Flowing with Infrastructure

Infrastructure; The National Academy of Engineering provides the following definition, “Infrastructure is the combination of fundamental systems that support a community, region, or country.” (http://www.engineeringchallenges.org) One of their Grand Challenges for Engineering is, “Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure.” The challenge to restore or improve implies that such restoration is needed. The systems engineer in me begs me to evaluate the issue, at least for thoroughness (or fun) from a fundamental view or analysis. Let’s give it a try from a ‘flow’ perspective.

Regarding infrastructure, what flows in a society? What flows in or out of your home? Water, sewer, power, gas, data, air, light, people, pets, food, clothing and domestic stuff. Other than air and natural light, these commodities, resources, objects, and services travel or are conveyed by man-made infrastructure. 

The water originates from mountains, wells, and streams, and flows through ever branching networks of canals, pipes, hoses, and faucets. The sewer originates from where the people are and flows through ever combining networks of pipes to treatment centers. Power originates from hydroelectric, coal fired, solar, and nuclear energized power generation plants flowing across, above, and underground branching metal conductor grids at various voltages and amperage levels to homes, businesses, governments, factories, schools, and street lights. 

Gas is found by geologist, extracted by engineers and mechanics, processed by chemists, and delivered through networks of pipes, trucks, and tanks. Data originates from everywhere, served up by servers, passing along optical and copper wires, sometimes via satellite, combining, separating, multiplexing, demultiplexing, modulating, demodulating on it’s way to users everywhere. Audio conversations convey in a similar manner.

Food, clothing, and commodities, and their respective supply chains travel by road and rail, boat and plane from growers and manufacturers to consumers by way of networks of wholesalers, distributors, and retailers.

People originate from… 

Wait! Well, that’s a different kind of infrastructure. Let’s get back to man made stuff: water, sewer, power, gas, food, clothing and domestic products.

Infrastructures are costly to build and perhaps more costly to maintain (so are people, but that’s not the subject of this article). Pipes corrode, streams erode, plastics degrades, pumps wear out, power-lines blow over, dams, bridges, and canals crack, hoses split, faucets leak, sewers stinks, snow pack varies, coal pollutes, nuclear plants and sunomies don’t match, modems fail, lights burn out, barges get barnacles, while roads get pot holes.

Before restoring and improving these systems, we consider which ones are needed, thereby avoiding the degradation in the first place. One way to avoid these issues is to co-locate sources with users. Let’s see what this would look like. Picture my home and yard. In the front yard there is a well drawing water from a hundred feet deep in the earth beneath, on the side there is an oil rig drilling and extracting crude and perhaps natural gas from a thousand feet below. Next to the rig is my own refinery creating gas I need to cook and heat and run my car. But wait a minute, what do I need a car for? We’ll get back to that in a minute.

Okay, now the back of my house, that’s where the sewer or septic tank and seepage reservoir exist under my lawn and garden. The garden is huge and provides all the vegetables I need. On the other side of the house is the orchard for fruit and the field for grazing sheep. The shed for spinning wool and making clothing is on the corner. On the top of the house, you guessed it, solar panels to power my well pump, lights, and internet.

Now what about data. I really don’t need to order anything online because, what do I need that I don’t have (Twinkie’s, novels, and flat screen television), and who do I need to text or email, anyway?

Okay; far fetched, silly, and highly inefficient, impractical, non-progressive, and boring.

Before restoring and improving it, the other consideration is to optimize infrastructure, minimizing the upfront build cost, quantity, depth and breadth, and the associated maintenance cost and environment impact. At least, that’s what any good engineer would try to do.

Okay! I concede. We need our infrastructure.


About Kenneth Richard Hardman

AncestorClips are very short stories about very real people. Each clip nurtures awareness of a time, a place, and the character of a man or woman who cultivated a path for our life. The reader feels the good, the obstacles, the happiness, the sadness, and the overcoming. They cheer us, make us resilient when challenged, give us purpose, and connect us to our multi-generational family. Each story is followed by reflections from the author and readers sharing how the story strengthened or inspired them. Ken Hardman is a son, a brother, a grandson, a great-grandson… He is also a husband, father and grand-father. Ken is a professional engineer, engineering mentor, technical writer, and associate technical fellow at a major aerospace company. He is a writer of engineering and family history stories. Please join Ken in reading, reflecting upon, or writing #AncestorClips
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