Tag Archives: technology

Learning to Live with New Infrastructure Technology

The headline in The Atlantic, responding to an earlier article in the New York Times, asks the question, “Are we addicted to gadgets or indentured to work?”  (“Silicon Valley Says Step Away From the Device,” Matt Richtel, 7/23/2012, Business Day, New York Times.   “Are We Addicted to Gadgets or Indentured to Work?” Alexis Madrigal, 7/24/2012, The Atlantic. 

Matt Richtel, writing in The Times, reports that leaders at influential Silicon Valley companies are growing concerned about increasingly widespread addiction to gadgets.  Our attraction to smart phones, tablets, and on-line living, some say, reflects “primitive human longings to connect and interact” that threatens to take over our lives.  Next year’s edition of the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Richtel writes, is slated to include “Internet use disorder” in its appendix, indicating that the mental health profession thinks there may be a real problem but needs more research to understand it.

Responding in The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal asserts the problem—for Americans, at least—is our slavish devotion to work.  We—or the upper middle class that reads the Times, at least—is working more and “having to stay more connected to work than ever before,” forced by employers (with the help of “our strange American political and cultural systems”) to be on the job 24/7. Citing both Mother Jones and McKinsey Quarterly as inspiration, Madrigal suggests that we need not simply to tear ourselves away from our electronic devices, but rather “organize politically and in civil society to change our collective relationship to work.,” adopting a more European perspective on our who controls our time.

Whether their myopia has an ideological or technological basis, both writers are overlooking the fundamental influence of our infrastructure.  In past decades motorized transport and telephone service dramatically reduced the influence of distance as an obstacle to economic and social interactions. The demands of maintaining international business networks and global supply chains shifted our ideas about “banker’s hours” and the sanctity of holidays and weekends.     Radio and television brought education and diversion, evolutionary emergence of “couch potatoes,” and threats to book and newspaper publishing.  These new infrastructures also supported and arguably accelerated dramatic expansion of the middle class and service sectors of the economy.  These changes went hand-in-hand with accelerating urbanization of our population and suburbanization of our cities.

As difficult as it may be to believe, digital wireless communication and the devices we carry to take advantage of this new infrastructure have become widespread in just about two decades.  The technology enables me and my colleagues—all of us somewhere well below the infamous top 2% of the income curve—to work from virtually anywhere and to shift working hours.  No longer must I take an entire day off to attend to medical appointments, to have my car repaired, or to attend my child’s school play.

I view this as new freedom rather than a grasping employer’s imposition. Many workers do not yet enjoy such freedom and, as in the past, some jobs are not suited to such changes of practice.

Recent statistics show an international trend of younger people being slower than preceding generations to get their driver’s permits.  Citing a study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, for example, MSNBC’s Paul Eisenstein reports that American teens are not rushing to get a driver’s license as soon as they become eligible, and that another study found similar trends in seven of 14 other industrialized countries.  (“American teens are waiting longer to drive,” Paul A. Eisenstein, 4/9/2012, MSNBC, Bottom Line)  In their own analysis, the Dayton Daily News found a 9 % drop in Ohio’s 16- and 17-year-old licensed drivers from 2006 to 2010, and a 4.7% decline in the number of Ohio 18-year-olds with licenses.

Analysts suggest the Internet, meaning particularly such new social media and communication applications as Facebook and text messaging, may be a key reason for the change.  Whatever the reasons, Eisenstein writes that auto company executives are worried that the trend may signal future declines in new-car demand.  Transit advocates are using the data to argue for higher government spending on urban public transportation systems.

How many hours we spend commuting, whether those hours can be used for anything other than steering and avoiding mishap, and whether the hours otherwise spent are counted as work or leisure are topics for another time.  Only consider for now the possibility that any purported addiction to gadgets and commitment work are simply short-term byproducts of learning to live with new infrastructure.

“Sustainability” may be fundamentally unsustainable, but we have a chance

The idea of “sustainability” has clearly taken root.  The word appears frequently in print as well as Internet media, and national governments around the world have established agencies and programs devoted to it.  There seems to be widespread agreement that the idea has something to do with energy supplies, environmental impact, and economic growth, and perhaps with social engagement and political stability as well, although the scope of what is to be sustained—individual well-being, national prosperity, global status quo, for example—seem to differ from one forum to another.  However, there seems also to be a dawning realization that the idea’s application as a basis for guiding humanity’s actions may not be sustainable.

An important early appearance of the meme, if not its initial source, is often attributed to the World Commission on Environment and Development, commonly known as the Brundtland Commission.  This group of international experts was convened by the United Nations in 1983 to propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development; recommend ways that concern for the environment may be translated into greater co-operation among countries; and help define shared perceptions, aspirational goals, a long-term agenda for action.  The Commission’s 1987 report, Our Common Future  suggested that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  Among the still-expanding literature on the subject, I have found no more cogent definition of the term.

It might seem like a small step from seeking humanity’s “sustainable development,” a steady advancement of people’s achievement and wellbeing, to the “sustainability” of humanity, our survival as a prosperous species.  For a number of reasons, however, I suggest there is a large gap between the two concepts.  The gap is so broad, in fact, that I doubt the value of sustainability as a meaningful basis for guiding our principles and policies. Let me explain why.

To begin, the time scale for thinking about our sustainability far exceeds our abilities—politically, socially, historically, perhaps psychologically—to plan, take meaningful action, or even pay attention.  Scientific evidence suggests that the biological genus of which humans are a part evolved into being and the first hominid use of stone tools began in Africa perhaps 2.5 to 3.5 million years ago.  Evidence of homo sapiens sapiens, our particular species, dates back about 250,000 years.  (In all of this, my phrasing is meant not to convey any skepticism, but rather to acknowledge that we rely entirely on inference from the limited data available to us to draw conclusions about past events and conditions.)

Our various experiments in culture, social, and political organization are rather brief when seen in sharp contrast with these time periods.  Damascus is often claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, but evidence for large-scale
settlement seems to date back only about 4,000 years. (The earliest Egyptian, Sumerian, and Chinese written records may have been created about 6,000 years ago.)  The community water-management schemes of Bali and other parts of Indonesia, arguably among the better models for sustainable relationship of humans and their environment, began to exist perhaps 1000 years ago.  England’s Magna Carta was first issued in 1215 and the United States, our ongoing experiment in capitalist democracy, was established less than three centuries ago.  Viewed against the backdrop of human history, “sustainability” has had a very brief span of influence.

In addition, there is the fundamental uncertainty of our existence as a species.  While some people prefer alternative explanations, the fossil evidence suggests that many varieties of creatures have come and gone since the first simple cells appeared.  The famously extinct dinosaurs died out, some scientists suggest, after an asteroid colliding with the Earth caused extreme global climate change.  On a less cosmic scale, scientists theorize that the ash from a volcanic eruption approximately 70,000 years ago at Lake Toba on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, similarly caused such a dramatic global cooling that human population was drastically reduced.  Outbreaks of bubonic plague (the infamous Black Death of 14th Century Europe) and related famines in more recent times have dramatically reduced human populations in Asia and Europe.  Apart from simply not giving in to existential despair, probably the best we can do in light of such evidence is to limit our perspectives to decades at most.  Some government agencies already seem to be unable to maintain funding for the programs they established to enhance their communities’ “sustainability.”  (For example, see the commentary on Sustainable Cities Collective.)

Finally, we really cannot know whether our actions are “sustainable” with respect to either our development or our survival.  Application of the Brundtland definition requires forecasting not only the consequences of our current actions but also what future generations may judge to be their own “needs.”  On the one hand, our society and our global environment are a complex system, susceptible to the well-publicized “butterfly effect;” any small perturbation can cause unforeseen consequences.  On the other hand, our values, technologies, and culture change from one generation to the next, so that what may seem to us an inconsequential change may be seen very differently by our children; consider for example the shift in our views about air pollution pesticides.  In general then any assessments of the future consequences of our actions are more than likely to be inaccurate.  Even more fundamentally, it seems quite likely that we simply cannot do anything to meet our own present needs without in some sense compromising the options available to future generations.

While “sustainability” or even “sustainable development” may be problematic as directly useful concepts, the ideas nevertheless do point the way toward useable principles. Applying these principles will at least increase the chances of our long-term survival:

  • Use only renewable resources: No matter how large the supply reservoir may be, it will eventually be exhausted.
  • Eliminate all waste and pollution: What economists refer to as “residuals” are simply an indicator of inefficiencies in
    our production processes.
  • Stabilize our population: Increasing humans’ wellbeing and chances of survival as individuals and as a species depends ultimately on enhancing labor productivity as well as on applying strictly the first two principles.

Infrastructure asset management advancing in Canada

I spent part of last week at the annual gathering of the Canadian Network of Asset Managers (CNAM) in Burnaby, British Columbia, a part of the Vancouver metro area.  CNAM is a 2-year old association of government and private sector professionals dedicated to advancing asset management principles and practices for municipal infrastructure. As someone accustomed to the ways we have been doing infrastructure asset management—or more accurately, not doing it—in the United States, the meeting was an eye-opener! 

For a start, there seems to be a high level of Canadian interest in infrastructure and its management.  Some 250 people were there, coming from across that nation and many municipalities, large and small.  A glossy print periodical, ReNew Canada: The Infrastructure Renewal Magazine offers news and commentary, not simply vendors’ views of how the world should work.  Canada’s Public Sector Accounting Board’s standard 3150 on Tangible Capital Assets (requiring municipalities to report such assets on their financial statements) is the counterpart of the U. S. Government Accounting Standards Board’s Statement 34, but my conversations with other meeting attendees suggested there is a much broader interest in Canada in integrating asset management into financial planning and management rather than simply meeting minimum requirements with minimum effort.

Most exciting to me was hearing about examples of how specific communities are developing and using their asset management systems. The city of Vancouver, for example, has integrated their enterprise accounting system (they use SAP) with their infrastructure inventory and condition monitoring software (they use Hansen).  The city’s mayor Gregor Robertson, famously a campaigner for making Vancouver “the greenest city in the world by 2020,” is said to be firmly in favor of the asset-management program.  Calgary staff reported that their efforts are not far behind Vancouver’s.

Such efforts are not restricted to the larger cities.  The District of Lake Country, a 10,000 person municipality in British Columbia’s wine country, presented their 7-year history of developing and applying asset management principles. The responsible staff and consultants described how elected officials “got it” when maps of aging, at-risk facilities were shown and how they sorted through the issues of deciding public priorities for maintaining performance in delivery of infrastructure services. 

There is work to do, of course. Vancouver has had to add additional staff members to deal with the large volume of data being produced by their infrastructure management systems.  Smaller municipalities in mineral-rich areas of Saskatchewan and Alberta are just starting to develop management systems to keep up with growing demands for infrastructure services. I expect there will be lessons learned as more of these Canadian communities develop and apply asset management principles to their infrastructure.

Talking better infrastructure

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell recently opined that “The proponents of infrastructure investment have yet to close the sale with the American people…” (The Infrastructurist Forum, Feb. 15, 2011) that the nation’s infrastructure needs “repair and revitalization.” 

It hasn’t been for lack of trying.  Every newsworthy disaster stirs up swarms of dire warnings: the 2010 gas pipeline explosion that leveled a neighborhood in San Bruno, California; the rush-hour collapse in 2007 of an Interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis; or the 2009 crash of two trains on Washington, DC’s, Metro subway.  Following the example set two decades ago by the National Council on Public Works Improvement, the American Society of Civil Engineers periodically issues its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, giving it a solid “D” in 2010.

The trouble is, things don’t look so bad to the average person on the street.  Most of us get up in the morning, turn on the lights, brush our teeth, travel to work on paved roads, and are unsurprised when the garbage in our wastebaskets disappears without a trace.   Most of us only read about disasters or watch the video, even when the areas affected reach such grand scales as the destruction of New Orleans and the electrical blackout of the continent’s northeast.  Talk about necessary maintenance and fixing problems and most of us simply tune out.

In the summer and fall of 2010, Maslansky Luntz and Partners (a communications strategy firm) conducted a series of “listening sessions” around the country to learn about why the voters in some states and localities have been willing to increase their taxes to pay for their road systems while so many of our elected officials adamantly resist even mentioning the idea.  The work was done at the request of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, under the National Cooperative Highway Research Program.

What the listeners found was that people expect their taxes to pay for maintenance; it’s a given.  If those who are responsible for the roads and bridges say that maintenance is being neglected, then they simply haven’t been doing their job, even if the reason is there’s not enough funding.

Modernizing, however, improving technology, making things work better…. That’s another story!  Fixing the traffic lights so that you never have to sit at a red light when there’s no traffic on the cross street…. That’s worth paying for!  Clearing traffic crashes and mishaps quickly to get the traffic moving again; synching bus and train schedules to ensure that a trip by transit goes smoothly, and making sure that there’s a backup bus for when the train does run late; providing better mobility generally, that’s what people want and will pay to get.

Extending the message to all infrastructure (and to appropriate a phrase), “It’s the service, stupid!”  Infrastructure is a matter of steel and cement only to those who design and build the bridges, dams, and pipes that carry our vehicles, drive our water and electric power systems, and bring fuel to our homes.  The essence of infrastructure for most of us is the services provided: If we want to close the sale, we have to offer more and better service, not simply a legacy system in a state of good repair.

Intelligent Infrastructure: ITS, Smart Grid, SCADA, and More

High on anyone’s list of evolving innovation in our infrastructure would have to be the adaptations of electronics, communications, and information technologies that will make the systems “smart.”  There is little chance that the new infrastructure will ever approach passing a Turing test, but certainly these “intelligent” systems will give us enhanced return on our investment.

The essence of what is happening has three elements.  First, increasingly powerful and low cost digital electronic devices are giving us greater ability to monitor and exert control of the condition and use of roadways, pipes, cables, and other physical constituents of our infrastructure. Second, we are learning how to send very large amounts of information between these geographically widespread infrastructure components and more centralized locations where human managers can make judgments about the systems’ performance and make adjustments in operations.  Finally, our growing ability to store and use information is allowing us to comprehend more fully the factors that affect system performance and how to manage our infrastructure more effectively.  The progress of change looks different in each of our infrastructure’s several functional service areas. 

In water supply and wastewater management, for example, we have Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems being adopted.  The concepts, hardware, and software have been derived from process control in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.  Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) have grown out of traffic signaling but increasingly relay on wireless telecommunications and communication between vehicles and the roadside.  The United States government reserved a segment of the radio-frequency spectrum at 5.9 GHz for use by the transportation sector.  Electric power utilities are increasingly committed to the “smart grid” concept that includes giving electric suppliers an ability to adjust users’ demand and to shift energy supply across a network to meet short-term peak loads.  Transmission of digital data across power lines as well as via fiber optic cables and wireless channels has been important in the smart-grid’s development.

The most immediate payoff of this increasing intelligence in infrastructure will be greater efficiency in operations.  A universally applied principal of engineering in the past has been the inclusion of a “safety factor” in calculations to decide the number of lanes needed for a new highway, the diameter of the pipes for water supplies, or the generation and transmission loads to be met by the power supply.  The safety factor represented an allowance for uncertainty, a multiple of what the planners and designers estimated to be the maximum load a facility would have to meet during its service life, perhaps 30%, 80%, or 120% to this maximum.  New practices are shifting to a statistical view of the world and probabilistic measures are taking the place of safety factors, but the result is still the same: infrastructure facilities are built with redundancy and excess capacity to enhance their reliability in the face of anticipated variations in demand.  Increasing the smartness of these systems offers potential cost savings by allowing total system-wide excess capacity to be reduced without sacrificing reliability in meeting peak demands in parts of the system.

A second payoff of increasing intelligence will be enhanced ability to charge all users of infrastructure for the services they receive.  The services of infrastructure are for the most part available to all, approximating the conditions economists use to define a “public good.”  If the taxpayers of a particular community choose to build good roads in their region, it is difficult for them to exclude road users from neighboring communities from using the roads to travel to and through the area.  This is the “free rider” problem.  Installation of meters substantially eliminates the problem for power and water supplies (except in places where people are able to divert supplies—to pirate, in other words—as is the case in many cities in lower-income countries.)  For roads and waste management, smarter technology has yet to be developed and adopted.

Another payoff will be improved ability to identify the use of public resources that now have low or no market value.  Use of the atmosphere and surface waters as a repository of for our wastes is an example of (again using the economists’ term) “free goods.”  More precise detection and monitoring will enable pricing of these goods, both discouraging their use and generating revenue to be used for resource recovery and renewal.  Periodic inspection of motor vehicles to ensure that emissions-control devices are functioning properly is a rudimentary step toward this aspect of system intelligence.

Reflection on Doing More With Less

Political discourse has no shortage of empty or misleading catchphrases.  A particularly popular one is that we must “do more with less.”

It has bipartisan support.  New York’s Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, speaking as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, was quoted, “We’re going to have to change our orientation in this state, and how can we do more with less. You know, every family, every business, has had to do more with less.” (Newsday; October 30, 2010) Louisiana’s Republican Governor Bobby Jindal (Business Exchange; December 06, 2010) in an interview on Political Capital With Al Hunt said “We have cut higher education by about 4.5 percent. We’re all going to have to do more with less.” 

It’s not only the politicians who say it, of course.  As the recession deepened in 2008 and 2009 and budgets came under pressure, employee’s across the private sector were told what National Public Radio’s Chana Joffe-Walt termed “four familiar words: Do more with less.” (Morning Edition; February 26, 2009)

It sounds good, conjuring up thoughts of waste reduced and fat trimmed.  But anyone who is old enough to remember when airlines provided legroom even in coach class knows that what is doing more for some can mean getting less for others. 

In an article in Forbes magazine, innovation specialist Scott Anthony had a sensible perspective. When you are told to cut your costs, you cannot really do more.  Instead, you focus on doing only what is absolutely necessary to sell your product and figure out what the customer is willing to sacrifice. (“Creative Disruption: Doing More with Less” February 26, 2009)

Anthony writes that there are three basic categories of performance objectives; (1) functional objectives relating to product performance and reliability, like provide a smooth ride or deliver safe-to-drink water on demand; (2) emotional objectives associated with the influence a product has on how customer feel about themselves, for example choosing “the best that money can buy” or opting for frugality; and (3) social objectives associated with how customers perceive others feel about them, seeking for instance to demonstrate solidarity with a group or to impress people.

When it comes to infrastructure, many people lose sight of emotional and social objectives, and they generally view even functional objectives very narrowly.  

Take our public water supply, for example. We take for granted that abundant, safe water is available at the turn of the tap.  Occasional lapses occur: a broken water main can flood a street, force residents of an area to boil their drinking water and, in the aftermath, make faucets run muddy for a time.  Bacterial contamination of two purification plants serving the Milwaukee area sickened thousands and drew international attention in April, 1993.  For the most part though, water is reliably and inexpensively available on demand and it meets quality standards set to ensure public health. (Despite improvements made in recent years, this is still not the case for a notable fraction of the world’s population.  The United Nations World Health Organization estimates 13% of world population lacks any safe drinking water source, piped or otherwise.)

Nevertheless, sales of bottled drinking water in the United States total about $11 billion annually and continue to grow.  People buy it because they think it is safer or tastes better than what comes from the tap.  They buy it because the like the look of the bottle or the idea that it is imported.  They buy it because they identify with the celebrities paid to endorse a brand.  According to water expert Peter H. Gleick we consume 30 gallons per person annually. (Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water 2010)  The marketers have figured out how to give consumers more than the bare-bones minimum of public infrastructure service.

Roman engineer and architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote that a city’s infrastructure—for him,  public buildings, defensive walls and towers, and shrines and temples—should all be built with strength, utility, grace.  (De architectura, Book 1, first century BCE)  Pressed time and again to “do more with less,” we have lost much of the grace or beauty in infrastructure and, I fear, some of the utility and strength.