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.

As you are starting to see, 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.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

9 Responses to “The Curse of Infrastructure”

Comments List

  1. Lee Curkendall

    I'm encouraged by all of the disruptive technologies listed except for the ET3. In fact, whenever I here about some new "rail" project, I cringe. Rail travel goes back about 500 years and, in all its forms, has had one thing in common: once it's built, you can only go to and from the places to which it travels. Talk about out-dated infrastructure... whether it's the darling "light rail" or the really fast mag-lev tubes, it's fixed. So, if we build a really great train to Detroit and, ten years later, nobody wants to go to Detroit, we're stuck. But, since there's almost always government money involved, some politician will force the train to continue to run to Detroit, even at a loss. Buses, trucks and cars are much more effective. Their destinations can be changed at will. That's also why I'm most encouraged by driver-less cars: minimal set infrastructure. With ET3 you might go really, really fast to a place you don't even want to go... Lee
    • admin

      Lee. Thank for your comments, but I will have to disagree with you on the super fast mag-lev tubes that ET3 has proposed. Ironically, it is far more difficult to move an airport than it is to reroute mag-lev tubes. It will also give us the ability to travel far faster than ever before on the surface of the earth. From my vantage point, this is a piece of tech evolution we have to work through before we can ever see what's on the other side. Tom
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Laurie Hathorn</a>

    The cycles of our social systems are at the core of how we exist. Do we thrive or just survive? Or worse yet, become obsolete. Embedded in the social systems is our infrastructure. It is massive just as we as a species are. Your blogpost is wonderfully thought provoking. As the owner of several ventures I attribute my success to looking ahead, being willing to change even when the plan didn't call for it, and maintaining constant vigilance over how we would survive, thrive and serve the intended goal. Unfortunately large governments and corporations are so complicated it is hard for them to make adaptive moves. By their very nature they prefer and protect the status quo. We live in interesting times and since I plan on being here in 2030, I'll check back to your post and see how the specter of these disruptors panned out!
  3. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Michael Shaw</a>

    You make some very astute observations. I particularly relate to the inertia issue. It takes forever to get the juggernaut of governments and large corporations to change course and embrace a new direction, or technology. Historically this means that by the time it's implemented it's already half way to being obsolete, as newer technologies come along at an increasing pace. I had a conversation recently with an interior designer working on the next generation of military submarines, to improve the crew working environment. The procurement/ implementation process takes so long that the design work he is doing now probably won't filter through to crew for another 30 years! Another hugely valid point you make is the deadweight of commercial self-interest that clings onto newly adopted infrastructure, which makes it even more difficult to steer change in the future. Whilst regimes such as China certainly aren't an ideal model, when they decide to change direction it can happen very rapidly, as people know well enough not to stand in the way of the steamroller of change. I don't entirely agree with Lee's comments about projects such as ET3. I think the Google driver-less car project is confirmation that our freewheeling days of road use and personal car ownership are fast disappearing and I expect that car pooling will become the norm for short range journeys. To date car sharing falls down because the car is never parked where you want it, but all that changes with driver-less. The claimed efficiencies of ET3 are so compelling that I believe it, or something similar will be embraced by governments, particularly as they will all be squeezed ever harder to meet CO2 reduction targets. Yes, there will be some dead spots with ET3 destinations, but think of an entire network more like the internet. Every node is on the way to somewhere else.
  4. Clyde Manning

    @Lee Curkendall, There will have to be local distribution at the terminals busses, bikes, local rail, even, perhaps, walking, local rail. How about improving rail infrastructure to move goods across country that are now carried by long haul truckers. Regional terminals from which the goods are distributed locally. Teamsters become what teamsters used to be - local delivery. With modern IT systems and RFID tags the material can be tracked so nothing gets stuck on a siding somewhere.
  5. Lee Curkendall

    Tom, Good points. I lumped rail travel with mag-lev and probably should not. Since the speeds beat today's air travel speeds, I should look at it from another view. Lee
  6. Robert Braun

    Not to pour cold water on all this which are certainly valid and useful ruminations. But, without having a solid economic education, we are bound to re-invent the wheel. Wonder if the author or any of the respondents have ever heard of Schumpeter and his "Creative Destruction". If not, it may be wll worth looking it up.
  7. Spikosauropod

    The tube trains are probably a good idea, but the super high speeds (4000 mph) are unrealistic. I and several others have worked out the mathematics of such high speeds. If the tube gets even slightly out of alignment, the train will hit the side and disintegrate.
    • admin

      Scott, The theoretical limits and the actual limits of tube trains may indeed be far apart. But there is still great potential for speeds far greater than anything we have today. Tom

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