Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Planning infrastructure to meet specific goals and needs, and not in terms of specific technology solutions 1

Posted in UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on May 23, 2014

I could just as accurately have ended the title for this posting and the working title of this new series with the phrase “… and not in terms of specific set ideology” too. My goal here is to broadly outline an approach to the planning and development of the right infrastructure to meet real and realistic needs, and in ways that can both meet short term requirements that might serve as the immediate impetus for change, and longer term needs where consequences and side effects can emerge. And I begin this overall discussion with a cautionary note: a brief historical account that comes out of the second half of the 20th century and from Sub-Saharan Africa. And this accounting more specifically deals with the countries and the tribal regions that comprise them, that lie along what was traditionally seen as the southern margin of that great desert: a region called the Sahel. And this is also a story of water.

Water is life and the stuff of life in places like the Sahel. And water is the limiting resource for essentially anything and everything that people could or ever would do there. And water was always in limited supply and in ways that shaped how many people could live there and at what maximum population densities and it shaped how they could live there too. And then in the years immediately following World War II, geologists and hydrologists from Europe began discovering evidence of deep, vast underground aquifers that held water that was trapped from reaching or impacting upon the surface, but that might be brought up to the surface. And as a crucial detail here, I note that this water was laid down in what became these subterranean aquifers during the last ice age, and to be more specific there, during its most recent period of glacial expansion: its most recent glacial period which ended some 15,000 years ago. And these aquifers have not been experiencing any significant replenishment with new water going into them since then. And that is a crucial detail here too, that was not understood in the 1970’s when a vast infrastructure development effort was launched for digging deep artesian wells that would tap into this resource base. The dream behind this venture was to turn back the desert and bring new life to it.

Parts of what became the northern edge of the Sahara were fertile into historical times before being lost to the sands. Fields that with time became desert there, were in fact the fertile bread basket to Imperial Rome in the days of the Caesars, and a major source of the food that the people of Rome ate. So there was precedent for lands in the north of Africa to flourish, and the dream was to reverse desertification in the Sahel and to the betterment of everyone.

This was an arid land with periodic rainfall and periods of protracted drought, and the peoples of this region consisted in large part of nomadic herdsmen and their families. They followed the water so they could graze their animals and feed and care for their own needs, and they brought their housing and possessions and their communities with them in this process. They measured personal wealth in terms of the size and strength of their herds. Then these new artesian wells were dug and water literally gushed forth, and at first and in many paces so developed, under a great deal of pressure. And the need to migrate: to move on in search of better grazing lands in the here and now and for tomorrow seemed to disappear. Nomadic herdsmen settled down around these new oases of plenty and they began to both expand their herds and their own population numbers too. And they lost their nomadic skills and ways – they lost what had been a living, active knowledge of where to turn to next along their migratory paths and how to gain the most from limited resources. And then two problems arrived at once.

• The water pressure at many of these artesian wells began to drop and it became more and more difficult to bring water up from them as the reserves they were tapping into became depleted. And remember, these water supplies had been laid down thousands of years earlier and were not being replenished with new, fresh water and either before they were first tapped into or after that. They were just being drained.
• And the Sahel entered one of its periodically recurring drought periods and a particularly long lasting, severe and widespread one at that.

Peoples who had survived this type of thing in the past and for seemingly countless generations no longer knew what to do. They had more cattle wealth than any of their previous generation ancestors ever had, but they could not keep them alive; their cattle began dying off. And their own numbers had risen to unsustainable levels, and even if they were to make a transition back to their own old ways. People began dying too. And their cattle overgrazed the land and the Sahara began marching south. And the opposite of the original dream behind those artesian wells was realized in the long term, and that did not even take all that long a term.

And this brings me to the core points of this first series installment posting:

• If you are to develop and institute an effective infrastructure change societally, you need to do so in ways that will gain widespread support and that will meet real needs. So you have to be prepared to make this work on a short timeframe and with a clear vision for moving forward.
• But at the same time you have to plan and develop and monitor and fine tune with an acute awareness of longer term considerations and with an awareness of what I would call, based on the above narrative, potential water challenges. And these are always problems that are readily perceived and understood – in hindsight, but that can prove much more difficult to see or anticipate in foresight. Even the most devastating such problems can seem to arise from unexpected directions.

There is a lot more, of course, to this water challenge story and I will add at least some further thoughts to it in further series installments. But I offer this as just discussed here as a foundation point for wider ranging discussion of infrastructure development per se.

I am going to turn in my next series installment to consider the pros and cons of taking a more strictly business model approach to formulating and enacting societal infrastructure development and change. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID).

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