Thinking about recent posts on the Metra bridge project and long term parking meter leases, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Professor David Solzman at UIC. He made an interesting comment that we need to find a way to create infrastructure that can physically evolve over time at reasonable cost.
Our fundamental approaches to many things haven’t changed that much, despite big changes in the world. We still create major buildings to last for the ages, even though they’ll be functionally and technically obsolete quite rapidly. We treat infrastructure as a one shot build deal, where to change, upgrade or even repair it later is a hugely invasive, costly, and difficult proposition.
Maybe instead we should operate on the consumer electronics paradigm, where we focus on low cost, innovation, and a shorter term product cycle. That might be one way. Another is to create more modular or flexible architectures that allow things to be changed or replace in a much easier and cheaper manner. With things like sewer and water pipes, this might be difficult. But it’s an area worth studying.
One of the big challenges we face is that the lifespan of our investments can exceed the realistic planning time horizon given the ever faster cycles of change. This can leave us stuck with albatrosses for decades. I think, for example, of all the cities building deep tunnels for stormwater management just as we’re on the cusp of being able to use new green techniques to do this in a better way and at lower cost.
I won’t pretend to even have the problem fully framed, much less have a solution. But this is an area that deserves significant study and consideration.