From Wi-Fi to power stations, roads to pipelines, our infrastructure is stressed. Built for a climate that no longer exists, our systems are failing at an increasing pace. But to fix what’s broken goes beyond structural repair — we also need to address the inequities baked into our infrastructural systems and injustices from past developments. Amid these challenges, we have the chance to reimagine the future of infrastructure for a better world. On this episode of Solve for X, we sit down with Deb Chachra, author of the new book How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World, to rediscover the hidden beauty of infrastructure and how we can harness the collective power these systems bring to our lives.
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Subscribe to Solve for X: Innovations to Change the World here. And below find a transcript to the fifth episode: “Decade of decisions: How better infrastructure can transform our world.”
Deb Chachra: People love their bridges. People love train stations. I think that part of the love for these systems is not just, sort of, the scale or the engineering, but an appreciation of the fact that they are collective systems that are built for all of us.
Narration: I’m Manjula Selvarajah and this is Solve for X, a series where we explore the latest ideas in tech and science. Today I want to talk to you about our built environment and what’s at stake in the coming decades. In other words, I want to talk about infrastructure. And OK, it may not be the jazziest of topics, but at this point in time, it might just be the most important conversation we could have.
That’s because the millions of roads, pipes and transmission lines that connect us have become something of an issue — they need upgrading. And the emissions that come from them make climate change worse.
Deb Chachra: The idea that we can take our infrastructure for granted is changing because the landscape — we can no longer take the landscape in which it is embedded for granted.
Narration: Deb Chachra is a professor of engineering at Olin College. She writes about technology and culture for The Atlantic. I reached Deb at her office outside of Boston to discuss her new book — “How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World.”
Manjula Selvarajah: It’s such a pleasure to be speaking to you. Congratulations on the book, by the way.
Deb Chachra: Thank you!
Narration: To say Deb is passionate about public works is a bit of an understatement. She even has an infrastructure-themed tattoo on her arm, and she has visited infrastructure projects all over the world. In our conversation, we talk about why visiting Niagara Falls is so enthralling and yet why we overlook the hidden networks and structures all around us. We learn about a hollowed out mountain that helps power the kettles of Britain and how Torontonians, once upon a time, voted to take power back from one very rich man. So grab a cup of tea and get comfortable because spending time with Deb Chachra is like opening an encyclopedia and diving in. It’s a lot of fun.
Manjula Selvarajah: Now you’ve travelled all around the world in pursuit of infrastructure. What is that one piece of infrastructure that just wowed you — that wowed you the most?
Deb Chachra: I have a really deep love for Electric Mountain, which is a power station in North Wales in the U.K. And I apologize to anyone who’s Welsh and listening to it — it’s known as Dinorwig — but it’s commonly known as Electric Mountain. So it’s a pumped storage hydroelectricity station. It’s actually designed to produce large bursts of electricity, kind of on demand. When British people were watching TV — and this is back in the days of broadcast television — when the TV show ended, they could be pretty reliably counted on to get up from the couch and go to the kitchen and put the kettle on to make tea. So it meant that there was this big draw of power. But what I think is really remarkable about Dinorwig, is that it’s almost completely hidden and it’s actually next to a national park. It’s in Snowdonia, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Unless you went inside to the ginormous, you know, excavated chamber inside that houses the generators and the sort of artificial waterfall between this high lake and this low lake, you wouldn’t know that there’s anything there. But what I think is really interesting and beautiful about it is, one, I mean, I think it’s funny that it was a power station that’s to make tea. But there is a real deeper truth there that all of these systems are cultural.
Manjula Selvarajah: And were you seeing it as part of your research for the book or just curiosity?
Deb Chachra: Electric Mountain I specifically went to as part of research for the book, so I don’t think you can visit it as a visitor anymore — so I’m actually glad I got to go, got to go see it.
Manjula Selvarajah: So you know, it’s interesting hearing you talk about all of these things, because I think back to my life growing up, and I felt like every time my family and I visited a place — we would trudge to go: Oh! We’re here in this part of the States, we’re going to go see the Hoover Dam. We are in this part of Sri Lanka, we’re going to go see… And when I was reading your book, I started thinking: Did I? Was this because governments were marketing these ideas to us to see these infrastructures? Or there was this interest? But anyway, just hearing you say that you’re into it reminds me of that. I was wondering, you’ve seen so many of these things. What are some of the things that are on your megastructure bucket list — if you have one — that you still want to see?
Deb Chachra: Oh my goodness. So I kind of went to the ones that I had easy access to, or interest in. But there’s so many that — you just said that you’d go with your family and you see the ones in Sri Lanka — I haven’t seen any of the ones in Sri Lanka. So that list would be long. But Hydro-Québec, which is the Quebec power utility, has enormous dam complexes that are well north of Montreal. And many people make the trek to go visit these complexes, just like many people go out to the desert to see the Hoover Dam. So you asked about whether this was like, you know, is it marketing? And I’m actually not sure it is. I think that people really love — you know, people love their bridges. People love train stations. I think that part of the love for these systems and these facilities is not just, sort of, the scale or the engineering, but an appreciation of the fact that they are collective systems that are built for all of us, right? That this is your power station, this is your railway station.
Manjula Selvarajah: That’s fair.
Deb Chachra: And I think that often governments and municipalities are, in fact, surprised by the depth of enthusiasm that residents have. I don’t have a bucket list. I just recognize that these facilities are everywhere, and that they are often much loved by the communities that they serve.
Manjula Selvarajah: You know, I hear you talking and it’s so obvious that there is this enthusiasm for infrastructure. But, you know that some people hear the word infrastructure and yawn. What would you say to people who might not get why the energy grid or a municipal sewage system is so exciting?
Deb Chachra: There’s a little bit of a paradox here in that broadly, it’s kind of important that most people do not think about these systems most of the time, right? That is kind of what makes them infrastructure. The fact that we actually can take for granted that we have clean water, that we have electricity that just works all the time, that our sewage is taken away. And so on a day-to-day basis, I would prefer that we not have to spend a lot of time thinking about our infrastructure, because that’s what happens when these systems begin to fail. So if someone’s like: I think that this is really boring, I don’t ever want to think about it. It’s like: I would like you to live in a world where you never have to think about infrastructure. However the reality, of course, is that everybody has dealt with these systems failing in small ways or large ways, right? Whether it’s a power failure, whether it’s a boil-water order, whether their Wi-Fi goes down, right? So everybody understands, in some way, the importance of these systems functioning and continuing to function. What I think that we’re sort of interested in, is figuring out how to connect those two things — connect the sort of day to day “your infrastructure just keeps working” and the sort of big picture infrastructure — and particularly sort of in an era of climate change and what that means.
Narration: When you think of the increase of extreme storms, floods and fires that are happening as a result of climate change, our infrastructure is having to work a lot harder. We are now in what is being called a decade of decisions. Investments we make today will affect how things work for the next century. And as we transition off fossil fuels, we have the chance to reimagine the infrastructure of the future.
Manjula Selvarajah: You know, this idea that infrastructure matters, is more than just you and I nerding out. Can you talk to me about the equity piece here?
Deb Chachra: Yeah. So we have a real understanding now about the inequities that are baked into them. Our perception of this is really different now than it was 50 years ago — or hundred years ago — when these systems were built.
Manjula Selvarajah: And what do you mean by our perceptions are different? Do you think that we actually are seeing sort of the inequities in the system more so now than before?
Deb Chachra: You know an example of these kinds of inequities that were really not observed or thought about in the past — the hydroelectricity dams that have large reservoirs that are all over the U.S. and Canada — there’s some in Quebec, the Hoover Dam. They weren’t built in empty space, right? They weren’t built in empty land. The land that they use, the land that got drowned by these reservoirs was occupied. It was land that was ancestral lands of the Indigenous peoples who lived there. That is definitely not the perspective of the people who built the Hoover Dam. You know, it was probably not the perspective of people who built out the dams in northern Quebec. But we now have a much greater understanding and a perception of the fact that those lands were in fact in use and it mattered to the people who lived there.
And there are similar stories about highways through African-American neighborhoods all across the U.S. There are stories about where the coal that powered generating stations came from. So what’s changed is we’re now hearing all of those voices. We now have the opportunity to really lean into, to really encompass all of those needs and design accordingly. It’s a lot harder, right? It’s not about, sort of, utilitarianism. It’s really about, kind of, understanding what the different possibly competing needs are, and what we want to do about that.
Manjula Selvarajah: Including climate change as a competing need.
Deb Chachra: Including climate change.
Manjula Selvarajah: Earlier on you talked about how, you know, when I asked you about what your favourite piece was of infrastructure — you talked about one that was invisible.
Deb Chachra: Right.
Manjula Selvarajah: You also said that it’s OK for people not to, kind of, really have an interest or understanding of infrastructure — that’s fine. But, you know, that’s OK when things are working well — which makes sense — these systems are out of sight. But I wonder that, for the changes that we need to make to infrastructure, isn’t that invisibility part of the problem?
Deb Chachra: Yeah. So I think the ship has unfortunately sailed on not thinking about our infrastructure. And if we want to be able to ignore it, it sort of presupposes that the landscape is pretty stable, right? And that is no longer true. We are all starting to see extreme weather events, things that are much hotter, or much colder, or big storms. And all of these events affect the systems that are embedded in and cross the landscape, right? Our infrastructural systems.
So, you know, I live in Boston and I grew up in Toronto. So like there are snowstorms every winter and there are snow days every winter. And a snow day is not a natural disaster. But when there’s a snowstorm in Atlanta, or when, even when it’s like 35 degrees in Vancouver, right? The systems that are there are not built for those temperatures. So the idea that we can just sort of take our infrastructure for granted is changing because we no longer take the landscape in which it is embedded for granted. So the first thing is, these systems are, they’re built for a climate that doesn’t exist.
Manjula Selvarajah: I mean, I see your point about the fact that the ship has sailed. But, you know, one of the things I think about is — yes, I understand that we have to pay attention to these systems. We understand that climate change is affecting these systems, that these systems need to be made more robust for climate change. But I wonder what’s at stake if we don’t show interest in this infrastructure democratically. Who do you think swoops in when we’re not paying attention?
Deb Chachra: If we think about — pretty much the entire history of these systems — involves private actors who understand the incredible kind of value that they provide. And so actually, Casa Loma in Toronto was built by one of the earliest electricity companies and in fact, made so much money selling electricity to Toronto that they built the largest private residence in Canada. So if you look at the history of these networks, every time these systems are built out — because of their nature, because they’re network monopolies, because of the importance of what they provide — it’s really a license to print money. And in fact, the reason why these systems are public is because in many cases, they started as private and that pattern was very quickly observed and the systems were then made public. And in fact, that’s what happened with electricity in Toronto.
Manjula Selvarajah: I mean you were talking about Casa Loma, how actually the man who built it, Henry—
Deb Chachra: Henry Pellatt. Sir Henry Pellatt.
Manjula Selvarajah: That’s right. Henry Pellatt became incredibly wealthy.
Deb Chachra: Right.
Manjula Selvarajah: So what happened in that story after? What do you think we can learn from that story?
Deb Chachra: So there was an enormous kind of public outcry, that eventually led to the — and we don’t have a good word for nationalization when it’s not a nation — but the city of Toronto bought him out in order to create a municipal service. Precisely so that more people could be provided it, it could be better maintained — but explicitly so that people could pay for electricity at rates that did not include someone making a profit over them — to cover the operating costs, but was not paying for Sir Henry Pellatt’s incredibly beautiful Casa Loma.
Manjula Selvarajah: So if I think about who you are, and your approach to infrastructure; your family moved here from India, your father worked in this space, right? In infrastructure. So there were all those influences in your life. Talk to me about how that influences the idea of infrastructure or your love of infrastructure.
Deb Chachra: And I think this is true for immigrants. Immigrants sort of understand that their life — how different their life is — than it would have been had their parents not emigrated. Right.
Manjula Selvarajah: I think you have a name for that — you call it infrastructure birthright?
Deb Chachra: Yes. So I talk about my infrastructural birthright. My parents emigrated from India to Canada and it meant that I grew up with, you know, a very, very different set of things. Right? Having running water on tap all the time, having reliable electricity all the time, having excellent transportation systems all the time. Like all immigrants, I’m aware of how my life would have been different had my parents not emigrated to where I was born.
Manjula Selvarajah: Did you ever live in that environment where there wasn’t running water and there was power outages for hours on end?
Deb Chachra: Yeah.
Manjula Selvarajah: So you have that comparison.
Deb Chachra: That’s right. So my parents, like many immigrants, we spent time in the place that they emigrated from. So as a kid I lived in India for a number of months when I was 9, and again when I was 16. So I got to see that direct contrast between these two worlds. And it made me aware of those systems in a way that I might not have been otherwise. And so having become aware of those systems, I can really see how they make everything else in my life possible because I am not spending any of my — very little of my daily life is spent meeting those basic needs because they are met through these infrastructural systems. And you know, as I became older and I learned more about the world, the awareness that that is of course, not true for most people on the planet. And that is really not true for most people who look like me, and like you Manjula, right? Sort of, brown women do the bulk of the sort of caregiving, you know getting water, getting fuel for cooking — that sort of household survival need responsibilities. And we just don’t, right? We have these systems that do it for us. So that’s a big part of my perspective on these systems, which is really different than, you know, their industrial systems, their technologies. It’s like, no, all of my daily life is made possible by these systems.
Manjula Selvarajah: It’s so funny that you say that Deb. It just makes me think of this one moment where I was travelling in India, and I know this sounds so clichéd, but I saw someone carrying water and someone explained to me that they’d been carrying water for kilometres. And I just thought: oh my goodness. You know, I guess it was the stark realization of how — just the amount of privilege I had, that I could turn on the water to wash out my water bottle before I put water in it. And it does actually bring an interesting perspective to this. So we’ve been talking paradoxes — I’m going to shoot another one at you, OK?
So infrastructure is being presented as a solution to climate change, but we’re learning that it can also be a major contributor to it as well. What do you make of that paradox?
Deb Chachra: Most of our individual greenhouse gas emissions are mediated through these systems, and because they’re how we use energy, also means that we have a lot of combustion and they produce a lot. But the other side of it, is that over the course of the past couple of decades, all of the technologies that we need to use renewable energy have been developed. You know, there are still questions, but we’re largely kind of past that tipping point.
Manjula Selvarajah: So how do you feel about this paradox?
Deb Chachra: I think that we — we have learned to really focus on this idea that the reason why we need to decarbonize is because we’re trying to stop a catastrophe from happening. And I think stopping the catastrophe is the side effect. I think the thing that we’re actually trying to do is to rebuild our infrastructural systems to make use of the abundant renewable energy that we have, so that instead of stopping this bad thing from happening, we actually take the opportunity to build a world where everybody has the kind of energy and agency and the ability to act in the world that we take for granted.
Manjula Selvarajah: So it’s interesting that you present it as, like we need to almost see it as an opportunity here, as an opportunity to re-engineer this so that it actually provides benefits to more people while also reducing the harms, like harms to the environment.
Deb Chachra: That’s right because it absolutely is an opportunity. And the opportunity is to build out new collective systems that are based on renewable energy, that are based on using that energy to mitigate harms, that are based on things like — instead of digging out resources from the earth and then dumping them somewhere else — is using this access to energy to reclaim materials, to not pollute the environment, to not extract.
Manjula Selvarajah: But Deb, these climate solutions are expensive. I mean, you know, we talk about costs all the time, and whenever we talk to sort of innovators that are looking at these things — and there seems to be this hesitation, whether it’s with policy-makers or with the public, to make the necessary changes to existing infrastructure because of the upfront price.
Deb Chachra: Right.
Manjula Selvarajah: Arguably, the cost of climate impact is underestimated and is going to cost us more. How then do we get past that shortsightedness to make the investments that we need now?
Deb Chachra: Right. So all infrastructure is expensive, right? So like, you know, I said that my infrastructural birthright was being born in Canada and I am the beneficiary of an enormous amount of infrastructural investment that was made after — sort of in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. So on the one hand, yes, new infrastructure is going to cost less in dealing with climate change. On the other hand, the reason why we collectively invest in infrastructure is because it not only underpins our individual lives, but because it actually produces incredible economic opportunity. And we’ve done it before.
Manjula Selvarajah: And that’s why we show up at these places to kind of see, celebrate the collective efforts that — you know, like the Hoover Dam — that people made sort of ages ago. And since you’ve talked about future generations, you’ve mentioned it twice in the last sentence, let me ask you this: Paint us a picture of the future. What do you think we owe future generations?
Deb Chachra: So I really like Amartya Sen — who’s a developmental economist — talks about how the purpose of money is to give people the freedom to live the lives that they have reason to value. And in practice, our infrastructural systems are what do that for us, right? That they actually give us more freedom — I get to do fun things — that are not getting fuel for cooking or not getting clean water for my family, right? So I get to spend all my time doing fun things like talking with you today, Manjula. So the idea here is that we can collectively build out these systems for future generations. Things that open up what they can choose to do, rather than reduce it so that they don’t have to spend their lives dealing in circumscribed ways with: How do they meet their basic needs? They don’t have to spend their lives dealing with the effects of climate change, right? And we’ve started building these systems. We’ve started developing the technologies that we need. And now it’s our turn to build collective systems for the people to come, and they will benefit from it and we will benefit from it, in the years to come as well.
We are absolutely at a turning point. We have actually passed the technological tipping point in that, we now have, broadly we have the technologies in which we need to do it. So we are now at the social point where we need to recognize the sort of reality that it is possible for this transformation to happen, just as we benefited from the systems that exist today, we can build out the systems that everyone will benefit from in the future. And that’s really, I think that’s really what it’s about, that we have the opportunity to do this in a way we’ve never had before in human history, but we can really only do it together.
Manjula Selvarajah: Deb, thank you. I could have easily spoken to you for two hours.
Deb Chachra: Thanks Manjula, that’s really lovely. It was a genuine pleasure to talk to you today.
Deb Chachra is the author of How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World. I’m Manjula Selvarajah and this is Solve for X, brought to you by MaRS. This episode was produced by Ellen Payne Smith. Lara Torvi and Heather O’Brien are the associate producers. David Paterson is the senior editor. Mack Swain composed the theme song and all the music. Gab Harpelle is our mix engineer. Kathryn Hayward is the executive producer.
MaRS helps entrepreneurs looking to scale solutions in climate tech, health and software. We offer targeted support through our Capital and Growth Acceleration programs. For more information, visit marsdd.com. And we want to hear from you — drop us a line to share your ideas, questions and feedback. Email us at [email protected].
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