Hot Damn. Infrastructure Is Sexy Again.

“Infrastructure” is a media buzzword. For the past year, news outlets have broadcast images of failings roads, crumbling bridges, and dilapidated and inefficient  railways and factories. Those now-failing infrastructures are the residual framework of the last industrial revolution, the one that began over 100 years ago.

Source: Unsplash Trairat Songpao

As we move deeper into the 21st century, the idea of infrastructure is shifting towards a more positive message for people and for the planet. It refers to the innovative, exciting and absolutely essential developments that need to take place in order to lift the global population into the next industrial revolution and save the planet from climate crisis. Infrastructure in the 21st century is an opportunity for a new sustainability.

Over the last 100 years, economic growth was led by the exploitation of fossil fuels. Coal and nuclear-power-generated electricity; cars and trucks; and factory-based manufacturing have been the hallmarks of economic development through the 20th century.  Over the later decades of that century, infrastructure failed to keep pace with the advancements happening across the rest of the economy, especially in the technology field -- automobiles, trains, computing, shipping, consumer appliances, factories, and energy.  

With developed nations focused on their economic growth and with no consideration for the damage done to the eco-system, GDP and Productivity have been the key measures of national prosperity, all to the detriment of the environment and society.

Now, there is a push toward creating a sustainable global economy, an economy that serves populations laterally rather than vertically. The global playing field is set to become both cleaner and more level. We’re getting back to re-imagining a harder, ‘atoms’ driven economy over a “bit” driven economy. People and the planet front are center, and not devalued by financial outcomes. In moving forward, the problems inherent in some industries and sectors are harder to solve: built world, mobility, health, and food are all currently inefficient, labor intensive, and typically product, not human-centered, approaches. That needs to change.

The Climate Crisis—increases in median temperature, shifts in major weather patterns, and depletion of global resources—all of which has been warned of for decades, is here. The perpetuation of the fossil-fuel based economy will continue to devastate the environment.

Across the globe, countries are taking some action:

In the United States, President Biden signed a $1.36 trillion infrastructure bill into law. Billions of dollars will be allocated at the state and local levels to create jobs and repair the 20th century infrastructure that has fallen into disrepair. Additionally, money will go to expanding broadband networks to millions across the country. The infrastructure bill was an extremely partisan lightning rod, as President Biden also sought an additional $1.7 trillion dollars for social programs and climate change legislation. It must be noted that the Republicans stood firm against the additional funding.

The UK government has committed to a “nature-positive” future, an admission that current economics practices have failed to take into account the effects on the environment. While the government fell short of moving away from the GDP as an economic indicator, it acknowledged that human development has come at  a great cost to the global ecosystem.

The European Green Deal is designed to aid the EU in its short-term pandemic recovery as well as counter long-term global climate change. The Deal reaches across eight policy areas, from biodiversity to clean energy to sustainable mobility. One key program is “Fit for 55,” an initiative designed to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030.

From November’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, there were several positive improvements to the Agreement. Yet, when it came to a firm, solid commitment to removing fossil fuels from the world’s global infrastructure and economy, one word in a sentence changed the sentiment of the summit: ‘phase out’ was replaced with ‘phase down’. This small change was a big disappointment for most COP26 participants. While it was India, with the support of China, that proposed the change in language, the language was used earlier in the US/China energy agreement of 2021. Australia, the world’s second-largest coal exporter with the high highest per capita coal emissions globally, skipped the conference session on phasing out coal.

Economic policies must be designed with a focus on sustainability and not on the old models of driving the GDP and Productivity. Green infrastructure policy and capital need to be focused on these policies while consideration is given to maintaining the existing, aging infrastructure as a bridge to the next generation. While the successes of COP26 are to be celebrated, the policy agreements need to go further in order to insure the survival of the planet.

Work must be done and is already taking place to bring governments and corporations that support the old, unsustainable policies, up to speed with the needs of the global eco-system as  well as acknowledging the big shift from ‘Bits to Atoms’ innovation. For example, Daimler AG, an automobile company created in the early 20th century, recently not only promised to shift manufacturing from fossil-fuel-driven cars to electric cars, but moved their schedule ahead by a year. Many of their models will be replaced by 2024. Volvo has promised that their models will be entirely electric by 2030.

We must not play the ‘scale’ and ‘megafactory’ manufacturing and global logistics game any longer. Commerce must be reimagined with materials and society at the core, and back-to-local becoming the norm. An example of this, Arrival AC of England, which manufactures light-weight electric vans and buses, assembled and served locally for local economies.  Relatively small that therefore more flexible, Arrival created a bus design with specific focus on social distancing during the CoVid pandemic.

While developed countries need to transform their infrastructure at scale from existing, old, inefficient operating environments of the last century, developing countries could bypass this and leapfrog to new, modern infrastructure. China, for example, has leapfrogged old infrastructures by rolling out a high-speed train network across the country. Many developing countries leapfrogged copper cable infrastructure and went straight to wireless networks. The CoVid pandemic has afforded a massive opportunity for many countries to ‘unbundle and rebundle’ aging infrastructure and transforming stranded assets into new, technological hubs, allowing them to leapfrog towards a sustainable, circular future.

What are the modern, 21st century infrastructures we need to implement in order to accelerate the shift towards a circular, sustainable future, one that is not driven by fossil-fuel consumption but instead by a dematerialized, usage-driven operating model?

Government policies need to reflect the demands of the era. We need to tackle the hard problems. We need to get started on a circular, closed-loop infrastructure and we need to get started now. Government policy needs to take a “people and the planet first” approach and start to scale it like it’s the next world war against global climate change.

We need to begin a long and circular economic transition. Too much talk on dealing with current linear economy challenges such as waste, recycling, right to repair, and extended product life are driving more companies to find circular economy solutions. We need to accelerate real commitment and action towards designing and building a future economy—a society where products are designed for use, as-a-service offering, recycled, remade, and re-used, and waste is eliminated via 100% sustainable energy.

Keep in mind the Five Levels of Circulist Advancement:

  1. Traditional manufacturing with circular intent.
  2. Tracking materials usage throughout the product life cycle. Recycling activities implemented.
  3. Dematerialization, circular design, product-as-a-service practices started.
  4. Several micro assembly / service centers operational.
  5. 100% circular system powered by an intelligent, decentralized network.

With a positive ‘can do’ attitude, we can drive innovation at scale with Bits to Atoms as the next frontier! T
he technology sector over the last 50 years has been forging ahead with software and data ‘bits’-driven innovations. The United States’ moonshot mission in the 1960s is a great example ‘atoms’-driven innovation: having an explicit goal forced cross disciplinary teams to solve hard design and engineering problems and in turn become the infrastructure and innovation platform for the next few decades. We need to do more with less.

We need to change companies’ and market’s ‘costs’ structures, and thereby change the definition of success. Businesses that tie their success to the infrastructure of the last century are bound to continue down a path of unsustainable business practice. Businesses, like Daimler and Volvo mentioned above, need to reconfigure their business models and their definitions of success in order to better serve the new industrial revolution. As a result, jobs will be reinvented. Data, technology, and automation will make these jobs smarter, better, and happier for people. People and intelligent machines will work in harmony to make better informed decisions.

We’ve done it before; we can do it again. Back in the mid-1980s, scientists recognized that the ozone layer that reflects much of the sun’s radiation, was thinning due to widespread use of  chlorofluorocarbons. It was at risk of disappearing altogether in a matter of decades. Nations came together, CFC was banned, and that action reduced impact relatively quickly.

We can achieve success. We know path and we understand the stakes.

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