A few events– specifically the Legacy and Innovation forum at UPenn back in October, and a session I attended during Greenbuild last week called “Innovative Governance for One–Water: Research and Action Plan“– have been solidifying the idea for me that legacy includes much more than aging physical structures. Perhaps even more challenging are the regulatory and institutional frameworks developed to complement the physical networks.
Thomas Hughes, arguably the single most-cited source on Large Technical Systems has stated, technologies and the networks that serve them, what we think of as infrastructure systems, are not just made of pipes and wires. The invention of the light bulb was not truly establish until the electrical distribution system was laid, the pricing structures and cultural demands for electricity created, and the relationships between utility providers and public regulators made clear.
The process of adopting new technologies and public services in the industrial-era United States corresponded to early city planning and building, a point that I think is key to understanding some of our problems today. In the 19th century, municipal engineering (water supply, wastewater management and drainage), landscape architecture, and city planning, were all trying to legitimize their respective expertise areas and roles within rapidly growing American cities. As each discipline became more expert in its own field however, they also became increasingly siloed. To take the example of water, wastewater, and stormwater management (largely relegated to the municipal, civil engineering sphere), the clearly defined and “efficient” paradigms of this past age are today legacies of infrastructure systems based in a limited understanding of the urban hydrological cycle. The designers of original combined sewer systems with overflows to natural water bodies could not have anticipated the national government’s subsidization of sprawling suburban development, nor could they have known that non-point source contaminants, pharmaceuticals, or other persistent organics would be among the most harmful to ecological and human health.
Like the adoption and spread of new technologies at the turn of the century, the adoption of an innovative technology now must be much more than an acknowledgement that the new technology works well. An entire socio-technical framework must be built up around it to support it. We engineers may know that green stormwater infrastructure is the way to go, integrating drainage systems with parks, landscaping, and even water distribution system. We also know that distributed/decentralized wastewater treatment systems and treating water for reuse can help reduce potable water and energy usage, and in addition be a beautiful site amenity and even generate nutrient and energy resources.
The bottleneck on the adoption of these integrated/holistic systems solutions comes from the fact that our governance and institutional structures do not mirror this new integrated paradigm. Instead of the “blank slate” (relatively speaking) that American municipal engineers and planners had during the industrial revolution, today, we are left with the challenges of legacy infrastructures– both the siloed, one-purpose hardware, and their accompanying siloed, one-purpose regulatory institutions and structures. In order to make a substantial and successful paradigm shift to integrated systems, we must have new institutions, new markets, and new regulatory frameworks that build upon the legacies of our past.