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Infrastructure is something that most of us seem to either look down on, ignore, or not even know too much about. The lights go on, water flows, the bridges stay up, the Internet keeps bubbling away with cat videos, and all in all, our complex life seems to effortlessly move along… until it doesn’t. If you are in the Houston, Texas region right now, you may be getting a graduate level degree in How Infrastructure Is Important.
For those of you who have done any camping, sailing, or roughed it in the field in the military, you know of this intimately, of course. A single tarp in a rainstorm; access to clean water, access to good food, lighting at night, and a warm dry place to sleep aren’t trivial in those scenarios. But then we go back to our ‘normal’ lives, and the infrastructure fades into the background quickly.
Infrastructure also covers things like organization, safety, backup plans, and a myriad of other ho-hum stuff. This all may be a bit dry and or unexciting to people, but for those who think ahead, infrastructure is what makes or breaks a society.
When reading about things that go in a crisis, this jumped out at me:
Living near a well with a manual pump is like being in Eden.
Likewise, this tidbit:
…when Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and asked for an assessment of the risks and threats that the city might face, he learned that a collapse in the water supply system was at or near the top of the list.
If you really want to be awed by how much infrastructure it takes to get water into a major city like New York, check out the story of Water Tunnel No. 3, and some of the engineering that went into it. The pictures of what has been built hundreds of feet below the surface of NYC are quite eye-opening.
Some of us are natural infrastructure folks; we organize, plan, backup, reinforce, check – all because we know, deep down, that those things are what make our comfortable lives possible. These things can stop at any time; however, their upkeep can require lots of money, much of which can’t be seen (until of course, something goes wrong).
It isn’t easy to think every day about hot water flowing, how food got to a grocery store, the lights going on, or making a cellular phone call, and all the background processes that make those things possible. Perhaps in becoming more cognizant of these things, we might be able to understand things like climate change, the impossibility of an ever expanding economy and growth on a finite planet, overpopulation, resource depletion, and other large scale, long-time constant predicaments we face. Infrastructure requires a good deal of resources, and things like bridges and water tunnels have lifespans of one hundred plus years, so perhaps, even though we are a species that has an enormous built-in denial “feature,” it may be that understanding infrastructure could help us reckon with the big D of denial. We need to be passionate about infrastructure.
Afterthought – regarding war, it has been said, “amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk about logistics.” That fits in well here. Perhaps a corollary with regards to people who think about the future is, “amateurs talk technologies, professionals talk about about infrastructure.”
- To the last point – might people who understand infrastructure have less denial in their lives?
- How can we get people to be more cognizant of infrastructure, and its costs?
- Why are some people more concerned with infrastructure, and some with the new and shiny distractions (“look, a squirrel!”)?
- What do you think is the most important piece of infrastructure?
- What piece of infrastructure has gotten too complicated to maintained well?
- Which element of infrastructure is the most resilient? The most delicate?