Infrastructure as a way forward
People, information, and things flow through the economy via public infrastructure. We all rely on it, and we generally agree on its importance, even if our ideas are different about what types of infrastructure to prioritize.
Human history is full of stories of growth and plenty brought through trade. Many important events and advances can be traced to roads and shipping routes that opened new trade. Alliances rise and fall, but underneath all trade lies infrastructure.
Infrastructure is also a lever in the economy. Governments traditionally use shovels-in-ground work to restart after disruption. Such jobs usually put money in the pockets of families who will spend it immediately. Monetary velocity increases; consumer confidence ticks upward. When the next paycheck is on the way, people buy a little extra.
Yet, today, we are at an inflection point.
Density and environment have changed the conversation on infrastructure over the past few decades. What’s sustainable? What’s livable? How can our urban environments be human scaled?
Now, the shutdowns of Covid-19 are helping us see our cities differently. Lower traffic is encouraging new bicyclists. People are walking their neighborhoods for exercise, all hours spent closer to home. Outside, the city is transformed. Birdsong is louder. The air is clearer. Experiencing the decrease in city-wide congestion gives us a different view of what a city might be.
Since the 1960s, planners have been warning us that more road infrastructure, historically good for growth, will not be the future of transport. We cannot add capacity indefinitely to limit congestion. There are 7.6 billion people on the planet. We often add infrastructure in the hope that it will ease traffic congestion. Yet studies show that more infrastructure often leads to more congestion..by inducing demand.
This is not a failure of our capacity to make good choices: it is what infrastructure does. The innovation of infrastructure is connectivity. Yet in urban centers, if this connectivity is made with cars and roadways, it can push out other types of growth. Transportation networks can take resources from local development. The trick is knitting together an infrastructure system that’s fast and robust, that transmits what needs moving, but that does not weaken the centers it supports.
Since Jane Jacobs described the healthy urban village, many planners have made livability a mission. Sometimes this is seen as a conflict between those who love cars and suburbs vs. those who love bike lanes and urban density.
But most people on both sides want healthy communities and a prosperous economy. In this, we can work together to consider smarter infrastructure, rather than more infrastructure.
The economy as a computer algorithm
We are in the Information Age and share a globalized economy. The map given by computer architecture informs our understanding of our economic architecture.
We know our economy runs on the connection of specialized workers, offices, and factories. Raw materials and new ideas become final products after bouncing through tens (or hundreds) of workspaces. Each workspace connects through infrastructure, either physical or digital.
A computer program is shaped like this. It has hundreds of functions to do its work, organized in routines. Each function takes input, processes it, and returns output. Many routines combine together to create the final program.
A simple two-ingredient product like a morning latte is the product of hundreds of functions. Modern dairy production has a lot more input than just farmers tending their livestock. Farms are filled with complex machines; the feed and veterinary input each are industries of their own; then plastics and paper are involved in bottling. Even the simple hand harvest of coffee beans is complex. Workers need picking bags, sorting tarps, fermentation vats, and burlap bags for shipping. A single cup of coffee has been brought to the counter by the work of hundreds of hands all over the world.
Additionally, governments work a bit like operating systems, offering a common language and law of trade to allow these networks to connect, watching for malicious actors, and moving infrastructure to meet system needs.
Smart cities and infrastructure
Concepts of “the smart city” grow organically out of our modern understanding of the world. It’s not just that we can ask computers to collect data. It’s that we understand better how data can affect networks. Intelligent computers, installed on site furniture, can analyze and manage traffic. Data analysts can overlay this information with, transit use, spending patterns, surveys and demographics to find patterns in the system. Data tools are powerful and, when used appropriately, can help the system adapt.
We might use traffic data to change streetlight timing. Use pedestrian data to create amenities. Sift intelligent crash data to build safer intersections. We may even monitor air quality and heat effects.
All of these sorts of analyses are useful to optimize what we have. These analyses are what’s possible when a machine is in motion. Planners can make incremental nudges. (Trying to change the infrastructure while the machine is in full swing often leads to delays and frustration, and makes for conflict, and the fear of further change.)
But this Smart City thinking is not the only way to apply Information Age thinking to the structure of our economy and society. We can also look at how hardware and software have traditionally played on one another — how computer scientists have managed the balance between infrastructure and activity.
Good code on good hardware
Computer infrastructure is constantly evolving. Modern wearable devices today are thousands of times more complex than the room-sized machines of the 60s. Materials innovations have meant that we’ve observed “Moore’s Law” for decades: the number of transistors in an integrated circuit has been doubling every two years. Increased “throughput” on the actual hardware of a computer — the amount of information that can travel through it — means we can have more complexity in the software. Now our phones can answer questions and remind us to call our mothers.
This echoes the history of physical infrastructure. Better logistics=more complexity.
Being able to bring your wheat to the mill means you can farm and the miller can mill. You don’t need a millstone. The miller doesn’t need a field of wheat. The road between you has allowed you to specialize, and get better at what you do.
So it is on a massive scale with globalization. Innovations here are only possible with planes, trains, ships, and trucks moving things quickly and efficiently.
However, one thing excellent software engineers know is that just because power exists doesn’t mean it must be used. Careful coding preserves capacity. What you do as a “good neighbor” in your local software makes the whole system more efficient.
Additionally, current thinking is that Moore’s Law will run out by 2025. Software engineers know they won’t always be saved from bad programming with more power!
On the other hand, coders are also aiming for simplicity.
In computer science, the concept of elegance pairs effectiveness and simplicity. With elegant code, sometimes a coder may come up with a few lines to do the work that they could do by calling out to another library; it can be done locally, so it will be. It makes the “supply” of information obvious. With elegant code, other programmers are better able to understand what’s happening. Code is more adaptable and re-configurable, when each piece of it is well defined.
Protocols often have redundancies and fault tolerance. To get a message over a network, a message is sliced into pieces and flung over many routes, using the simplest protocols possible. Computers sending and receiving the information do the work of making sure everything is complete; they’re the intelligence within the system. Simplicity in the middle, complexity on the ends.
This helps the whole system work more efficiently. Less complexity across the network means faster movement from station to station. Complexity at the ends means upgrades can happen through local nudges, rather than everything having to change at once.
A time to reflect before reboot
The Covid-19 pandemic has paused everything. We are no longer a world, an economy, running at full tilt, producing and consuming at maximum. We’re idling. We’re seeing what it looks like to pull together as people, worldwide.
And we’re seeing some of the vulnerabilities in our system. Our code bloat, as well as where we might need more fault tolerance. Necessary supply chains for medical equipment have been hard to resource. People in housing-strapped cities are learning there is more housing than they’d thought: a big chunk has been in use as short-term rental for travelers. And everywhere, uncongested streets have left the sky brighter while encouraging walking, cycling, and local expeditions.
Our economic engine can’t idle forever. It will need help to get restarted. Infrastructure spending is an efficient way to start the reboot. We do not have time or technology to make all the upgrades we might want to make in how our system works before the reboot starts.
However, before we start moving again, this is a great time to imagine what upgrades might be possible to our infrastructure. How can we organize our economy to be more resilient? What can we do in terms of our planning, transportation, and information culture in order to have a more stable, vibrant economy that supports people at the human scale?
Supporting the urban village
Large transport networks allow for the diversity and innovation created when Jakarta is networked with San Francisco, or Rio with Reykjavik. However, these large, world-spanning networks are supported by the small complex systems in our cities and towns.
Making places people want to be means re-evaluating how infrastructure works for these small complex systems. Far-flung networks must move quickly for efficiency; vehicles, trains, planes, and ships all collapse the miles between cities and continents with their speed.
Small networks need to slow down for efficiency. In a local economy, street-life encourages people to drop in and buy from neighborhood vendors. In many studies, cyclists and pedestrians are shown to spend more on retail. Walking home from work means saying hello to familiar faces, stopping in for groceries, or picking up your cleaning.
Whizzing past in a car makes these spaces more invisible. To open up the complexity of the space, really let it fulfill all the functions a village can do, people need to move more slowly through their neighborhoods.
Imagining this as a computer network, we can see that simplicity in the network and complexity at the ends can work for cities, too. If people could live more completely in their small villages — working, getting errands done, shopping, seeing entertainment, and visiting — then there would be less to manage across the larger networks. Fewer cars cutting in front of transport trucks. More capacity in ports and airports. During Covid-19, this has been borne out in some small studies in places like Portland. Even with high peak-hour loads, vehicles are moving more quickly over freeways.
We’re not there yet. We are a motorist society, and re-imagining how these urban villages might work and be supported means seeing past the world we already live in.
Covid-19 has given us that chance.
What helps support local architecture? Placemakers say that vibrant communities are responsive to local conditions: that’s the point of complexity. It won’t be the same in every city. Still, people are generally supported with art, gardens, parks, and amenities for recreation, health care, and education. And to move between them, plentiful pedestrian, cyclist, and transit spaces.
Home is inviting when it offers affordable, accessible, and attractive work and life space. To keep it attractive, we can support excellent local infrastructure, running at local speeds.
Shane Kramps, VP of Reliance Foundry, is committed to the company mission of making places people want to be. His areas of expertise are in strategic sourcing, operations management, product development and business systems: this experience has given him a view of infrastructure both large and small as well as physical and digital. His commitment to service and efficiency has always been enhanced with team and culture building. Whether it’s a city or a company, more gets done with a common vision.