Infrastructure: A Hacker's Manifesto

Infrastructure: A Hacker's Manifesto

In December, when President Elect Barack Obama called his economic stimulus plan “the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since President Eisenhower established the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s,” the media was abuzz with hopes that cities strained by decades of underinvestment would become better places to live. There were even suggestions that building high-design infrastructure would serve as an inspiration to a gloomy nation. Calatrava everywhere! OMA-designed windmills! The possibilities were delirious.

So there has been much hand-wringing that as signed into law, the plan allocates only $48 billion to highways, rail, and mass transit. That’s a mere 6 percent of the plan’s budget. Sure, architects and the building sector will stand to benefit from more money allocated for improving public housing, federal agency buildings, and the like, but the point is clear: Instead of a vigorously rebuilt future, we are treading water at best.

We should view this not as another professional snub, but as a major opportunity to get our priorities straight. We all know that infrastructural investment is necessary. But the way architects were talking about their hopes for a bailout made them sound as bad as the banks. So let me make a modest proposal. To paraphrase another president, think not what infrastructure spending can do for you; think what you can do to reinvent infrastructure.

Here’s the real problem: Our models for supporting cities have grown as decrepit as the bridges and highways around us. This I learned between 2004 and 2008, when I led a team of researchers investigating the changing conditions of infrastructure in Los Angeles, and producing the book The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. For us, Los Angeles was a case study: A particularly interesting city, but one that proved the rule regarding infrastructure, rather than the exception.

Our conclusions were, first and foremost, that a WPA-style infrastructural push is impossible today. In part, this is because infrastructure tends to conform to an S-curve during its growth. As money is invested in infrastructure, its efficiency leaps ahead, but due to rising complexity, the S-curve eventually flattens and returns-per-dollar invested diminish greatly. Most of our systems are now at this stage: highly complex and very expensive to invest in. Moreover, costs for infrastructural improvements are vastly greater today than in the past. Thus, even if economist Paul Krugman observes that infrastructure funding generates a greater benefit for the economy than tax cuts, the improvement to urban life we would see from even $200 billion in infrastructure spending would be minor. As the American Society of Civil Engineers has suggested in its appraisal of our failing infrastructure, we don’t need $200 billion—we need $2.2 trillion.

And that’s just to shore up the existing hardware. If we’re talking about rolling out new rail lines and green power grids, there are still other problems at hand. The public building boom of the 1960s and ’70s—which was mainly a vast expansion of highways—devastated many communities and drove down their property values. Since then, homeowners have defended their back yards like medieval barons defending their castles, effectively mobilizing to question, forestall, and generally thwart the construction of new infrastructural systems that would theoretically benefit everyone. To think that opposition to vast new projects will evaporate at a time when home values are in free fall is ludicrous.

As society has become more complex and interconnected, so should our ideas about how we build and service cities. As a case in point, new “soft” technologies are already transforming hard infrastructure. Commuter train ridership, for instance, is more attractive when you can log onto a laptop and get in two more hours of work while you ride. Similarly, mobile phones have made hours stuck in traffic more palatable (even as they’ve made traffic more dangerous by distracting drivers). We could build on such practices, subsidizing fiber-optic communications lines to Main Street to encourage the growth of offices in downtowns that languish half-empty while peripheral suburbs boom. Or we could add wi-fi to all forms of public transit, encouraging commuters to get out of their cars and into existing buses and trains. But this is only a start, and we need to be daring. We need to reinvent infrastructure with new technologies.

I’d like to suggest that we embrace a cultural practice that is about as far from Congress and the White House as can be imagined: hacking. In the post-9/11 culture of government paranoia, hacking is tantamount to terrorism, but in the best sense of the word, hacking sets out not to harm other people but to expand our horizons, using systems in ways they were not intended as a means to free information. This is amply shown by the internet’s rapid growth, which stems from its status as an ideal environment for hackers. Anyone with a small investment in access can build new applications and interfaces. Why not open up infrastructure in a similar way? Legislating open access to data in new and existing infrastructure would allow developers to build applications—many of them as yet unforeseen—that would exploit that data to expand our infrastructural possibilities.

Take Google Maps on the iPhone. This service delivers up-to-date information about traffic speeds. Granted, it’s not perfect. Not all routes are covered, the data is too coarse, and sometimes it is unavailable, making real-time routing tricky. Still, I have a good sense of whether I should take the George Washington Bridge or the Holland Tunnel on the odd occasion when I have to drive into the city. With technology like this, there’s no reason why New York’s subway riders can’t be equally enlightened. If the MTA knows where its trains are, we should know too. It’s preposterous to wait forever to get on a local train only to find out—once the doors have closed—that the train is inexplicably going express, right past your stop. Government agencies have such information at their disposal, yet we, the users, don’t. Incredibly, forms of data as basic as subway schedules can still be hard to obtain, often requiring either Google’s muscle or a canny lawyer and a Freedom of Information Act request.

As last year’s Design and the Elastic Mind show at MoMA demonstrated, user interface designers and software engineers in urban informatics are already working on these challenges, but should the architectural profession cede the city to them? Leaving such work in the hands of individuals whose primary site of experience is the computer display shortchanges the city. Architects need to find ways to engage with such technology, to make it part of the lived experience of the city, and not just something that happens on a screen.

This may not be what architects who long for construction want to hear about, but it’s the sort of thinking that led to the transformations in everyday life that digital technology has enabled over the last generation. The result was a major economic stimulus from the resulting rise in productivity. Architects should not feel left out. Their imaginations are second to none. It’s time to use them again, and to truly rethink what architecture and infrastructure might be.