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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Incremental Infrastructure ... or time for total rebuild?

Incremental Infrastructure

Alex Steffen,

Ethan has a terrific piece in the Boston Globe on his concept of incremental infrastructure:

[T]he idea is to build essential facilities -- telephone networks, power grids, roads -- in small pieces using private investment, instead of relying on large, centrally planned, government-run projects.The rise of mobile phone networks linking more than 100 million Africans across the continent and the blossoming of cybercafes from Cape Town to Dakar are evidence that incremental infrastructure is already transforming the continent. But Africa needs go beyond telephones and computers. Many nations lack roads, electric power, schools, hospitals, clean water. If the lessons learned from building telephone and Internet systems can be applied to other types of African infrastructure, African entrepreneurs could find themselves wiring villages, paving roads, and perhaps even building airports -- building the new Africa while turning a profit in the process.

Conceptually, this idea is sort of the crossing of two themes we frequently discuss here, mixing the power of leapfrogging technologies with the transformational abilities of the better sort of microcredit programs. As such, it is immediately interesting, and offers obvious potential not only for development, but, with the proper tweaks, sustainable development. After all, there's no reason why infrastructure acquired in an incremental manner ought not to be green, efficient, sustainable (indeed, in some cases, like energy, the green alternatives already strongly out-compete the old polluting infrastructures, especially when they're being assembled in a distributed fashion -- think of solar energy in Africa, for instance).

But there are more tie-ins to worldchanging concepts here. Take remittances. These small amounts of money wired home by people working abroad are already the lifeblood of many developing world communities. There's no reason why they couldn't also become seed capital for needed bits of local incremental infrastructure, as Ethan argues elsewhere:

Governments and aid agencies might also be able to assist with incrementalist strategies by focusing on remittance. Remittances sometimes create infrastructure on a highly local level - a water pump or generator for a single family, generally. Mexican communities have been experimenting with matching programs that will contribute public dollars or aid dollars to community projects funded via remittance - a worker might choose to send $150 to his family and $50 to a community school fund, especially if he knew the $50 would be matched 3 to 1 to build a school for his children. Matching of remittance for incremental projects has a very different “feel” from taxing remittance - instead of supporting the entire government infrastructure, the monies collected (voluntarily, I’d suggest) are guaranteed to focus in the area a worker wants to see benefit. They’re broader than the familial benefits of traditional remittance, but smaller than the national benefits generated by taxing remittances.

Of course, there are other mechanisms for transferring money from North to South that might also serve to finance incremental infrastructure. The clean development mechanism could fund clean energy infrastructure (indeed, we wrote about an example of this just recently, the Bagepalli CDM Biogas Project), but we might also look to tie other global conservation goals that have local benefit more explicitly to opportunities for local sustainable development, whether we're talking building agricultural greenbelts to hold back advancing deserts, or creating a sustainable forestry industry in country like Bolivia.

We in the global North need the developing world to be an enthusiastic partner in planetary efforts to fight climate change, preserve biodiversity, maintain ecosystem services and reduce pollution. It is entirely unreasonable, though, for us to expect them to pick up the check for the costs involved, when the historic burden for at least a part of their poverty rests on our shoulders, and we are almost wholly responsible for the creation of the planetary environmental crises we now face. We've grown wealthy creating, or at least helping to create, these messes: now it's our job to finance their clean-up.

What we finance, though, is still entirely open to debate. Personally, I think the record of inter-governmental aid is not a very good one. I question the wisdom of having powerful people loan or give other powerful people huge sums of money to use on behalf of other less powerful people. I think it is almost always a better idea to try to get the money into the hands of the community that needs it.

So incremental infrastructure makes sense to me. I think there are still a ton of questions about how we do it, how we see that it actually benefits those we hope to see served, how the wealth it creates is shared and so on, but it also seems to me that we're beginning to see the emergence of powerful, distributed, leapfrogging ideas applied to the physical world, and (in a civilization in need of rapid redesign and rebuilding) that seems like a promising development indeed.

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