Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Planning infrastructure to meet specific goals and needs, and not in terms of specific technology solutions 3

Posted in UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on July 28, 2014

This is my third installment to a series on infrastructure development in an international context, and on building the right infrastructure systems for the contexts they would be developed for (see Part 1 and Part 2.)

I began this series in its first two installments, by briefly recounting two negative examples of infrastructure development: two examples where damaging long-term negative consequences arose from a failure to adequately predict and prepare for them, when building for intended positive outcomes. The complications and emerging problems of my Part 1 example of this, and certainly when considered in the light of 20/20 hindsight, could and probably should have been anticipated. And if those negative results achieved had been prepared for in the initial planning for that infrastructure development project, they might have at least been limited for their realizable impact. My Part 2 example was one where even 20/20 hindsight and knowing what happened after the fact, does not offer any real help for mapping out a path forward that would have prevented the negative consequences that were realized. My Part 2 example does not afford the luxury of preventative lessons for future use.

I stated at the end of Part 2 that I would continue this series on a more positive note, and with a discussion of the emergence of serendipitously positive outcomes: unexpected positive side effects. And as a working example, I cite the reconstruction that took place in London after the Great Fire of September, 1666. Positive here, is in the outcome of a remediative infrastructure redevelopment effort that became needed as a result of a disaster. This conflagration burned through the center of the city of London, gutting its old medieval core as existed within its old Roman city walls.

This was an unparalleled disaster for London, and one that in scope and magnitude was only approached one other time, in the 20th century during the Blitz when the city came under ongoing massively intense aerial bombardment from Nazi Germany as one of their campaigns of the Second World War.

The Great Fire was a disaster. Rebuilding the center of this city opened it up in ways that made further development possible with new wider roadways and other advancements that were quite intentionally planned for. But the fire itself and the rebuilding effort that followed had unexpected positive consequences as well. One of them was that London never again suffered a major appearance of the bubonic plague. The last such outbreak in fact hit this city in 1665 and 1666, immediately before the fire, arriving as what came to be known as the Great Plague of London. What happened to make this change possible?

• Bubonic plague is caused by an enterobacteria called Yersinia pestis.
• This is carried by a host species of flea called Xenopsylla cheopis and these fleas can and do live on very specific species of rat, but cannot live on all rat species. Important to this, they can and do live on the species Rattus rattus, the common black rat. And when for whatever reason these rats start to die off, the fleas they carry look for new hosts and begin biting people, transferring any disease pathogens they carry to them. That marks the beginning of any of the great historic plague outbreaks; the rats come out into the street dying, the fleas they carry start looking for alternative hosts and people in that area begin sickening and dying too.
• When the Great Fire of London took place, virtually the entire black rat population in the city died off. When the city was rebuilt, the rats that moved in and that killed off the last of their black rat competitors, were Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus). They cannot stably harbor plague carrying fleas so the cycle of transmission for future plague outbreaks was broken.

That is only one of several surreptitious positive outcomes to arise as side effects to the infrastructure development effort mounted in the face of this disaster. This one side effect outcome has undoubtedly saved vast numbers of lives that would otherwise have recurringly been in peril. And like my negative case study example from Part 2, this was an unpredicted outcome and it was one that could not have been predicted or in any way planned for in advance.

So I am writing a series on infrastructure planning and development. And I begin it with three short essay installments, each presenting a very real-world, history shaping and changing wildcard event that fundamentally transformed the overall outcome of an infrastructure development effort. My goal for Part 4 is to at least begin to outline an approach to more stable and predictable infrastructure development, where that means limiting sources of surprise and managing their severity of impact where they do unexpectedly arise and negatively. And in anticipation of that, this means:

• Taking a wider-angled preparatory look at what is to be done and at the context of this intended effort,
• This means thinking through the timing of change and development, and
• This can mean prototyping and use of other test-case and first generation initiatives before launching a comprehensive infrastructure development program, and looking for actual realized outcomes from them.

The devil, as they say, is in the details for all of these operational considerations. I will at least begin a discussion of them and other core points in my next series installment. 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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