNE) buildings and recycle water, but it seems difficult to enact a world of totally natural processes in the coming centuries. Thus, our surroundings in which we exist, the transportation, water, energy, and building systems around us, would be best served to mesh natural processes with our conceptions of design. Along with innovations in energy generation, such hybrid approaches might just transition human societies through the coming decades of continued population expansion towards more prosperous societies. Or, it is at least worth a shot.

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