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  • Coronavirus forces us to rethink infrastructure for an age of biological risk

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Coronavirus forces us to rethink infrastructure for an age of biological risk

Source(s):  Forbes Media LLC

By Remington Tonar and Ellis Talton

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, also make our physical systems the perfect vehicles for viruses. 


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.


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  • Publication date 15 Mar 2020

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