Hate Sitting in Traffic? Dig a Hole

 

Asymmetrical solutions to infrastructure problems, past, present and future 

Infrastructure is audacious by nature. When we build a road or a bridge, we’re reshaping the way humans interact with their environment. We take new ideas about our relationships in space, and we make them real.

Often, infrastructure projects present simple solutions to straightforward problems – we connect point A to point B, as directly as we can. Sometimes, however, a project breaks from conventional wisdom to solve complex challenges and anticipate future issues. These are the projects that stand the test of time, and they have important lessons to teach us about innovative problem-solving.

Looking to projects old and new, we examined some of the most forward-thinking infrastructure initiatives to find the factors that set them apart.

Get Going – The Boring Company, Los Angeles, United States, End Date TBD 

Elon Musk’s latest venture has a playful title, but the Tesla and SpaceX CEO is completely serious: he wants to bore beneath Los Angeles and connect the city with a network of tunnels.

The Boring Company has already drawn a fair number of critics, but Musk has never let that stop him before. Inspired by one of those classic LA traffic jams, Musk got an idea, tweeted about it, and committed to it, drilling a giant hole in the ground near the SpaceX parking lot.

Will Elon Musk revolutionize the infrastructure of Los Angeles? It’s too soon to tell—though the man has a promising track record. The real lesson lies in the Boring Company’s determination. Got a problem with gridlock? Musk didn’t wait for bureaucracy and he didn’t take no for an answer. He just started digging.

Build Your Own Conditions for Success – Aqua Appia, Rome, 312 BC 

Before Rome was an empire, it was a city in the hills with a water problem. Droughts were brutal and sewage was difficult to manage, and the hilly terrain made it incredibly difficult to build an irrigation system. Nature simply didn’t allow for water to find its way to the city. Undeterred, the Romans built the greatest system of aqueducts in history.

Rome wasn’t the first city to build an aqueduct, but it was the most successful by far. Aqua Appia, the first Roman aqueduct, is a marvel of infrastructure and engineering. Running through the air and beneath the ground for over ten miles, it only drops 10 meters in altitude, allowing water to run smoothly downhill all the way to Rome.

Aqua Appia solved an immediate problem facing Rome – it transcended physical barriers to bring water to the city. But more importantly, it proved to the Romans that the physical environment could be conquered. Historians acknowledge that the aqueduct, which enabled Romans to move water over great distances, played a tremendous role in the expansion of their Empire. If nature didn’t give the Romans what they needed, they built new conditions themselves.

Go Through, Not Around – Panama Canal, Isthmus of Panama, 1914

Bridges, tunnels, canals: many kinds of infrastructure forge direct connections between distant places. The Chunnel runs underwater between Britain and France; the Gotthard Base Tunnel runs through the Alps. But no project has ever been as ambitious as the Panama Canal. By crossing the Isthmus of Panama instead of going around the tip of South America, ships save themselves 7,872 miles of travel.

Building a waterway through a country is no small feat. The French tried to build the Panama Canal in the late 19th century, but they were thwarted by Panama’s jungle environment and insufficient funding. It took the determination and direct attitude of the American team to make the dream a reality. John Frank Stevens, a self-taught engineer, led the most dramatic period of development. Communicating directly with President Theodore Roosevelt about the project’s progress, Stevens cut through bureaucratic middlemen just like he cut through the continent. Connecting two oceans at different sea levels with three lock chambers, today the Panama Canal is rightly known as one the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Look to Other Fields DOW Chemical Constructed Wetland, Seadrift, TX, 1995  

Dow Chemical went out on a limb in the mid ‘90s. They needed to build a water treatment facility so the surrounding community could have clean water. Instead of building an industrial treatment center on 4 to 5 acres, they built a swamp on 110.

Constructed wetlands are an integral part of green infrastructure, a rising trend dedicated to sustainable building alternatives. In looking to environmental scientists and urban planners, Dow dramatically lowered their capital costs. The constructed wetlands took up more space, but they cost less than 4 percent of what it would have cost to build a traditional plant. What’s more, the wetlands have since turned into their own independent ecosystem.

Dow’s success in Seadrift is being heralded as convincing evidence for the promise of constructed wetlands. Moreover, it reflects the importance of looking to places you might otherwise overlook for your next great idea.

Identify the Real Problem – Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, Kobe, Japan, 1998 

Connecting Kobe to Awaji Island, the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the world. But the bridge’s purpose isn’t to connect people from the mainland to the island—it’s to ensure the safety of people crossing the Akashi Strait. These distinctions aren’t mutually exclusive, but they did influence how the bridge was built, and they show the importance of solving for the right problem.

When construction on the bridge began in 1988, people had been crossing the Akashi Strait via ferries for generations. The real issue at hand wasn’t that people couldn’t get to where they needed to go; it’s that severe weather and natural disasters posed a serious threat to people as they crossed. The Akashi Kaikyō Bridge was subsequently built to withstand winds at 178 mph and earthquakes of an 8.5 magnitude—it actually withstood a 6.9 magnitude earthquake during construction.

In a way, the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge only happens to be the longest bridge in the world. Its real purpose is to resolve the more serious issue: the earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis that frequent the area. It’s a good example of how important it is to design for the bigger issue.

Colin Groundwater

Editor

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Hate Sitting in Traffic? Dig a Hole