Thinking about the box: the infrastructure that constrains us

Vancouver's Cambie Bridge

Vancouver’s Cambie Bridge

Chances are good that you’ve never met anyone with the title “Infrastructure Futurist” on their business card, but that’s precisely what Paul Graham Raven has called himself.

In his talk at the 2013 Improving Reality conference (great food for thought and worth watching), Paul makes the case that we need to think about our infrastructure, because it enables our behaviour and our quality of life. He states that he’s not asking us to think outside of the box; he’s asking us to think about the box – to think about what constrains us.

What if cities or senior governments had infrastructure futurists on staff? Or at least consulted them occasionally? I’m absolutely convinced of the value that an infrastructure futurist would add in generating creative conversations that would help us to re-think our communities and our ways of life.

There is some talk about improving our infrastructure, but this is bigger than bike lanes. When was the last time you thought about the design of the all of the enabling systems of our cities, and how it influences your behaviour and your every day? When was the last time we seriously re-thought how we should build infrastructure? About what it allows us to do, and how it might be different if we’re trying to encourage different behaviour or achieve different results?

It’s not just about the design – there are opportunities for re-thinking infrastructure systems along the whole lifecycle: from policy and strategy, conception, funding, design, construction, operations, maintenance, renewal, and ultimately replacement.

A good place to start is by asking ourselves better questions about what we’re really trying to achieve in and for our cities:

How would we design a sewer system differently if our objective was not just environmental protection, but environmental regeneration?

Are there funding structures for road systems that would encourage more efficient use of resources and drastically reduced GHG emissions?

Is there a role for citizens in maintaining public infrastructure that would result in greater community ownership and increased social connections?

There’s no question that making changes to our infrastructure systems is a significant task: we’re faced with immense inertia and many may view changes to these expensive and long lasting systems as risky. But we’re accepting significant risks to our community sustainability by just doing things the same way as we’ve done them. The high cost and long life span of infrastructure projects is precisely the reason that there is urgency to rethinking our infrastructure.

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