February 13, 2017
I won’t make this about weak Democrats or evil Republicans, or even about Trumpism. As an architect and someone concerned about the environment, nothing could be more obvious to me than the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure, manufacturing capacity, educational system, and financial regulations to benefit everyone in our society. Could our leaders fashion a positive agenda from these pressing needs? Of course, and here’s a start:
- Create an infrastructure bank and tax breaks for corporations in the building industry to get our infrastructure back to where it was in the 1950s–the best in the world.
- Empower architects and engineers by funding the repair and rebuilding of government owned buildings, highways, railways, and other infrastructure, using taxpayer dollars, not private capital.
- Underwrite education in design, building, and technology to train the people to do these kinds of jobs.
- Create apprenticeships for inner city youth and young adults in the building trades, providing good jobs for years to come.
- Create manufacturing enterprise zones in rust belt cities like Detroit, Youngstown, Gary, East St. Louis, and Camden, NJ and invite tech companies to relocate in these towns.
- Rewrite the tax code to create incentives for companies to keep their manufacturing in U.S. cities in need of a boost.
- Direct the education department to address the gaps on high school STEM literacy.
- Get secondary schools back into vocational education so that young adults gain hand skills in industry and building trades. Use internships and on-the-job training in partnership with the corporate world.
- Push colleges and universities to broaden their scope to include more training in trades and industry, including agriculture.
- Create incentives for banks to lend money for infrastructure and construction, and dissuade them from pushing risky hedge funds and junk bonds. Enact strict regulations that force Wall Street to support the manufacturing and construction sectors.
Why don’t our political leaders–in Congress, the White House, the states and municipalities–talk about solving concrete problems like these? It’s time to ask the right questions and demand persuasive answers.
June 28, 2014
For years we have been hearing dire warnings about the decay of “infrastructure,” not only in the U.S. but in much of the developed world. It is easy to dismiss these shrill alarms by blaming our governments for their intransigence in fixing bridges, water systems, and other public amenities that we take for granted. Henry Petroski, Professor of Engineering at Duke, will have none of this. He says we ought to look at our own broken down houses before casting aspersion on politicians.
Yesterday’s New York Times carried a trenchant Op Ed piece by Petroski, best known for his popular books about paperclips, staplers, nails and other miracles of technology. He is also one of the most esteemed engineers in the world, and what he says ought to matter to any educated citizen: “They don’t make them like they used to.” And, he adds, the way they are making building products today will not only render new buildings obsolete in a short time, it may also destroy the quality of the existing built environment.
Pressing for cheaper and quicker solutions to every problem (most also more profitable in the short term), our business leaders have created a system of mediocrity that threatens the fabric of our society. The housing industry, which I know well as an architect and preservationist, has pushed Americans to forsake good old neighborhoods for sprawling McMansion developments. This creates a bias against saving what is good and lasting in our built environment in favor of untried technology that may be far worse than old building methods.
Petrowski knows, as I and my colleagues do, that many old building materials and craft traditions are indeed better than new ones. And, while he respects innovation, he understands how real innovation works–slowly, after many failures, on the shoulders of previous giants. In our throw-away society, we provide little time for the evaluation of new solutions, and give short shrift to the contributions of our ancestors.
One of the lessons we can learn from our houses is that, when it comes to providing good shelter, the best solutions are often centuries old: pitched roofs, slate, copper gutters, brick chimneys, Franklin fireboxes, cedar shingles, porches for ventilation. The list goes on. And when it comes to big things like infrastructure, the achievements of the industrial revolution (also often more than a century old) provided the benchmarks. Let’s get down to the job of repairing the leaky roofs in our public infrastructure before the next flood washes us away.
August 1, 2009
Some people think that technology in sports is a non-issue. Steroids, blood doping and new snowboard compounds should be considered outside the realm of athletic performance, as if we were still in ancient Athens watching naked male runners stride around a dirt track from stone seats. I’m not one of those people.
Technology has invaded every cell in our bodies, every joint in our limbs, every corner of our houses. If we drive high performance cars and ride high performance bikes, we may as well improve performance in every area of our existence. Viagra and cialis are supposed to be for men with erectile dysfunction, but advertisers wink when they show television spots with virile looking older men and nubile younger partners.
The recent controversy over hyper buoyant swimsuits and world records should be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. At least until scientists perfect a genetic compound that will make human skin into a replica of dolphin hide, the Lazer suit and its progeny will remain the ne plus ultra of techology invading the realm of human sporting performance, and we should attend to its effects.
Consider the fact that Michael Phelps is likely to be the most gifted swimmer who ever did a flip turn, and that he was just beaten by an upstart who was four seconds slower a year ago and you will understand the gravity of this problem. Science has provided humans with methods of defying gravity, decoding genes, and flying to Mars. There is no reason to think that technological progress will stop pushing the envelope in the next century, with the result that robots will think and feel analogous to humans, and humans will be filled with bionic parts that slow the aging process. However, the line between what is human and what is not must be drawn definitively and soon or we will lose what is most precious to our species. Star Trek gave us warnings about this issue in the 1960s and science fiction continues to probe the ethics of artificial versus human nature.
The beauty and majesty of human movement, and of the body’s capacity for new physical achievements, should not be tainted by any form of technology that creates a false advantage or which eliminates an inherently natural limitation in what animals (humans) can do. Athletic regulations, standards and governng organizations have been lax in examining the role of technology in sports. It is high time ethicists (who look a medical issues) and other philosophical and psychological experts looked seriously at challenges to our most basic physical and mental capacity for “performance” in many realms, not just sports. Hats off to Mr. Phelps for forcing the issue. Now we can tackle the harder question of how to make a swimsuit that makes any woman’s body look like that of a supermodel. Now that would be technology we could believe in.