Trains, Planes and Automobiles: Or why Infrastructure IS an IT issue

By Kurt Cagle
January 25, 2009

I'm not a computer gamer, but there are a few games that I occasionally indulge in when I have a rare free moment. One of my all time favorites has to be Sim City, which not only is the perfect game for a systems architect, but also happens to have consistently the best theme music of any game series out there.

Sim City is, as the name suggests, technically not a game at all, but rather a simulation (and a remarkably good one) of the various factors that go into managing the growth and development within a modern city. Many times seemingly innocuous decisions, the placement of streets in one location vs. another, can become major problems down the road as gridlock or high crime ensure, as can poor zoning, sacrificing livability for the immediate boost of industrial growth, or failing to take into account the development of a mass transit bus or train system.

Yet of all of these, the one factor that's perhaps most insidious is the fact that infrastructure rots. Roads, no matter how well constructed, begin to decompose under the constant stress of moving traffic, especially when that traffic increases beyond what the roads were constructed for. Bridges rust, rivets weaken, pins pop out as wind and rain take their toll. Sewers and water pipes crumble, become congested and leak. even buildings deteriorate over time.

In his book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman postulated an interesting premise - if humans were to disappear tomorrow (for reasons unknown), what would happen to the cities in which we lived, taking New York City as his model. The results were sobering. In three days, after the electrical system collapsed without the normal constant maintenance, the pumps in New York's subway system would stop, flooding most of the subway system within a week. Within a season, many houses would be showing signs of significant decay, plants would have begun the process of churning up the roads and sidewalks.

Within two years, fires would have razed whole neighborhoods as caustic chemicals pooled and ignited. Buildings would have begun to disintegrate, especially those with extensive glass windows, plants would be taking over the area and wild animals would begin to appear in downtown Manhattan. Within ten years, most bridges would have fallen apart, and many roads would have become impassable due to plants and debris. The deterioration becomes considerably more marked in a surprisingly short amount of time.

In Sim City, depending upon the decisions you've made, you'll eventually come to a point where you have borrowed all you can borrow, where the aging of the infrastructure becomes a force that works against you, and you watch as your carefully constructed city falls victim to recurrent fire, rampant riots and the occasional alien attack (gotta watch out for those space ports). What gets left behind is not the pristine vistas , but decaying infrastructure that becomes ever more costly to replace, with ever dwindling funds.

Here in Victoria, people are waking up to this problem. Some of the infrastructure here is a hundred years old or older, put in place even before the first cars appeared on the island. Replacing roads or bridges or power networks is not sexy work, and politicians often don't want to spend money keeping infrastructure updated when its likely to prove disruptive, when it takes away money from projects that they can take credit for, and when it just isn't seen as necessary.

This means that most infrastructure spending that does occur takes place at a time when the system has become so bad that it impacts the "important" people in the community. Typically, this also means that the cost to fix the problem at this stage is considerably higher than routine maintenance costs would have been.

What exacerbates this is the fact that many decisions that were made at a time when certain resources (such as oil) were cheaply available often establish patterns of usage that can be counterproductive when those resources become much more dear - such as the suburban sprawl and megalopolises that seem to be the rule for most cities in North America, especially the United States.

There are signs that we are reaching that agonizing point where the coffers are bare, where the infrastructure is crumbling, and where the future looks bleak indeed ... perhaps the future really is the dystopian urban landscapes of Blade Runner or Snow Crash.

Then again, maybe not. Naomi Klein, in her powerful expose The Shock Doctrine, laid out the fact that there is a compelling pattern on the part of the power elite globally to use systemic shocks - disaster and crisis - to force change within a country or region. It's perhaps not surprising that in time such shocks would come back to haunt us, as the US economy itself reels on the edge of depression, as oil shortages and high prices spur fears of a diminishing supply and as severe climate change and environmental degradation hem us in from all sides.

Yet in a way such a set of crises is also, in its own way, an opportunity. There is a window that is opening up, one in which enough people are willing to make a change to forestall what may be a worse future that these people are beginning to have momentum on their side. One potential area where this may prove a factor is the concept of telework.

Telework, in which workers provide their services from a destination other than a corporate office building, can take potentially millions of cars off the road, and with them the obligation to maintain all that asphalt and infrastructure, the need for those millions of barrels of oil, the time wasted idling in traffic going nowhere as gasoline gets burned to move cars tenths of a mile an hour, can reduce the amount of money spent by companies in expensive sprawling "office parks" for real estate and parking.

There's a question of the degree to which telework can be used to replace those operations that are typically done on site, but the list of potential telework professions is actually larger than you may think. Anyone who deals with computers as their primary tool for work obviously falls into this category, as do the managers who determine their workload. This covers most of the people working in accounting, most of the people in marketing, anyone who works in human resources or people management. Sales personnel are almost by definition remote or teleworkers - if they're in the office, then chances are really good that they're not making sales. Writers and graphic designers are almost the archetypal teleworker.

What about IT staff? Perhaps. One of the big questions that arises is the degree to which a company is willing to move IT operations to a cloud-based service? As web applications become increasingly sophisticated, more and more of the core services can be pushed to the cloud, effectively reducing the need both to have local servers (indeed, many companies already allocate their web servers to co-located server farms - the shift of moving databases and accounting systems there is increasingly happening as the economic crunch continues.

Once you move these systems out of the corporate offices, though the need for onsite IT staff essentially vanish; programmers, no longer tethered to the land-line based corporate servers, can work from anywhere they have a wireless connection and can manage a VPN.

Except in those situations where physical manufacturing actually takes place, rather than just the logistical support for that manufacturing, this means that many if not most "corporate" jobs could just as readily be rendered as telework ... including those jobs performed by upper level management.

(I'll address the issue of collaboration, meetings, and the like in a separate article.)

What about retail? Even given the rather desparate economic climate during the Christmas buying season, online retailers did remarkably well even in absolute terms, and did extraordinarily well compared to their brick and mortar counterparts. This points to an emerging observation which may be a little disturbing to those with vested interest in malls, but the reality is that those mall properties are just not bringing in the traffic like they used to. Reducing the number of malls and freeing up that property (perhaps even letting it revert, with some reclamation, to a semi-wild state) would do a lot for the environment, and would also reduce the demands for ever expanding highway projects in cities. Do that, and you also free up right of ways that can be used for rail projects, cutting down demand for roads even more.

What about community services and critical services? The barbershop, the grocer, and so forth? I don't necessarily see them being affected one way or another, though obviously even here, there's something to be said for a Peapod model where groceries are delivered - you can deliver a lot of groceries with much less gasoline than you'd need compared to everyone going out in their own cars - and would encourage the use of mass transit for the one chore which tends to require the use of a vehicle.

Of course, this raises another possibility - have the government subsidize door to door transit in communities, and build up the necessary IT infrastructure to manage this particular logistical problem. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds - the initial investment in both systems and vehicles might be pretty hefty, but it still would pale compared to rebuilding highways, and it would solve one of the biggest problems that mass transit has - the final mile problem (funny that a telecommunications issue would end up surfacing on the transit side as well). If you can deliver people from door to door at a reasonable cost and within a sufficiently narrow window of time, then people will adopt mass transit far more readily.

Similarly, provide money for open work centers (maybe by taking over some of those defunct malls). Such work centers would provide places for a lot of those tech workers to actually work when they need the capability, would provide many of the basic amenities such as wireless access and power (Starbucks, are you listening?), and could be paid for either by the worker or by his or her company. Funding grid computing centers (perhaps tied in within university systems) could similarly provide the necessary processing cycles and resources, and the establishment of region-wide wireless with redundant nets could insure that Internet connectivity is pervasive - and would make teleconferencing a much more palatable option.

Of course, there are a few big issues here. Think about all of those retail jobs lost ... though perhaps, if you move those retail positions to being community interface positions on the web, you'd move more product. Working from home also raises issues about childcare ... unless you also funded pre-school educational programs that would include the necessary transit and child-care (helping to employ a whole generation of teachers and teachers aides).

Government facing services? Many of those could similarly be handled online, especially if you have that Internet support for live access over video-conferencing - and you'd need fewer police officers and security forces (oh, well). Restaurants would remain (and should), as would those places that provide recreational services. I'm sure that you could come up with others, but the point here is that a significant amount of the non-manufacturing sector could be moved online surprisingly easily.

What about manufacturing? The automobile industry is imploding for a reason - people are already driving fewer miles, and their cars are being pushed to last longer. Perhaps some of those plants could be converted to building not high-speed electric sports cars but lighter-weight electric runarounds, and mini-buses for door to door transit. Again, transit matters. We'll be several years culling away at the surfeit of MacMansions - so construction trades could shift to helping build both rail and IT infrastructure instead (and maybe more of those MacMansions could be converted into facilities for startups that DO need something of a physical presence - biotech is probably not something you want to do in your home, not unless you have the facilities in place for handling dangerous biologicals).

Of course, much of this also depends upon a fairly radical shift in expectations. Much of the existing problems that have come about in the latest economic crisis have occurred because there has been too much of an imbalance in compensation. That a doctor can make $150K - $200K or so a year is not unrealistic - they have specialized skills that they invested heavily in to acquire, and their decisions can mean life or death for people, so they should be compensated accordingly.

Yet for the CEO of a financial exchange to make $250 million dollars in salary and "bonuses" is frankly just obscene. It creates a huge imbalance in the economy, especially when this privileged class is able to do so while paying a far smaller percentage of their net worth in taxes than anyone else. The capitalist system should reward people for their initiative and their contributions to society, but not to the point where it depresses the real earnings of the rest of society.

Perhaps with more equitable distribution of earnings, you wouldn't need to have both parents in families working full time just to stay afloat, and wouldn't need to support as many jobs in the economy, and wouldn't need to spend so much in social programs. This is why better business (and governmental) transparency is so important, so that all of the stakeholders in a business can see the real costs, so that problems can be headed off by intelligence and oversight before they turn into crises, and so that people can better respond to incompetence and criminality in a way that benefits society overall - and IT is the key to that transparency.

Thus, before we load up on more highway projects, more unnecessary bridges, and more downtown renovation projects, it may behove us as a society to ask the question about whether it will be more beneficial in the long run to use our brains (real and virtual) and the marvellous networks that we have created with our brains to solve these pressing problems in a way that will benefit not only ourselves but our children's children.

Infrastructure is an IT issue.

Kurt Cagle is an online editor for O'Reilly Media. You can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his news feed.

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