Why do we need to think about the infrastructures of tomorrow?

Daniel Bonin is one of our Emerging Fellows. He and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. His first article discusses the importance of futures thinking for building infrastructure.

By 2050 the face of our built environment will have changed. While this seems to be a long way off, there is good reason to start thinking about tomorrow’s infrastructure today.

Infrastructures outlive civilizations, country borders, and governments. It can take years until they are up and running. Infrastructures have been symbols and indicators of power: from the Egyptian Pyramids to the Golden Gate Bridge in the U.S. or the One Belt One Road Initiative of China. Infrastructures are physical legacies for the generations to come and constitute the framework conditions we innovate around. In some sense, our thinking is not only shaped by bounded rationality but bounded by the existing infrastructure. We tend to think of new ways to use streets, but not about alternatives to streets. As a part of a complex system, partially aged infrastructures cannot be simply removed and re-inserted without risking disruptions. The inert nature of infrastructures is also at odds with faster innovation cycles in technology. These characteristics are at stark contrast with the evolving needs of people and business and the global challenges on our way to 2050.

Depending on whom you ask, you will get different answers to the question of what infrastructures are. Some will spontaneously name airports, high-speed trains or broadband internet access, while you can hear the dreaming in the voice of others when they say wastewater disposal, uninterrupted power supply or well-equipped hospitals. Infrastructures are the physical backbone that allows people and businesses to fulfill their needs and desires. And even a fully digitized world with telecommuting or tele-education would still require some sort of physical infrastructure. The access to infrastructures means somehow destiny – reducing or exacerbating social inequalities. It is evident we need to think about infrastructures in order to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in areas like health, education, renewable energy, environmental protection, justice, and peace. A more sustainable world would ultimately be a world where infrastructure converges both between and within countries.

This is clearly an ambitious goal, considering a perfect storm of weaker economic growth, growing governmental debt, workforce ageing and a reduced taxpayer base due to labor automation. These factors will greatly reduce the ability of governments to fund and maintain infrastructures up to the year 2050 and beyond. At the same time, less developed countries and their energy and resource hungry middle classes will grow. Besides the unprecedented demand for expansion in less developed countries, developed countries are starting to fall behind in infrastructure quality as their century-old infrastructures continue to age.

The resulting infrastructure investment gap could be even larger than previously thought, given that economic growth forecasts have shown to be way too optimistic in the past. But infrastructure development comes not only at an easy measurable monetary cost. Each additional square meter of sealed surface, deforestation and land grab of the world’s most fertile soils puts our ecosystem under more and more pressure. Yet the irony is that we will need to expand and adapt our infrastructure to tackle challenges like climate change and push decarbonization efforts. With tighter governmental budgets, economic costs might well trump environmental impacts. It is all the more urgent to develop business models for sustainable infrastructures that are attractive for private investors. On the positive side, higher efficiency technologies and decentralization of knowledge, power, and production might reduce some of the expansionary demand.

The overwhelming majority of our infrastructure for the year 2050 has yet to be built. Each additional infrastructure must be well planned as it adds complexity to the inert infrastructure systems. We have to anticipate tomorrow’s needs to understand future investment requirements. Moreover, we need to design infrastructures in a way that they can be adapted over their lifetime to keep up with the changes ahead and beyond 2050. Otherwise, we will find ourselves drawing upon yesterday’s infrastructure to cope with the challenges of tomorrow.

© Daniel Bonin 2017