My fear is that technology and innovation have almost made our civilization regress at an inverse relationship to innovation. Don’t misinterpret my statement. I love technology as much as the next person, just ask my iPad sitting next to me. We cannot take the word of the specialists as seriously as we once could.
Many of the goals in development in today’s society revolve around sustainability. Sustainability in its simplest terms equals self-sufficient or independent. Very few places are capable of claiming to be self-sufficient, but you can bet that many do claim to be sustainable on a daily basis. If a place is ‘sustainable’, it is usually because it is not yet efficient to be dependent on others, or it is a conscious effort to be that way.
Consider storm drainage as an example of our failures from innovation. Prior to the highly effective mode of storm sewer pipes, manholes, etc., drainage used to be handled above grade, through infiltration. Today, this “new” innovation is referred to as “Green Infrastructure”, “Low Impact Development,” or “Light Imprint.” This is not anything new, this was common sense and at one time, the most cost-effective thing to do. In all actuality it still is the most cost-effective, though not used as often because it is much more main-stream (no pun intended), to design pipe infrastructure. If you are a civil engineer who is a specialist at designing pipe infrastructure, your efficiency is not readily available to think in terms of infiltration.
This fundamental problem with “specialists” reminds me of an interaction I had a few years ago with a transportation engineer. There was discussion of considering mass transit along a corridor in lieu of extensive highway widening equipped with miles of concrete clover leafs. When mass transit was brought up, this particular engineer told me quite candidly that “these sorts of things should not be brought up in a public meeting.” I asked why, and his response was “well, I don’t know how to design that.” This response has remained in my head since as a problem with our society as I am sure that this was not isolated to this individual only.
The following is an excerpt from a great book titled “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution.” It exposes one additional element of that contributes to the over-design of our places:
“One reason that buildings are inefficient is that the compensation paid to architects and engineers is frequently based directly or indirectly on a percentage of the cost of the building itself or of the equipment they specify for it. Designers who attempt to eliminate costly equipment therefore end up with lower fees, or at best with the same fees for a greater amount of work.”