Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How To Build A Better Robot, Part I

I've been thinking a lot about infrastructure lately.

I hear the word thrown around a lot, but I'm not sure if it's resonating with everyone. If some of you are faithful viewers of the Rachel Maddow show, you hear her geek out about it. I must admit, I do too. I was glad that I was not alone in the obsession about it. My former coworkers in the construction industry found my obsession odd too. It's not like I had ever got my hands dirty in any actual trade to care about joists, masonry, weepholes or footings, the shaping of the physical universe. To them, I was administrator, bean counter, be it a "marketing person." I dealt in a universe of fluff, and they did the real heavy lifting. No pun intended. But as the weeks wore on and the job reached its logical conclusion and the work slowed down, I thought about all of us in how we'd fit into the next job. Would there be a next job? The market conditions and tea leaves last fall suggested an end.

Ah, Endings. They make you think. When the site supervisor and I sat down for our weekly chat to cover the work that's been done on the project, I had this odd moment of lucidity. "Do you think that the American population realizes that we're going to have retrain the entire labor force to be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century?" I asked. He gave me a quizzical look, but then he understood and said, "I don't think they have a clue." I used our building as an example, a residential building with green building systems atypical in the existing housing stock in the New York Area. New York City has a plan campaign to decrease its carbon emissions and footprint (33% of greenhouse gas emissions comes from buildings). They soak up power, water, and air, then send out some very bad juju out into climate. Not to mention construction materials themselves that contaminate ground and water due to its inability to breakdown into a simple or complex sugar or something. You get the point.

The challenge I found in this experience is that while some of us are becoming better educated about how materials we use to shape our world have in fact harmed us, we are still challenged to invest time and resources to do more to minimize these impacts. With the growth of green building as a movement and reality in some places, the maintenance begins with the workforce population understanding the fundamentals of how to maintain the thing we've created to coexist with our ecosystem. If the porters and superintendents don't understand how to run a high efficiency boiler or an air purification system and fix it breaks down, what good have really done to better our city? If plumbers don't learn how to install a blackwater reclamation system for a building so that it reduces water waste when we flush toilets, then how are we contributing to preserving our most critical resource? How does reducing water waste support our reservoirs? Potable water wasted for toilet water doesn't do the world any good.

The ending of the boom in the housing industry presents us with a beginning. An opportunity, even. Building McMansions and condos across the lower 48 seemed like a grand idea at the time because it created wealth and jobs to mitigate the bust of 2000-2001 from the internet boom, but it also paved the way for the excesses that led to our current downturn. And all the homes that we were building didn't necessarily factor in sustainability. Fiscally or ecologically. How could it? The labor force was not schooled in the ways of mitigating impacts on the environment.

So this brings me to my current thinking about infrastructure. Infrastructure is more than the physical universe of roads, bridges, schools, power grids, levees, dams, reservoirs, trains, subways. Think of them as veins and vessels within the body. The body cannot live without the mind. Teachers, firefighters, police officers, servicemen and women flow through that universe. So do you and I. And all of us need to be a bit more educated about how we all are connected in this life. How do we individually complement the stimulus package that was just signed? Infrastructure, beyond the jobs and economic stability it can create, includes you, me and a dose of intellectual curiosity.

America is a young nation with old systems in play. All that American ingenuity we've been taught about has laid fallow for too long. It's time to build a better robot.

Are you ready?

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