With summer I am keen to close my three-part study on smart infrastructures. This subject will remain on my mind though, as I continue to meet and discuss with Energy and IT actors. In particular I am interested in relating stories accross America of start-ups innovating in this field. If you do, don't be shy and drop me an email... by many standards America has an aging and unefficient infrastructure compared to other developped countries.
Like every year I went to Brittany for summer break and enjoyed its beautiful coast line. I surprised myself one afternoon to talk on the beach about smart infrastructure with my neighbour. Guy Hascoet lives in a village in Britanny and loves the regions of France; unlike many former members of the Government whose deep knowledge of France is limited to downtown Paris, he knows its provinces well and deeply cares about their competivity and sustainable development.
While our daughters were playing joyfully on the beach Guy explained me that the future is for efficient infrastructures and services. "Few people know that 38% of drinkable water is lost in France; only 62% reaches our focets while the rest is waisted due to leaks". He added that the main development strategy in France is still to build ducts, roads, buildings, etc. "When I learned about multi-wavelength fiber optic systems, it was a breakthrough for me. It was the first time that we deployed a more efficient solution to adress the need for more capacity instead of digging more in the streets and laying out more of the same."
We have reached a turning point indeed and the deployment of smarter infrastructures seems to be an important vector of sutainable development rather than a trend that will fade. In the last few months I have reflected on the historical significance of smart infrastructures. The work of the techno-economist Carlota Perez helped me organize my thoughts. Each industrial revolution and time of progress was connected to an important change in infrastruture (canals, railway, roads, etc.) that increased productivity. Her book provides great insights into the mechanics of technology innovation, economic growth and social progress.
I first met Pr. Carlota Perez at a conference in Amsterdam two years ago. She presented a roadmap for rational policy making and supported private-public partnerships to build new infrastructures such as fiber access networks. She analyzed the first four industrial revolutions and identified recurring patterns. The bubble collapse that we experienced in 2000 is not the first, and it typically marks the end the "installation" period fueld by financial capital, "the roaring twenties" for instance.
Before society can bear the full fruits from industrial progress like in the "post-WW2 golden age", Pr. Perez observed that it typically goes through a period of uncertainty, which she calls the "turning point". Most significantly, she found that the only way to break out of the turning point into a healthy "deployment" period is for the State to return in alliance with the business world. This period of turbulence can end with a serious recession that shakes the confidence in the present and moves towards favoring regulation and income distribution policies.
A year before the financial melt-down of the banking system in the September 2008 and the subsequent reforms of President Obama, Pr. Perez had these visionary words: "in the absence of conscious regulation and policies [...], the instabilities underlying the present performance of the various economies may produce collapses that could bring the world economy into recession".
What does this have to do with green initiatives and smart infrastructures, you may ask? Well, Pr. Perez sees in ICT Green a model for an economic recovery and the basis of a new golden age. The current industrial revolution that has been taking place since 1971 moved us from the logic of cheap energy for transport to the logic of cheap information and telecommunications. The marriage of sustainable energy values and ICT efficiencies can spread across industries, improve our infrastructure, reduce carbon foot-print and create durable wealth.
In that sense smart infrastructure is not a trend and could be the blue-print for steady growth into the next 20-30 years, much like the highway constructions of the New Deal after WW2, which later brought a new subburban standard of living. It is not surprising that some of the Stimulus Package is being used to renovate and green America's infrastructure with smart roads, smart bridges and smart grids. As Michael Totty noted in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, "It's time the US got a lot smarter"...