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Rethinking Infrastructure

October 5, 2012

By Matt Artz

Roads and highways, gas and electricity and water distribution systems, wastewater collection and treatment systems, railroads, airports, cable television, the Internet … all are important components of our infrastructure, upon which we rely every day.  Together they form a sort of man-made ecosystem.

If we can think of our human-built environment as a man-made ecosystem, can’t we also think of the natural environment as a form of infrastructure?

As we move from a practice of stove piping knowledge and towards a new philosophy of systems thinking and consilience, the inter-relatedness of everything becomes apparent, and we begin to realize something very important: in this new world we find ourselves in—a world of our own design—there is really just one infrastructure.


A convergence is upon us: the convergence of infrastructures.  The lines we have drawn in the past are already beginning to blur, and in a decade or two those lines will be completely gone.  Man-made infrastructure and natural ecosystems will be recognized as the same thing, and they will be managed and designed using the same tried and true tools and techniques.

We already see instances where the line between infrastructure and nature is blurred.  When a flood control project alters the course of a polluted urban stream, and part of the environmental mitigation is to restore the riverine habitat to make it usable again by native flora and fauna, it becomes more than just an engineering project. We’re not just designing a flood control project: we’re designing nature.

Our problems are many, our problems are complex, and our problems are hopelessly intertwined and inter-related.  So why do we still insist on dissecting and parsing everything?  Solving these problems requires an integrated, unified approach.

Stove pipe solutions in isolation from one another is the way of the past.  Such solutions may be seen as successfully fixing the problem in a microcosm, out of the larger context, but at the systems level—especially at the earth systems level—they are doomed to failure.  Or even worse: they may do more harm than good, throwing the entire system out of balance and wreaking havoc.

This convergence of ecosystems and infrastructures is ultimately made possible because many of the same tools, techniques, and technologies beneficial to natural ecosystems can also benefit man-made ecosystems, and vice versa.

We are finally approaching an era where we will be able to see both natural and man-made ecosystems as what they really are: a single, integrated system; a vast human-dominated landscape to be analyzed, modeled, exploited, preserved, enjoyed, designed, built, and managed as a single infrastructure.  All watched over by machines of living grace

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