Scaling Down Infrastructure

The first vacuum cleaner was famously the size of a room, now we have the roomba!  As we make things smaller we don’t only change the size – we change the properties and hence the possibilities. What does this mean for scaling down infrastructure?

Innovators and entrepreneurs focus on how to ‘scale up’ on the assumption the same benefits will occur but that there will be more of them.  Yet when we ‘scale down’, at least if we do this in a major way, we don’t get the same benefits only fewer – we get very different benefits.   Take Quantum Mechanics. When we move to an atomic scale the generally observed and accepted rules of physics and mechanics cease to apply.  Or nanotechnology where again as we get smaller we get significant – and very useful – differences in material characteristics.  

What about infrastructure? 

In the past, as we have scaled up, we have reaped greater cost efficiencies, albeit with some greater risks, however most of the features we were interested in stayed the same or got better – cost, reliability.   An example would be electricity. For many years, as larger size generators were developed, they provided reductions in both capital and operating costs.  Then we networked, joining the production in many separate plants. We developed the national grid.  At each stage of scaling up, gains were made.   

Now, with the widening spread of digitisation, scaling down is becoming not only a viable option but the desirable option – even for infrastructure.  And as we scale down we find that, just as with quantum mechnics, the accepted rules no longer apply, and just as with nanotechnology, new and interesting properties arise.  

Again take electricity as an example.  

As we move from large, centralised, fossil fuel generation, to small, local solar generation, the first thing that happens is that we change the user- supplier relationship. And with this we change the economic power relationship (no pun intended). Where we used to have one large centralised provider making all the decisions, now we have the possibility of many smaller prosumers in potentially separate networks.  The leading electricity providers are recognising that the need for their services has changed – from provision of energy using their own large scale assets, to the management of energy in smaller localised grids and with the assets of others!  This may include, as an intermediate stage, large solar farms feeding into a national grid. 

This presents a challenge to the grid and its ability.

This challenge was at the root of the perceived (although not explicitly recognised) problem behind the recent Finkel Inquiry.  It was not, as was commonly thought, an inquiry into the future of electrical energy, but rather into the future stability of the grid itself, a grid set up to manage supply from mass, centralised, power generation.

Instead of the traditional system of generation- transmission – distribution – use, with solar generation provided more locally, the need for the transmission function (moving electricity vast distances) falls away taking with it the need for substations

As we move from massive large scale to small scale infrastructure, (eg solar energy, or mobile telephony) the whole nature of the infrastructure changes and that gives rise to many new and very interesting possibilities.

It may be that as we ‘scale down’, we change the nature of the supplier-user relationship so much that what used to be a question of how we contained the cost of generation and distribution becomes something quite different – but what?

There is even the possibility that when we are able to develop cheap, effective storage, electricity may cease to be ‘infrastructure’ at all.   It  may, instead,  become an individual resource, something we own like a car or washing machine.  Within the next decade it could be that solar cells, (or perhaps solar roof paint) and battery storage are in common use. 

Nor is scaling down unique to electricity.  

Peter Diamandis tells of Dean Kamen’s “Slingshot,” a technology which can transform polluted water, salt water or even raw sewage into incredibly high-quality drinking water for less than one cent a liter. It uses an evaporative process, effectively boiling the water and then distilling the vapor.  It does this in a device about the size of a bar fridge that can use any form of energy – even methane from dung. It is now being distributed across the underdeveloped world by Coca Cola as part of their aim to replenish 100% of the water they use in their drinks. Want to know more?  Other technological developments are occurring for the treatment of sewerage.  

The upshot of these new technological developments is going to be radical change in the very shape of infrastructure as we know it and an equally radical change in the economics and politics.

What does this mean for infrastructure decision making?

How do changes like this feed into our forward thinking for infrastructure?  Or to ask the same question in a more provocative way – what is the future for our existing infrastructure? Do we renew and replace, or do we change?

If you find this an interesting thought, watch for our forthcoming podcast series where we translate the wider world challenges into what we need to think of with respect to infrastructure decision making.



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