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Posted: July 09, 2012

The futurist: The curse of infrastructure

Another stoplight -- foiled again!

Thomas Frey

Every time I drive to the office, there are 11 separate stoplights along my route. Based on some cosmic luck-of-the-draw, two-thirds of the stoplights will either be red or green, and the time it takes me will vary from 12 to 22 minutes.

Yes, it’s a relatively short commute. But the countless hours spent every year sitting mindlessly at ill-timed stoplights represents a tremendous expense of time, fuel and resources that not only I, but also the majority of workers in America bear, all because of one tiny piece of ancient infrastructure – the dumb stoplight.

Indeed, many communities are beginning to shift to intelligent traffic systems that constantly adjust patterns to better match the flow of cars. But this long overdue transition is happening at great expense to cities, an expense that cities themselves derive very little direct benefit from.

In this one teeny example, we can begin to see the challenges ahead for dealing with infrastructure. Not only is it expensive to maintain and upgrade what we have, but more importantly, it blinds us to what comes next.

For this reason, I’d like to take you along on a journey into the complex world of future infrastructure, and the curse of every legacy system that accompanies it.

Philosophy of Infrastructure

There is a long-held belief that infrastructure, in general, represents a long-term societal investment, that will move us along the path of building a more efficient, better functioning, society. And usually it does…for a while.

However, infrastructure comes in many forms and as we build our elaborate networks of pipes, wires, roads, bridges, tunnels, buildings, and waterways, we become very focused on the here and now, with little thought as to whether there might be a better way

  • Once wired power lines are put into place, it becomes hard to imagine us using wireless power.
  • Once a human-based delivery system is put into place, like the post office, it becomes hard to imagine a human-less automated delivery system.
  • Once a tunnel is bored through a mountain, it becomes hard to imagine a better way to get to the other side.
  • Once a prison is built, it becomes hard for us to imagine a prison-less justice system.
  • Once an airport is constructed, it becomes hard to imagine air transportation in any other way.
  • Once a highway is built, it becomes hard to imagine an alternative transportation system that uses something else.

Infrastructure creates its own inertia. As soon as its in place we suddenly stop thinking about what comes next.

Our life is based on stories of the here-and-now. Once stories are told, it becomes hard to un-tell them.

Sacred Cow Syndrome

In many respects, infrastructure becomes a lasting testament to who we are as a society, and part of the cultural moorings we use to guide our existence.

People become emotionally invested in them because they create stability, usefulness, and purpose. But more importantly, people become financially invested in them and their livelihood depends on their ongoing existence.

Virtually every piece of infrastructure creates jobs, revenues streams, and investment opportunities, as well as new laws, regulations, and industry standards.

The longer a piece of infrastructure is in place, the greater the resistance there is to replacing it. Much like an aging tree, the root system that feeds it becomes enormous.

Every community has its own form of sacred cows, and infrastructure is often one of the most entrenched.

Life Cycles are Getting Shorter

Whenever a new piece of infrastructure is put into place, the clock starts ticking. The corrosiveness of nature, structural deterioration, and functional obsolescence all begin to rear their ugly head. It’s useful life may be measured in decades or in centuries, but all forms of infrastructure will eventually wear out.

For virtually all forms, the life cycles are getting shorter.

On the long end of the spectrum, many of the hydroelectric dams in the U.S. were built in the 50s and 60s. But with modifications and upkeep, these dams still have many useful decades ahead of them.

Lasting considerably less time, the usable life of shopping centers is around 10 years before major renovation, and often less than 20 years before they’re torn down completely. Similarly, experts are now viewing the usable life of large stadiums shortening from 50 years to somewhere around 20 years.

Eight Stages of the Curse

As with most of the cycles we deal with in life, there are well-defined stages that infrastructure goes through during its existence.

  1. Celebration – Once a new project is complete, we begin by patting ourselves on the back in celebration of this latest accomplishment.
  2. Acceptance – It usually doesn’t take long for people to accept it and make it part of their daily life.
  3. Dependence – Over time we lose sight of what life was like without it and we learn to rely on it as a routine part of life.
  4. Deterioration – All man-made structures eventually wear out, and once they do, we look for something new and better to replace them.
  5. Disagreement – Repair is almost always cheaper than replacement, and the vocal few that have their eyes on something better, have to wait.
  6. Denial – With ongoing repairs being made, it becomes easy to deny any problem exists.
  7. Agonizing Sunset – Even when newer better systems are being used elsewhere, the replacement decision will drag on, and on, and on.
  8. Painful Transition – Eventually the replacement decision will come, but it will come at a price. Change is never easy to accept, especially when countless numbers of individuals become heavily invested in the surrounding systems.

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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