Coronavirus Forces Us To Rethink Infrastructure For An Age Of Biological Risk
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With hours-long screening lines at America’s airports causing confusion and frustration, with supply chain shortages limiting access to essential goods, with economically important events being cancelled and mass transit ridership plummeting as people create social distance, it is clear that the country’s infrastructure is ill-prepared for the type of natural disaster that coronavirus presents: the kind that drives people apart rather than bringing them together.
Many natural disasters are characterized by people coming together to help and support one another, and are often catalysts for closing the physical and emotional distance between us. The threat of coronavirus, conversely, is actually creating physical and emotional distance. It’s caused people to stockpile food and stay home. It’s caused employers to close offices, schools to cancel class, cities to ban large gatherings and even churches to shut their doors. This social distancing is vital to stemming the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19, but runs contrary to the purpose of our infrastructural systems. Our infrastructure—including everything from mass transit systems and roads to buildings and structures to utilities and power grids to railways and waterways—is intended to connect people and enable the movement and accessibility of information, goods and services. We rely on it to enable our daily lives and help us bounce back after other types of disaster. In the case of pandemics like coronavirus, however, this connectivity works against us by making it easier for contagions to spread. Crowded subways. Busy airports. Concentrated retail centers. Centralized workplaces. Ubiquitous roadways. Coalescing and connecting people is what these systems were designed for. These same qualities, however, are also what makes our physical systems the perfect vehicles for viruses.
Cities everywhere have made infrastructure innovation a priority to ensure their physical systems can remain resilient and antifragile in the face of natural disasters, like hurricanes and fires. Unfortunately, coronavirus has demonstrated that these systems are not capable of supporting the connectivity and access our society depends on in the face of biological disasters. So, how can we design physical systems that help keep our society connected and our economy moving while also preventing the transmission of disease? As government and private sector leaders think through this question in the months ahead, here are some important principles to keep in mind.
First, we should avoid the assumption that all human interaction can be digital and that all commerce can be e-commerce. Telecommunications and broadband networks have been and will continue to be hugely beneficial during this crisis to keep people connected and informed. Nevertheless, it would be an error to assume that our digital infrastructure is a panacea or can fully replace face-to-face experiences. After all, only 29 percent of Americans have jobs that can be done from home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and even Amazon has run out of many household goods. Additionally, digital interactions are no substitute for face-to-face ones. For instance, a 2010 study—one that coincidentally included Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, in its research sample—found that internet mediated interactions were not predictors of quality of life, whereas face-to-face interactions were. More recent studies have also found that face-to-face interactions drive more positive impressions and interpersonal agreement. Digital interactions alone cannot fulfill our society’s need for connectivity. Assuming that they can only works to normalize social distancing—but this distance isn’t healthy, even if it’s temporarily necessary. It’s also critical to remember that, even in America, not everyone has high-speed internet access. As many as 15 percent of households with school-age kids, many of whom are now housebound, lack high-speed internet, as do as many as one-third of rural households. So, while we can’t rely solely on our digital infrastructure to support our economy and social needs, we must still work to expand broadband infrastructure to all. Digital connectivity is not the only solution, but it is a critical ingredient to being able to weather biological shocks.
Second, it’s important to design redundancy into systems from the start or work to retrofit legacy systems to eliminate single points of failure. This is particularly salient for mass transit agencies and potable water utilities. Mass transit agencies across the nation have increased and intensified their cleaning and sanitation efforts, but commuters in many major cities are still avoiding buses and trains. Unlike mass transit systems that are built to move large amounts of people en masse, last mile modes of transportation are often more private. Cars, for instance, are designed for individuals or small groups. These more private options will be more palatable to those who absolutely need to get around during an outbreak. Still, many cities rely on too few modes of transportation. New York City, for example, has a robust public transit system, but fewer cars (and parking) than most other metros. This translates to fewer options for those who want to avoid crowds. Now, this isn’t to say that cars are at all superior to mass transit. Large, sprawling cities like Houston are far too dependent on their automobiles. Micromobility vehicles, such as e-scooters and e-bikes, offer a promising alternative that can enable short to mid-range individualized mobility in many cities while avoiding the crowds typical of mass transit and physical and carbon footprints endemic to most cars. Solutions such as these can help create redundant mobility while offering the flexibility people need, especially in a crisis. These same principles must be considered by water utilities, which are responsible for moving water from place to place just as our transit infrastructure moves people from place to place. Although coronavirus has not been detected in municipal water, a future pathogen may not be caught by current water treatment and filtration technologies. Building systems that support more than one way to distribute water should be considered to preempt potential biological disasters.
Third, we need to prioritize infrastructure decentralization. The same principles behind distributed energy generation, in which electricity is supplied by many smaller devices rather than massive power plants and grids, need to be applied to all forms of infrastructure. In many distributed energy models, power generating devices feed a local microgrid that can either be connected or disconnected from the main grid. This affords the microgrid all the benefits of the larger system while insulating it from shocks and disruptions. Antithetically, most of the infrastructure designed to host people is highly centralized for the sake of efficiency. For travel infrastructure it’s the airport. For retail infrastructure it’s the shopping mall. For automobile infrastructure it’s the parking lot. For healthcare infrastructure it’s the hospital. This centralization is critical for spatial and temporal efficiency, but it also increases the risk posed by infectious diseases, particularly those that can be transmitted without direct contact.
A decentralized model that’s more resilient to biological disaster would be one with a greater quantity of smaller high-capacity nodes. In the retail example, this means more local shopping centers with smaller stores that allow people to access necessary goods without having to contend with crowded malls or super centers. In the hospital example, this means more highly capable community clinics that push resources closer to the end user to avoid overwhelming major medical centers. In the automobile example, this means smaller, more distributed parking lots to give people more parking options while creating physical distance. In the airport example, this means more regional airports with the capacity to support larger, long-haul aircraft. In theory, this approach would result in more direct flights between more places, meaning fewer people and less time spent in airports waiting in lines and for connections. More nodes would also allow authorities to shut down specific routes and isolate specific places without taking the whole system down. It could also perform an epidemiological function by providing more localized data on people’s movements. One could argue that more airports means more places that an infected patient can access, but more regional airports doesn’t alter someone’s final destination, it just means they’re interacting and traveling with fewer people and connecting through fewer places on their way there. While few travelers would complain about more regional airports, they’re typically seen as economically burdensome for cities and airlines. Increasingly frequent biological disasters, however, could prove to be even more economically debilitating. Systems like our nation’s infrastructure are successful when many nodes are interconnected, but robust, decentralized systems are necessary to ensure that each node can withstand the failure of the others.
Finally, it’s important for government and private sector leaders to rethink the definition of preparedness given the now-heightened awareness of biological risk. Unlike salt trucks in winter and boats during hurricane season, sanitation technologies and services should be taken more seriously year around, particularly given the difficulty in predicting infectious disease outbreaks. Cities across the country have invested a lot of resources into being able to preempt calamities like fires, hurricanes, tornadoes and the like. These environmental risks are now included alongside political, economic, social and technological risks as factors business and civic leaders must take into account. Risk arising from biological contagions needs to be included in our environmental thinking or given its own category going forward. Likewise, the same resources being directed towards ensuring infrastructure resilience during and after a natural disaster should be invested in ensuring our physical systems work for us rather than against us during a biological disaster.
It seems a lot to ask our leaders to rethink our physical systems in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Given the global impact the outbreak is having, however, rethinking the systems that have allowed it to spread across the world is of paramount importance. Ultimately, more innovative, redundant, flexible and decentralized infrastructure can help us reduce biological risk while maintaining economic stability. We depend on these physical systems to enable, power and facilitate our lives. They were built to connect us, not divide us. Yet, while social distancing is healthy and necessary, our infrastructure can and should allow us to minimize human contact while preserving our humanity.
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