The Hidden Systems All Around Us
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The Hidden Systems All Around Us

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The Hidden Systems All Around Us

Deb Chachra is a professor at Olin College of Engineering with a technical background in engineering physics and materials science. She writes the newsletter Metafoundry and creates and communicates widely at the intersection of technology and society, including pieces for The Atlantic, The Guardian, the journal Nature, and the comic book Bitch Planet. Her research and ideas have been recognized and supported by awards from the Sloan Foundation, the National Science Foundation, Autodesk, and others.

Below, Deb shares 5 key insights from her new book, How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World. Listen to the audio version—read by Deb herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

How Infrastructure Works Deb Chachra Next Big Idea Club

1. Energy is agency.

The Nobel Prize-winning developmental economist Amartya Sen has argued that money is important to us because it gives us the freedom to live the kind of lives that we have reason to value: that is, to have agency in the world. We’re embodied creatures, so for us to do anything in the world, we need energy, and we nearly always use that energy through technologies. I really like Ursula K. Le Guin’s expansive definition: “Technology is the active human interface with the physical world.”

In fact, nearly the first thing that people do when they get access to resources beyond what’s necessary to meet their survival needs is to buy artificial light. Humans do this so reliably that researchers use the amount of light visible in night-time aerial photos as a proxy for development. It’s because artificial light gives us the freedom to do what we want to do, even after the sun goes down or inside a room or a shelter. So yes, from an economist’s perspective, we use money to get agency. But from the perspective of a scientist and engineer, like me, one of the most important things we use that money for is to buy the energy we need to act in the world, to do what we want to do.

2. Infrastructure is collective.

By and large, most of the ways in which we use energy to act in the world are mediated through our infrastructural networks. The most obvious example is grid electricity. We use energy in the form of electricity for light, of course, but also for heat, for mechanical effort, like a washing machine that replaces the drudgery of hand-laundering clothes, for communications, and for basically everything from video games to ventilators. Electricity is such a versatile way to get and use energy that it’s no surprise that we often refer to it as just “power.” Our transportation networks for people and for goods also use vast amounts of energy, mostly through fuel. The delivery of potable water to our homes and the removal and treatment of sewage uses energy as well but exactly how much depends on where you live and where your water comes from. Finally, of course, telecommunications networks don’t work if they’re not plugged in.

“The difference between rich countries and poor ones isn’t just their GDP.”

These shared infrastructural networks underpin our individual agency—our daily freedom to do anything with our lives beyond addressing our most basic needs. This becomes very obvious when there’s a blackout, or a water main breaks, or even when the Internet goes down. Dealing with those failures becomes the focus of our attention.

The difference between rich countries and poor ones isn’t just their GDP; it’s that the per capita energy usage of highly industrialized countries can be 10 times or more than that of countries in the Global South. Most of that energy usage is because of collective investment in these collective systems, for collective benefit. We notice this immediately when we travel: How good are the trains? How reliable is the electricity? How are buildings heated or kept cool? All of these are related to the quality of infrastructural provision, and all of these systems require energy.

3. These systems shape our daily lives.

Our infrastructural systems facilitate our lives by making some things much easier—so much easier that we almost never have to think about them. If you’re reading or listening to this, you probably don’t spend much time figuring out how to get clean drinking water or what you’re going to use to cook your food today. But the presence of these same systems can also make doing things in different ways much harder—”harder” meaning more expensive, or maybe requiring more time and effort from you, or specialized equipment or expertise.

If you live in a city where municipal pipes deliver utility gas—typically, natural gas—to your home, that’s what both the physical and human systems are set up to support. That is why it’s so hard to switch to an induction stove or to replace a furnace with a heat pump. Our apparently individual or household decisions can be constrained by our access to these collective systems.

“All of that is the result of collective decision-making and investment.”

Even personal mobility, which can be easy to think of as entirely individual, is reliant on shared networks. Cars are often sold with the idea of individual freedom, but they couldn’t go anywhere without both a network of roads and a distribution system to bring energy in the form of gasoline to service stations (and, increasingly, electricity to charging points). All of that is the result of collective decision-making and investment. If your daily commute takes two hours on public transit but you can drive to work in half an hour, you’re not just making an “individual” decision. The context of that decision is the social and political support of one mode of personal mobility, one way of doing things, over another.

4. These systems connect us to each other.

Take a moment to think about a simple municipal water system, a network of aqueducts and pipes that delivers water from a reservoir to buildings in the city. The water supply connects everyone who uses that water to the landscape around them; that’s where the water comes from. And it connects all the residents to each other through this shared network that they all rely on, that they operate and maintain together. What’s more, the water supply network connects them to the people who are going to live in that spot on the planet into the future, just like you are almost certainly benefiting from infrastructural systems that were designed and built decades ago.

But there’s one more piece. All of these systems run on energy, and most of that energy comes from the combustion of fossil fuels, which produces greenhouse gases. We are connected to each other through the shared harms of these systems, including pollution and the environmental depredation that results from extracting and transporting resources. But we are especially connected by the carbon dioxide released into our shared atmosphere and the anthropogenic climate change that now results. For both good and ill, our infrastructural networks connect us to each other today, and in the years or decades to come.

5. We have the opportunity to transform our infrastructure.

Most of our individual energy usage is actually through our collective infrastructural systems, which shape how we do things every day. These systems, especially transportation, are still mostly powered by fossil fuels, and produce greenhouse gas emissions.

For the last century and a half, the dramatic rise in the wealth and agency of large chunks of the planet—the ability to make things, to move around the world, to do anything, really—has been powered by combustion, and so we’ve learned to think that we can’t have the first without the second.

“While our infrastructural systems have worked well for some of us, making our lives as we know them possible, these systems are already at risk as climate change destabilizes the landscapes they traverse.”

But in the past few decades, the technologies that we need to harness clean, renewable energy at scale—solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and more—have been developed. For the first time in human history, we can build a world where burning less doesn’t mean doing less. What’s more, just like access to fossil fuels changed the economics of mass production, access to renewably sourced electricity changes what’s possible for how we deal with all the stuff in the world. We can trade abundant energy for scarce matter. That means we can do things like desalinating drinking water for household use. Most importantly, we can learn to recover materials after we use them instead of dumping them into the environment as waste and just mining more.

While our infrastructural systems have worked well for some of us, making our lives as we know them possible, these systems are already at risk as climate change destabilizes the landscapes they traverse. We see in the news every day—wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, and more. But by understanding and then reconsidering and rebuilding our networked infrastructural systems, we have the opportunity to extend the human opportunities they provide to everyone on the planet: to transform our technological civilization into one that’s sustainable, resilient, and equitable.

I hope that when you look around you and see power outlets, roads, faucets, cellphone towers, and more, you can now appreciate these systems—what they do for us, and what they have the potential to do for all of us—in a new way.

To listen to the audio version read by author Deb Chachra, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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