Joseph F. Coates
The Probable Future and Its Impacts on Infrastructure
In my business, exploring the future, it is always nice to talk about infrastructure and construction because the most effective unit of time at which to look at the future is 15 to 40 years. Developments that are seminal today have a maturation time of 15 to 40 years. If you can see those seminal developments, you can effectively anticipate how the world may become significantly different. Furthermore, structures have such a long average lifetime that you really can, in talking about construction, talk about the natural lifetime of those structures. I have no compulsion to be systematic or even coherent today. I will just present you with ideas which may be interesting about the next 25 to 50 years of looking at the infrastructure and construction.
The world is divided into three worlds. World one is the advanced nations, today about I billion people, over the next generation there will be growth of about 30 percent. World three, about 1 billion people today, probably growing to twice that number over the next generation. These are the people at the bottom of the heap in destitution, poverty, on the brink of collapse—the people living very often on a day-to-day and very fragile life-style. Then in the middle is world two, today about 3.4 billion, growing to about 5.1 billion. These are the people in the happy position of having their resources and their needs in rough balance. The
needs and the opportunities for the built environment over the next generation are radically different between world one and world three, with world two being somewhere in the middle.
Most of my attention today is on world one, but it is essential that we pay clearly different attention to the problems of world three. The issues in world three are not how to use modern science and technology in modern social institutions, to build an unequivocally better, more efficient, effective, and fulfilling world.
The issues in world three are framed around survival. Issues of sewage will dominate world three with problems of fresh water, health care delivery, and transportation. In the city of 10-30 million people, where the bulk of them are impoverished, how do you get to work? The allocation of the location of work in relation to where people live is entirely different from the problem in an advanced nation.
Consider a tractable problem which has received no significant serious discussion, housing the lowest quintile in income of the world's population. They need housing for a family of four with a total capital expenditure of $300 or $400 per occupant, coupled to buckets of sweat equity.
Now there is nothing in our world one which permits us to intelligently discuss the structure, design, and organization of that kind of housing. But that is the housing that about a fifth of the world needs desperately today, and will need more desperately in the next decades. Modern technology cannot build such houses, but it could supply a nifty package. What would be the package that you could supply for perhaps $300 to enormously enhance the housing quality of a fifth of humankind?
Let's turn attention to the things happening in world one, which ought to trickle down at a slower pace to world two. The United States is metropolitanized: 79 percent. So it is hard to see us bleeding the countryside of very many more people. Perhaps it will level out at 82 or 83 percent.
As we have matured into a metropolitan society, there is a second level of change which in its own way from a structural point of view can be as dramatic as the building of metropolitan America. That is the emergence of polycentric metropolitan areas. The structure of Calcutta and the structure of Chicago are virtually isomorphic. The universal model is the model of Chicago
or, New York or Boston or whatever, a central business district and surrounding rings of various economic and social functions.
For the last 15 years or so in metropolitan America the central business district is being complemented by other decentralized–business districts: which have all the functions of the traditional central business district except government and recreation. For example, in the Washington metropolitan area there is Columbia, Reston, Tysons Corner, and Rosslyn.
As we move from central business to polycentric, all of the infrastructure which, has been designed around in and out service to the central business district, it has to undergo radical change. Why is this happening? It is happening in part because it can happen. It is happening in part because information technology is the great current facilitator of a structural change. It is happening because business practices are moving rapidly toward restructuring the workforce. We are moving toward distributed work, work outside the traditional workplace, as much more common, and perhaps ultimately the universal form by which most of us will labor.
Today about 3.5 percent of the American workforce is in distributed work; that is, they work for an organization, but do not work at that organization's main facility or building. They work at home; they work at a satellite center; they work on the road–anyplace but the traditional place. Distributed work will probably grow to 20 percent by 2005, and could very well grow to 40 percent by 2020.
Where do such numbers come from? Sixty percent of the work force today is made up of information workers. We argue that 90 percent of that 60 percent, or 54 percent of the work force, are candidates for distributed employment. So we are taking conservative numbers –3 percent up to 20 by 2005, maybe up to 40 over the next generation, against that ceiling of 54 percent.
The underlying drivers are two things, one economic and one social. The economic one is that every organization wants to get the worker off the $50-a-square-foot floor. And the clearest, nearest way to do that is distributive work. But complementing that—and this is the unique situation—having nothing to do with the employer's economics is the rise of the two-income household and the single-parent household which are tremendously stressed by time.
Anything that saves time is sought for. Anything that eliminates tasks or does multiple tasks, is sought for.
The two-income and single-parent households, in craving for time, are primarily looking for flexibility in their work schedules. Distributed work can realistically save them anywhere from 45 to 180 minutes of travel a day. That gives flexibility. Economic–social forces are driving nformation technology, facilitating the transformation of metropolitan America into a polycentric community.
Information technology is a central driver of change. In a recent study we looked at all the forecasts in all of science and technology —something like 1,500 of them done since 1970, and then did our own forecast for the future—we concluded that there are 5 central drivers of change in the United States; that is, 4 technological drivers and 1 quasi-technological driver.
The four of them are: information technology. That is the one in which you can really bet the bank. That is the one that is rapidly unfolding. That is the one in which the momentum will not stop. Coming up behind that is materials. Behind that is genetics. And behind that is energy technologies. The fifth area, hardly a technology, will be a wash across all of the technologies. That is environmentalism. If you understand these five factors driving change, you have some basic insight into the future.
But the hottest bet is information technology. I will hit on some of those that will link to the built environment. Information technology is facilitating the distributed work, so that will imply where we go, where we live, and how we travel. The notion let us say, of a 3-room apartment is interesting. A 3-room apartment has to become a 4-room apartment to accomodate working at home. The 7-room house cannot be a 7-room house. It has got to be an 8- or a 9-room house.
In the nineteenth century the centerpiece of domestic life was the kitchen. Midtwentieth century, the centerpiece was the rec room. What will be the centerpiece of life in the emerging twentieth-first century is the electronic home work/study center: a place where he and she do a portion of their work, where the children reach out to the resources of the world, where the whole family seeks entertainment, recreation, social contacts.
The terminology is terrible–home electronic work/study center. It is a mouthful. It is descriptive, but hardly euphonious. But the point that is misleading is center. We do not really see it as a center, because what is emerging is that every structure, whether it is a 7-room house, or a 200-unit apartment house, or a 50-story office building, will become smart.
Smartness will be characterized by three functions. Smartness implies that whatever the device, the unit, or the system is that it will be able to sense its own innards: Am I well lubricated? am I making noise? and so forth. Second, it will be able to sense its function, its external environment: Am I doing what I am supposed to? I am a smart vacuum; am I getting the dirt off the floor? Then the third capability will be to respond, to modify its behavior to fit what those first sensor systems tell it, to announce the need for an adjustment.
Now picture all of this, everything from smart walls to smart furniture, everything from smart sewers to smart decor. Smart things will not be autonomous, but will be linked into new complex systems. Those new systems offer another level of productivity.
I was at a professional association building giving a Sunday lecture to their board, I arrived a little bit early. The door was locked, and there were two people in some kind of agitated discussion inside. This was about 8:30 on a Sunday morning. When I finally got in, I could not resist trying to find out what the trouble was. It turns out that they had just gotten the call from Atlanta, Georgia, that their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system was not operating properly. Could they find a person to make the prescribed physical adjustments. This building was being managed from 500 miles away. And when they really ran into a problem, they had to find a human being to make some physical adjustment. But this is what smartness or mechatronics implies—new systems, new management, new detail, new complexity, and presumably new quality and efficiency.
The concept of just–in–time emerged as a factory system. Within a few years, just–in–time jumped out of the factory and become a universal feature in the economy. UPS is outfitting its trucks with a geopositioning system so that it will be able to give you just–in–time delivery information about your parcel. Union Pacific is doing the same thing with its railroad.
Information system as the nervous system will drive to an increasingly integrated infrastructure. Somebody in a manufacturing facility will contact the logistics organization—formerly known as truckers, railroads, and airline. The parcel will be picked up already marked. It will be carried through numerous transits and several kinds of vehicles, and ultimately delivered to the recipient without a human being ever touching the package. Tomorrow that will be standard throughout the United States. The day after, it will be standard throughout world two.
Information technology in all its forms will have radical effects. Let us look at a different element of it, the robot, originally a factory concept, an indoor tool, the robot was developed to really meet two very specific needs. One was to do those tasks in a factory where it was just simply too expensive to make the environment habitable. The paint room is one paradigm of robotization. The other application was a semiskilled craft–welding. Still the single largest use of robots is in welding practical displacement of human labor. What is emerging, partly facilitated by developments in the space program and developments in the defense program, is that robots will be weatherized. They will acquire mobility. They will have some on-board intelligence. They will go outdoors.
And as they go outdoors, they will radically alter agriculture. The farmer will increasingly become the operator of a console. They will affect mining. You know we get something like 40-60 percent of the coal out of out of other underground mines. One can picture perhaps in the extreme these robots going in to the depths of the mine to take out the last 40 percent. And as they steadily back out, month after month, even year after year, they will let the mine collapse in front of them.
Think of undersea operations. Think of construction. Think of building. One of the side effects of the emerging use of automation will be a move toward manufactured housing. Today, manufactured housing has been produced which is just like the homes that you live in. As manufactured houses come to enjoy the economies and high quality of factory manufacture, there will be a 10-20 percent decrement in cost. But the more exciting element will be the use of robotization in site preparation and in building assembly of all forms of structures.
All construction in all of history has been dependent upon two simple principles, either compression or tension. We now have the capability for a truly new third paradigm. I like to use that word sparingly –a third new paradigm is really right here at hand, and whether it matures is an interesting, open question.
A Japanese science policy analyst named Fumio Kadama has come up with the interesting concept that many of the advantages that science and technology will bring us in the future will not necessarily come from new inventions, but will come from combining already existing capabilities in new ways.
This third paradigm is an interesting example of this, in which we will have truly dynamic structures. Picture a featherweight structure made out of advanced composites, and an appropriate lightweight shell. The indoor decor, decorations, walls, and so on would be designed in any way you traditionally would like. This featherweight structure then acquires its muscle through steel cable and electric motors. It acquires its sensors through modern sensing technology. Which way is the wind blowing? What is the tremor below the ground? How is the earthquake moving? And so we have right ahead of us the potential for a truly new kind of structure, which not only would be lightweight, using less material, but would be dynamic, responding to the physical forces on it, and would also, for the first time, give us the potential of truly short-lived building.
Temporary buildings today are built just by taking ordinary structural models and leaving things out. You cannot build a temporary building by either the tension or compression model. But the dynamic building holds the interesting promise of being able to build truly temporary dismantlable buildings. All that lies ahead, coming out of information technology, materials, and sensing.
Any group of people like those in this room could identify the national and the global environmental agenda in 20 minutes. We could even identify the 5 or 6 most important problems on that list in another 10 minutes after that. There is no great secret about what the environmental concerns are. What is interesting, however, that is not the list but what will be
acted on it. Objective importance does not dominate public policy. What dominates the public policy is whose purse is pinched.
In the case of environmentalism, we have an honest–to–goodness third issue, solid waste, which has bubbled up to the top. The solid waste issue is now important because it is pinching the purse of municipal government, and that in turn is pinching the purse of the homeowner. Solid waste management will be big stuff for the indefinite future. Out of that will come the three Rs—recycling, reclamation, and remanufacturing. We see the three Rs as a broad sweep across the whole economy. Let me just give you an illustration to get the point across.
We would anticipate, within not too many years, federal legislation which says the automobile will be the responsibility of the original manufacturer for its ultimate disposal. What happens when the big three or four—however many bigs there will be in 2003—realize that 7 million hulks will be dumped on their front lawn each year? Microsecond number one, are we designing for dismantlement? Microsecond number two, are we using optimal materials? The Europeans are already moving in that direction. Volkswagen several years ago set up a facility to dismantle 1,500 cars, just simply to learn not how to dismantle cars but to learn how to design for dismantlement. We see that followed by additional legislation. All manufactured products where the product of the weight in pounds and the cost in dollars exceeds 5,000 will be the responsibility for disposal by the original equipment supplier.
Take that concept and apply it to structures. It implies an entirely new approach to buildings and design. As far as I know, no building, no structure, no bridge, no highway has ever been designed with the positive, ultimate disposal of that thing as part of the design. And you cannot escape the inevitability of the three Rs in some form.
One of the consequences of the 3 R's is to preserve value added. Today there are four levels of recycling –refill the bottle, use the bottle for something else, melt the bottle down and reuse the glass; those are the three most common kinds of recycling. In the chemical sector, there is a fourth kind that has emerged: depolymerize the polymer and go back to virgin monomer. That of course is the most beautiful of the forms of recycling. You retain all the value added, or nearly all of it, and you have virgin monomer to rework.
All of this construction stuff is going to have to be handled by recycle stage one, two, three, or four, unless you can come up with a clear fifth way.
The other environmental factor which will be a primary shaper, but is still uncertain, is greenhouse warming. One of the most interesting things about forecasting is that if you go back to greenhouse warming forecasting, when will we have confirmation? A dozen years ago, confirmation was due in 5 or 6 years.
I think the last Academy report I read suggested it would be a dozen years in the future. Every time the models get more sophisticated, every time we look at the new data, what turns out to be the case is not that warming isn't occurring, but that the attribution of the source of the warming is becoming more and more an open question. This issue of unprecedented scale, may mature into a fundamental public policy issue, and then it may not.
One the other hand, we also see, because of the peculiarities of the public policy process, that the ultimate response to global warming might be decoupled from scientific confirmation. A couple of warm winters, some scorching summers–no more conviction is necessary. It is here. Let us respond. On the other hand, a couple of freezing winters and a cool summer–oh, those scientists are out of their skull. What are they talking about with global warming? The response in public policy can come anytime before, coincident with, or after scientific confirmation. Responsive public polling could lead to radical changes in the generation, use, and production of energy, the opening up of new energy source.
If greenhouse warming is convincingly confirmed and becomes part of the public thinking, it would not at all be surprising to see two energetic enemies skipping down the street hand in hand, revival of nuclear power on the one hand, and the tremendous celebration of photovoltaics on the other. But either or both will flourish under a greenhouse paradigm. We also will see a massive move toward conservation. And as far as we can tell, there has not been any significant major architectural or design commitment to energy conservation. What will drive energy conservation in the United States from a public policy point of view is not cost. There is no significant argument over the next 20 years that says that we have to move to energy conservation from a cost point of view.
Why? Because the expenditure of the money on energy is in dribs and drabs. It is a trickle. It does not have the psychological impact of the total cost of inefficiency. The driver is much more likely to come out of the public policy question. If you look at the consumption of energy now and over the next generation, now we can consume more energy than all of South America and all of Africa, and all of a large portion of the rest of the world, of Asia, combined. But the emerging big consumers of energy will be China, India, Indonesia, and the other newly industrializing countries.
The policy issue we will face is how can we reduce their fossil fuel consumption if we are profligate? So we will, from a public policy point of view rather than an economic point of view, be driven to energy conservation. The only way to get the Chinese in line is to demonstrate that we mean business in energy conservation. Money will be important in working out the details, but the argument will be driven by a public policy concern coming out of greenhouse warming.
One of the interesting developments, that seems to be working out well to the surprise of many people, is privatization. It is really hard to make a very negative story about privatization in the United States, European, or world two basis. There is an opportunity which may be taken advantage of. Why are our roads and highways in a mess? For two reasons that reinforce each other.
First, highway construction is a big source of political payoff in all of the United States. It is in almost every state, particularly those states with large rural populations, the first, second, or third largest state expenditure. Therefore, it is a source of employment and of political support—those things that keep the political system running. As a consequence ther is almost no oversight over the quality of highways as they are laid down. We know how to build highways. What we have not learned is to inspect them at the time of construction. We have not learned to put the arm on the contractor and make them conform to standards.
Second for related reasons, we completely fail to enforce the obvious rules on the use of highways, so that 20–year–design life highways are shot in 5 or 6 years. What we see as the interesting opportunity is adopting the privatization model and selling off the highways in 500-mile stretches. That would bring all the incentives of the private sector to use the knowledge that
we have, and to use the administrative rules that we know are needed effectively. Privatization is an opportunity to double the effective lifetime of our highways.
An intelligent–vehicle–highway system has enamored so many people. Fifteen years ago there was no hope for it. It was Popular Science stuff. There was no hope for intelligent–vehicle–highway systems simply because there were two insurmountable barriers. One of them has disappeared. The first barrier was the automobile industry. First, who would build an intelligent vehicle, since there was no highway to run them on? Second, who would build an appropriate highway, since there were no vehicles to run on them? In that 15-year period the car has become smart. Depending on whose numbers you use, there are perhaps as many as 35 microprocessors in the typical automobile. The driver is used to electronics. The driver is used to a radio. The driver is used to all controls. But more importantly, Detroit is used to them. So barrier one has disappeared.
Now we are stuck with barrier two. Will the highway builders go for an intelligent highway when the intelligent vehicle is maybe just around the corner? I think the answer is still no. The evolution of the intelligent interaction will not be primarily from an intelligent highway interacting with an intelligent vehicle, but rather it will be off–the–road interaction with the intelligent vehicle: broadcasting not by municipal or state or country systems, but perhaps by other systems, to interact with the vehicle, to announce information, to give data, to tell about recreational sites, to talk about damage, disaster, breakdowns or give alternative route information. Primarily early development will be from off the road.
The big question, how do you start to change 35,000, or if you prefer, 200,000, miles of road into an intelligent system? The place where I see the interaction with the intelligent highway itself and the vehicle is likely to begin with access to the roads. Keep your car 27-28 miles an hour, speed up 1 mile, speed up 1 mile, 2 miles faster, 2 miles faster, maintain that speed, maintain that speed, and you get swept right into the main channel from the access road. Further in the future is the actual interaction of the highway with the vehicle to drive or control it.
The geopositioning stuff, in which you get information about where you are, has almost nothing to do with the highway system itself. A real question there is whether it will be cost-effective. The price now is quite clearly limited to Cadillacs and Bentleys. But the core question is the health and safety. I can just picture going down the road looking at your map and your guidance. What is the acceptable accident rate with that kind of system? Off–the–road/on–the–road interaction is the more likely form of early development.
Let us consider a different constructed–environment problem, a little further out, and a bit more interesting. There is no way to prevent San Francisco II, that is, the second big quake. San Francisco will be a goner. But we have the capability to prevent San Francisco III.
The kind of information that we now have is that first, we know the origins of earthquakes, particularly those on the Pacific Rim and other places of the world, where plates rub against each other or one plate is subducted under another. There is no great mystery about the source of the quake. There is no great mystery in the fact that stresses build up, and the quakes come when the stresses are released. There is also no doubt that for every big one, there are literally thousands of small ones that no one pays much attention to. The critical information, however, that is relatively new, comes out of an accidental set of observations at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal is where nerve gas was produced. What do you do with the waste water?
They decided to do was deep earth injection. This seemed like a very safe way to get rid of it. The injection periods were not in any way regular. Wonder of wonders, in an absolutely stable environment —no identifiable quakes in probably 10,000 years—they activated earthquakes under the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. There was an incredibly close match between the quake pattern and the injection pattern. I doubt that you have ever seen such a complex pair of graphs mapped by another so closely. All right, put all that together and what is the answer to San Francisco III?
To reduce a Richter 8.3 to, let us say, Richter 3–reduce an 8.3 every 70 years to Richter 3s every single day over 70 years. And what would that be? A most engaging civil works project, in which we constantly lubricated the fault, let it relax itself every single day–Richter 3s–and never have a catastrophic buildup again. And when you look at the value of San
Francisco or a dozen other places, and the possible costs of this kind of intervention, it becomes extremely attractive to begin to think seriously about it for the long pull.
I would much rather respond to questions than tell you more.
QUESTION: How do you see your predictions affecting job creation?
ANSWER: It is a critical question, that forces me to drift away from the focus of the constructed environment. If you look back over your own last 20 or 25 years, think of all the occupations that now exist that simply did not exist 25 years ago. Most of those new occupations have not come about out of any great new technology developments.
There are a large number of occupations that have, but the bulk of new jobs have come about as a result of prosperity, discretionary income in the hands of individual people and families who have chosen to buy some kind of service which previously they performed for themselves.
For example, the fast food industry is largely a result of shifting and changing work patterns. People do not carry their bucket of food for lunch. They buy it at McDonald's, because the economics now allows them to do that. During the last quarter-century, or even the last 40 years, job creation has come out of highly distributed income and the willingness of ordinary people to spend that on what were previously household or domestic nonservices.
When we look ahead, if GNP or gross domestic product per capita growth is in the 2-2.5 percent range, we can anticipate that that same phenomenon will continue. In other words, prosperity and distributed wealth will create the new jobs. If we fall below that, surely at the level of 1 percent per capita growth, then we are effectively somewhere between recession and depression, and that is a radically different situation. To look at 3.5-4 percent, that is fantasy land; that is Japan, 1965 to 1980. But we do have a window, 2-2.5 percent, which we could achieve, which would provide the continuity to the last quarter-century of growth.
The dark side of the story, however, is really dark and intimidating. If you look at the structure of the workforce today, it is 2.5 percent agriculture, down from 40 percent in 1920. That shrinkage occurred because we replaced people with knowledge embodied in machines, in
pesticides, in soil treatment, and so on. If you look at manufacturing, that has gone from 25 percent to about 16 percent now. And if things go well, it will get down by 2005 to 5 or 6 percent—the same phenomenon replacing people by knowledge embodied in devices. Productivity has obviously gone up in both agriculture and manufacturing.
Now let us look at the other 80 percent of the work force, the service sector. There has been no significant improvement in productivity in 20 years. And if you even look at the subsector, financial service which has made the largest single investment in technology-enhancing tools, information technology, still no improvement in productivity. So how do we achieve the 2 or 2.5 percent when 80 percent of the workforce is stalled?
Now let us assume that the only two ways to get that productivity increase are more technology and, accompanying that, more re-engineering of the work force, i.e., more shrinkage of the number of people, more replacement of people by machines. Take that 80 percent and assume the same thing happens that is happening in manufacturing, not even in agriculture, that we knock out 20 of that 80 percent. They cease to work in services. Add to that the 10 percent that are going to drop out of manufacturing and you have 30 percent surplus labor the unemployed.
Add to that, about 2005, the baby boom echo will start entering the work force in unprecedented numbers. And add to that that immigration is continuing at about 800,000 to 900,000 a year. We may in fact be on the brink, for the first time in our history, of true, large-scale, structural technological unemployment. Sorry about the answer to your question, but that is the way the numbers come together. It is not at all a happy prospect.
QUESTION: What about the advances in information technology?
ANSWER: There is no question that over the next decade there will be widespread availability of “knowbots,” knowledge robots, the kind of electronic software packages which will do your searching out for you. And when you couple the availability of those knowbots to such things as flat screen—just talk to the screen, it talks back to you—there is a dramatic change in the way we will interact with information technology.
We will talk to pictures. We will talk to images on screens that will be untethered. We will give it instructions, ask it to do something, report in an hour, report back tomorrow
morning. You will probably even give these knowbots a persona, identify them with a cartoon figure, a well-known public figure, your grandfather, or whoever. The emergence of knowledge robots will be a big factor in the important question you raised.
QUESTION: Steel and the construction of the elevator had a major impact on the landscape of American cities. I have no idea whether this all has been realized, what an impact they would have on the character of American cities. Do you have any notion of what will happen to the character of American cities and suburbs, etc. because of the changes you mentioned in the robotization in site improvement, site development, assembly of housing? Do you have any notion of what that is going to do to the character of suburban America?
ANSWER: There will be a large number of changes that will be revolutionary, but invisible. Because people will lag in holding on to old designs; that is, old images of design, while in fact the basis of functions change. We make a distinction between house, the structure; and home, what goes on inside of it. Both of them are rapidly becoming dependent on information technology. All their functionality, all their effectiveness, all their efficiency, will look strikingly like what they look like today, simply because those are the images that we like.
Let me give you an illustration. Think of the food sector, the fast food places have all reached the limit of hamburgers. We are all sick and tired of them. So they are all rapidly differentiating to create new kinds of dishes to look more like some imaginary mom' s home cooking. She never cooked that way in the first place, but that is what they are trying to do.
At the same time all of that is happening in the commercial sector, under the pressure of time at home, the emerging goal which will be fulfilled is as follows: arrive home at 5:45 p.m., take a 15-second transit through the kitchen, and come back 20 minutes later to a fully prepared 4-course meal for 3 people, followed by 7-minute clean up. The kitchen as one of the main features in the home will become fully automated. And that kind of change will be highly visible. On the other hand, it will be completely invisible, because you will not see how all of that works. You will enjoy the benefits of all the new kitchen high tech.
QUESTION: I do not doubt that. I guess I was more interested in whether the character of the landscape might change, not because of the changes internal to the house, but because of changes in the way in which houses are manufactured and assembled.
ANSWER: Yes, I think I answered that before by saying that they will not change initially. That is in the first 10 or 15 years, because we want to have the kinds of things we are used to. But later they will evolve into new external as well as internal designs.
QUESTION: Because I imagine when the first skyscrapers started happening in Chicago, people liked European-style stores that were on the ground level. Most people now do not work in major cities on the ground level. So that was the evolution. It was hard to anticipate how far it would go, how many stories it would go, and how much that would change the character of the way you deal with streets and the way you deal with cities. So I am curious about what may happen that way, with how we deal with suburbs, and how we deal with housing.
ANSWER: It is certainly an interesting question. But I would say the substitute to thinking about the future in terms of electricity, the elevator, the concrete, the steel frames, is the new driver, information technology.
QUESTION: It is a very fascinating talk. I would like to point out that at the National Science Foundation, we are also supporting something along this area, especially in the smart-material systems. Basically as you mentioned, we have sensors, processors, activators, those kind of ingredients. My question is for the housing industry; I think we still have a long way to go. For example, like the air here we are breathing; we do not know what is the quality of that. We are a captive audience. So I think it would be good if we could come up with some kind of sensor so we know exactly what kind of air qualities. We still have not come up with that. So what do you think is needed for the household industry?
ANSWER: There is not one thing that is needed. One of the big, emerging problems is indoor air pollution. And we really have not begun to deal with it yet. We have gotten distracted by a nonproblem, radon, rather than looking at the real problem of anthropogenic indoor air pollution. There is not one thing that the industry needs. All the various actors that have been connected with building and construction have their own narrow self-interest so much in mind, and are so fearful of the future, that they have not gotten together to do very much.
If you adopt my thesis that information technology is the single most important driver, then would it not be obvious that IBM, AT &T, Apple, your local telephone company, 25 other organizations ought to be sponsoring some way to look ahead and see what that home of the future would be like? The obvious sort of thing to do would be for each of them to pitch in $500,000 or $1 million, run a nationwide contest on the home of the future, and build the top 5 winners.
But why do they not do that? Because each one is concentrated on its own narrow interest, and they do not see the value in really finding the Frank Lloyd Wright of the information era. He was not created by industrial contests, but that may be a way to do it today.
QUESTION: First a quick comment. I agree entirely with your analysis of the employment numbers and what these technological effects imply. And there are really only two possible solutions to them. One is to cut down on work time. And the other one is a major public works program, where in fact government employs people who otherwise would not be employed. Partly as an extension of that, partly independent of that, would you comment on what might be done with revitalizing inner cities in the United States in particular. These are areas where large numbers of people live. There is a substantial real estate base that is certainly not being used very efficiently. Comment on that.
ANSWER: Incidentally, you said there were two solutions. We have so far worked on six of them. We see really a broad spectrum of responses to the point. I just did not want to get off on that track to what we could do. But the space solution is very, very big. Let me just suggest one of them. Have any of you ever received welfare? No hands go up.
PARTICIPANT: People on faculties are receiving it.
ANSWER: Have any of you ever been to a state university? Have any of you been educated at a state university? (several hands go up). All right, I have got news for you; you have all been on welfare. But because you are middle-class, upper middle-class, the nomenclature of the free, given–to–you, public benefits are not labeled welfare. You think that it is part of God's will that you happen to have gotten an advanced degree on the public dole.
Welfare is for them at the bottom of the heap. One of the solutions is to make welfare positive, enjoyable, an expected part of your life cycle.
QUESTION: You mentioned saving the $50 per square foot on office space. On a 50-square foot office space, at $100 per square foot incremental cost, that is about $5,000, which is somewhere between 1 and 3 months of salary of someone. Perhaps some of the people who have already been involved in telecommuting are those who are really motivated or those for which the services can be adequately monitored and metered that they are performing. And I was wondering, could we really extrapolate that there will not be a loss of productivity that will completely wipe out any savings?
ANSWER: There is a lot of good research now available that was not available as recently as 5 years. For one thing, it is clear beyond question you should not use telecommuting as a way to deal with the office nuisance. You should not send Charlie home so you do not have to deal with him. Telecommuting works best when it is a reward. Second, it clearly works best for workers at the professional level. When you get to more routine tasks, however, if it is done with the right workers and the right reward system, there is no evidence at all that you run into the problems of decreasing productivity or alienation or isolation.
From the point of view of the employer, however, there are a couple of problems that have not yet been dealt with. How do you build a reward structure? How do you mentor people? How do you train people? How do you make them feel that they are acme people? The obvious sort of things of people slackening simply has not happened. But one of the things that is happening that is pernicious–not pernicious right now, but pernicious in the future–is there is a steady, steady shift from payment for time to payment for product, for output.
Now just picture what the means. That holds the potential of virtually every white collar job becoming employment in a white collar sweat shop. We know almost nothing about the price-elasticity of demand for white collar work. But that may be so steep that with, let us say, 5 percent underemployment in your area, those jobs get bid on the basis of task rather than time; the whole wage structure may go down. That has not happened yet, but it is a very real risk.
QUESTION: It seems to me that the three talks today have one constant theme, and that is values and how infrastructure relates to value, and how people use infrastructures to further societal values, or to change or achieve societal values over the long term.
If I can summarize what Al said in three words, he said by paying attention to values, and not limiting the solutions other than directing the values, you have very efficient solutions out there in the infrastructure. And you are talking about many different kinds of values.
For that I need to take you to task on one point. I do not believe that we will privatize national monopolies which provide infrastructure and welfare, as in the case of state universities, because these reflect social values and they are not things that we would easily give up to individual private organizations.
Further, there is very little economic benefit in privatizing national monopolies. You have to regulate them anyway, so you lose control. And I doubt that there is very much economic benefit. You are guaranteeing a profit on capital investment for electric utility industries. Electric utility industries are–surprise, surprise–capital-intensive. And we regulate them. I don't know how else to regulate them. Maybe there are other ways.
ANSWER: I think everything you have said is very plausible and has tremendous face validity. But when you begin to look at the evidence, that great, cogent argument gets a little shaky. Let me give you an extreme illustration. The World Bank issued a report about a year ago. Since the World Bank has been one of the major financiers for electric utilities around the world, it has a strong stake in understanding the operation of electric utilities, a natural monopoly.
Their conclusion in looking back over their tens and tens of billions of dollars in expenditure over a quarter of a century is almost total unrelenting failure. The utilities have simply not performed. Why? For a variety of political reasons: they become employment banks for people, lack of managerial skill, laggard behavior in responding to unpaid bills, lack of incentives, and a whole bunch of other political considerations. What did the World Bank recommend? The World Bank recommended some combination of either privatized, or hire external managers, kind of a substitute for privatization.
COMMENT: Can I make a fast comment from the perspective of someone who both privatized three major programs and “publicized” one in return? I think it is dangerous to make conclusions about systems where you compare the practical experience of one system with the idealized experience of a second system. I think you have fallen into that trap a little bit on privatization. There are lots of things that have failed in privatization, not the least of which is that the same people you are trying to get around by privatizing wind up running the privatized systems. That is, privatized systems—take the job at the center of New York as a very good example at the moment—also become political job banks, all the things you described.
So I think again I come back to my kind of least-cost mantra, value-driven mantra. I think things too good to be true in my experience usually are. And I think privatization is an extremely important tool whose potentials we really do not understand. But to say that we have got a government that we have not done a very good job of streamlining in the last 20 years, that privatization is therefore the inevitable wave of the future, I think is a little premature as a conclusion. I think privatization is enormously important in a lot of situations, but I am skeptical that the same things that have happened in government are not going to also happen in privatization.
ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Joseph F. Coates, is the President of Coates & Jarratt, Inc., a Washington, DC-based research organization devoted to studying the future. The firm's clients have included 45 of the Fortune 100 companies, numerous smaller firms, trade, professional, and public interest groups, and all levels of government, He was formerly Assistant to the Director, and Head of Exploratory Research at the office of Technology Assessment, and a Program Manager at the National Science Foundation. Mr. Coates holds degrees from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and an Honorary Doctorate from the Clermont Graduate School. He teaches graduate courses on technology and the future at George Washington University, is the co-author of Futurework and What Futurists Believe, and is an inventor with 19 patents.