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The futurist: More on the curse of infrastructure

(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part 1.)

Our aging and problem-riddled infrastructure, and the painfully slow processes we have for changing it, is taking its toll. Here’s one example.

Airports Get a “D”

According to Jonathan M. Tisch, CEO of Loews Hotels, “Even though five of the world’s 10 busiest airports are located in U.S., not one of them ranks in the world’s 10 best.”

He went on to say, “Travel frustrations caused people to avoid 41 million trips in 2008, according to a study conducted that year. Cost to the economy was estimated at $26.5 billion.”

A survey he cited showed that civil engineers gave the U.S. aviation infrastructure a “D” grade – only slightly higher than the D minus given to our country’s roadways.

“Our aging infrastructure simply cannot handle today’s demand for travel,” Tisch concluded.

Working within the Current System

Clearly I’m not the only one complaining about stoplights.

A group of researchers from MIT and Princeton University have developed an app that takes advantage of a growing trend: drivers who install brackets on their dashboards and mount their smartphones as GPS navigators.

The researchers used a network of these GPS-enabled cell phones to collect information about traffic lights. Based on images captured by the phones’ cameras, the app is able to predict exactly how slowly a person needs to drive in order to miss the next red light.

The app, called SignalGuru, was tested on 20 cars in both Cambridge, Mass. and Singapore. The system used in Cambridge, where lights change according to fixed schedules, predicted the change of red lights to within two-thirds of a second. In Singapore, where traffic lights change depending on traffic flow, the system was less precise.

This is an example of people going to extreme lengths to compensate for our ailing infrastructure.

Disruptive Infrastructure

As with other areas of society, disruptive technologies are beginning to attack the sacred cows of infrastructure.

Here are a few fascinating projects where the founders are working hard to disrupt the status quo.

ET3: Billed as “Space travel on earth,” ET3 is an Evacuated Tube Transport Technology that transports packages or people inside car-sized capsules on a frictionless maglev track that moves effortlessly inside airless tubes to the destination. It’s estimated that speed of up to 4,000 mph can be achieved with this system.

Eole Water: The Eole Water company has developed a special wind turbine capable of extracting upwards of 1,000 liters of water a day directly from the air.

Contour Crafting: Developed by USC Professor Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis, contour crafting is a layered fabrication technology similar to 3D printing that can be used to construct buildings and other key pieces of infrastructure.

Google’s Driverless Cars: After conducting over 100 separate test and logging over 250,000 on their fleet of driverless cars, Google is setting their sights on a very disruptive system that will forever change transportation. Hidden behind the hype of this technology is Google’s plan to come up with an Android-like operating system for all future driverless cars. As cars become driverless, we will see dramatic shifts in how roads and highways are built.

Blueseed: Funded by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, Blueseed proposes to create visa-free floating work villages in international waters, with the first to be located within helicopter distance of Silicon Valley. This floating island is a new form of infrastructure destined to disrupt a variety of existing systems.

Airdrop Irrigation: Winning the James Dyson Award for Innovation, Edward Linnacre has developed an inexpensive self-contained solar-power irrigation unit capable of extracting water from the air to add moisture to surrounding plants.

Bitcoin: Even though it’s a virtual currency, many investors now think Bitcoin is safer than the euro, and it can be used for real-world purchases. The advantage of bitcoin as a currency is that it is decentralized, and the supply of bitcoins is controlled by an algorithm, rather than a bank or a government entity

Final Thoughts

Much of the world around us has been formed around key pieces of infrastructure.

In spite of its tremendous value, infrastructure is expensive to maintain, hard to change, and generally limits how we think about the future.

The world of infrastructure has far too many sacred cows with built-in inertias that are highly resistant to change.

Eventually change will happen, but people who are at the heart of these changes pay a price. Transitions like this can be very painful.

That said, the lifecycles for infrastructure are getting shorter, and the teams driving the disruptive technologies are getting far more sophisticated.

Infrastructure projects represent huge paydays for someone, and the disruptors are determined to make it their payday.

By 2030, we will see more changes to core infrastructure than in the combined total in all of human history. Our sacred cows are about to be set free, and the fundamental shifts we will see to the way society functions will be nothing short of breathtaking


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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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