Thursday, April 17, 2008

Wherefore Art the Widgets?

This article deals with the issue of whether nations need a National Infrastructure Database to prepare for the possibly severe infrastructure management challenges that will manifest themselves as we move past peak oil and head down the post-peak downslope. It was suggested by Geoff Holman of Australia, for which I thank him. Ah, the wonders of the worldwide web. May it last long and prosper. It has made this peak oil dialogue truly global, which it needs to be but which would have been very difficult to accomplish without the internet.

Also see my other articles in this blog on infrastructure;

Peak Oil and the Three Sisters of Social Collapse
Peak oil and overpasses
The myth of permanence: post-peak infrastructure maintenance
Post Peak Dam Maintenance, or Lack Thereof
Our Dangerous Infrastructure
Cascade Failure in River Systems with Multiple Dams
Our Dangerous Infrastructure II

Infrastructure is generally seen as - and loudly proclaimed by politicians and the captains of industry as being - a societal facilitator. In it is described thus; "The term infrastructure has been used since 1927 to refer collectively to the roads, bridges, rail lines, and similar public works that are required for an industrial economy, or a portion of it, to function."[6] And defines it as "The basic physical systems of a country's or community's population, including roads, utilities, water, sewage, etc. These systems are considered essential for enabling productivity in the economy."[7]

But what happens when the ability to maintain that infrastructure disappears and the infrastructure becomes a hindrance rather than a facilitator, such as it will do during the probable long, grinding economic decline accompanying peak oil? When the current infrastructure maintenance professionals begin retiring or dying and aren't being replaced because of ever-tighter budget constraints, who will even know in a broad context what all is included in "infrastructure", where it is, what condition it is in, when it was built, how old it is, how long it should last, what maintenance it needs and when?

Will the same politicians who built their election campaigns around throwing up new feel-good infrastructure be as quick to accept the responsibility for ensuring it's maintenance as the global economy falls into serious, terminal decline? The paper, Deconstructing the Manifest has this take, "of course, maintenance of these "public" projects is left to the public. politician could ever successfully run on a platform of "maintenance" or status quo. The public will is not swayed by the mundane. And so we see our roads and bridges decay, slowly, inexorably,..... Truly comprehensive maintenance is simply too expensive....."[12]

The reality is, as well as facilitating an economy, infrastructure is also a limiting factor for that economy, a constraint. The infrastructure defines the limits within which an economy can effectively function and, more importantly, evolve, adapt and change. For the economy to shift direction, as it must surely do on the peak oil downslope, it suddenly finds that its infrastructure is an impediment. The walls that enclosed and secured the fortified cities of medieval Europe, for example, were a serious constraint as those cities sought to expand and open up as the Industrial Revolution swept across the continent. The established infrastructure of any city suddenly becomes an impediment when that city wants to install rail lines or highways or subways linking the city center with the suburbs and areas beyond. The destruction of the infrastructure of so many European and Asian cities during two world wars, in reality, facilitated the rebirth of those cities around new infrastructure, saved those cities the agonizing decisions and complications of replacing and upgrading their infrastructure to satisfy and facilitate the drastically changed needs of a technology-oriented, growth-driven, post-war society.

The strong probability is that the infrastructure needed and maintainable by a post-fossil-fuel or seriously fossil-fuel-deficient society will be as different from today as today's infrastructure is different from that which existed in pre-industrial Europe. In the past, however, the impediment imposed by seriously outdated and unmaintainable infrastructure was handled by demolishing and replacing that old infrastructure with new. But will this be an option still open to us if we wait until we are on the peak-oil downslope before we start to address the infrastructure needs of the future? We will no longer have the exploitable energy, technology, finances and vast quantities of raw materials needed for wholesale replacement of that infrastructure. The only options left open to us if we sleepwalk into peak oil may narrow down to trying to somehow maintain that crumbling infrastructure in perpetuity or simply doing without as it falls apart. But infrastructure doesn't just shrivel up benignly in the sun like a tomato dropped from the vine. As infrastructure crumbles through age and lack of maintenance it can impose very serious risks on society that could, collectively, jeopardize millions of lives over the balance of this century and beyond.

Geoff Holman, a reader of this blog from Australia, as noted above, graciously suggested an article on the question of building a national infrastructure database to serve as the basis for dealing with the massive infrastructure inventory during the declining economy that will likely occur beginning with peak oil and the downslope beyond. Not surprisingly, various attempts at building national infrastructure databases have been made in the past.

One of the first projects, for example, of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, formed following the terrorist attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, was the establishment of a Critical Infrastructure Database. This database was intended as a reference source of all U.S. infrastructure considered critical and susceptible to terrorist attack, infrastructure like nuclear power plants, major dams, water systems of large urban centers like New York, airports, and so on.

Like so many projects begun in the bowels of bureaucracy, the design of this database and the data collected for it was, at best, fuzzy and incomplete. An assessment report issued by the U.S. Inspector General's office in July, 2006 turned out to be a blistering critique. The Inspector General's report cited several deep flaws in the database that underlies the plan, including: "The database’s failure to distinguish the criticality of the approximately 77,000 assets it includes; The database's failure to provide a comprehensive picture of national assets; The need to develop more sophisticated tools to assess risks associated with various assets; The need for substantial additional work to complete the database. ..... The IG report specified multiple flaws that arose in the process of building the database, such as missing ZIP codes, missing facility names and language translation problems. At one point, “officials estimated that on average each [critical infrastructure/key asset] record they researched was missing information for about seven fields,” according to the report. Department officials progressively improved the methods of gathering and processing the data over the past three years, the report added. The IG analysts predicted that the database could eventually grow to hundreds of thousands of records."[11] Another report notes, "Among the critical assets in the database are Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo, a Kangaroo Conservation Center, Jay’s Sporting Goods, several Wal-Mart stores, Amish Country Popcorn, and the Sweetwater Flea Market."[9] Partly as a result of the criticisms the database has been morphed into a National Asset Database but the fuzzy design, structure and data-gathering procedures still persist[8].

Whether or not the failings and criticism of the Critical Infrastructure Database/National Asset Database are responsible, the U.S. congress has recently introduced legislation taking another shot at a National Infrastructure Database. "The Dodd-Hagel National Infrastructure Bank Act of 2007 is a bipartisan measure that addresses the critical needs of our nation’s major infrastructure systems. The legislation establishes a new method through which the Federal government can finance infrastructure projects of substantial regional or national significance more effectively with public and private capital. ..... Infrastructure projects that come under the Bank’s consideration are publicly-owned mass transit systems, housing properties, roads, bridges, drinking water systems, and wastewater systems." The focus here, however, is still largely that of future infrastructure projects rather than maintenance of that already in place. Analysts and critics of this new bill, such as the American Society of Civil Engineers, note that "the current condition of our nation’s major infrastructure systems earns a grade point average of D and jeopardizes the prosperity and quality of life of all Americans." According to the Environmental Protection Agency, "$151 billion and $390 billion is needed respectively every year over the next 20 years to repair obsolete drinking water and wastewater systems. Drinking water and wastewater systems range in age from 50 to 100 years in age."[1] One wonders whether any database resulting from this effort will prove any more successful than that of the Department of Homeland Security.

A long, thirty-year career of designing and building information systems, almost always incorporating a database, has taught me that any database is as good as the ingenuity built into the design. Going back after the fact and trying to resurrect a poorly-designed, disfunctional database through retrofitting patches simply further exacerbates the problems and leads to the almost certain demise of the database, like retrofitting new extraction technology to a played-out oil well. Databases, unlike living organisms, do not evolve well. Any database, especially one as potentially complex as a national infrastructure database, needs to have considered in it's design; the motivation behind the database's existence, the breadth of data to be included, the depth of data the database can support, the data relationships to be incorporated which seriously impacts the flexibility, the controls on the purity and veracity of the data gathered, the uses the database is intended to satisfy, the ownership of and responsibility for the data contained, and much, much more. The fuzzy thinking and lack of clarity of potential use of the database that has characterized various government efforts at national infrastructure databases (not just that elaborated above) is and will, in my view, continue to be a drawback of institutional and bureaucratic control over the design and operational management of such databases. And yet I am not, for a moment, suggesting that any such national infrastructure database be privatized and handed over to business and industry. That, in my opinion, would burden such an effort with a purely business-centric, economic motivation rather than gearing it to the societal need it should serve.

For any nation to set out on a course of developing a national infrastructure database designed to help manage the infrastructure inventory on the peak oil downslope and transition into a post-peak, post-fossil-fuel age they must surely first recognize peak oil and the impact it will have on infrastructure maintenance. And considering the amount of feeding from the public trough that will be involved in the design and construction of such a database and the massive drain on public finances that will be involved in mitigating the impact of that decaying infrastructure while the national and global economy implodes, that is going to be an extremely difficult sell. It is an impossible sell when that government will not even utter the words peak oil but insists on perpetuating the myth of the steady growth economy.

There is no question, in my mind at least, that the massive, technology-dependent infrastructure on which our modern society is built is going to be a tremendous and dangerous liability on the peak oil downslope. I simply do not believe, however, and I hope that I am wrong, that any workable database could be developed at this late stage in the game, even if the political will were there to develop it, that could help mitigate the problem. Any such database is itself going to be dependent on a technology and infrastructure that may not survive long enough for the database to be a viable tool during the developing criticality of infrastructure decline. I for one, therefore, will not be joining and grassroots movement to demand that government build such a database. Sorry.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd and Senator Chuck Hagel
2) User Friendly Electronic Database Management System for Infrastructure Maintenance in Small Cities
3) British Virgin Islands Infrastructure and Utilities Broad Policy
4) The Age of Infrastructure
5) Definitions of Infrastructure on the Web:
6) Infrastructure
7) infrastructure
8) Critical Infrastructure: The National Asset Database
9) Critical infrastructure database full of useless junk
10) National Infrastructure Coordinating Center INSight Application
11) DHS asset database can't support vaunted infrastructure protection plan
12) Deconstructing the Manifest

No comments: