We have previously spoken about the dire situation in Puerto Rico, and how startup societies can help it rise from the situation it finds itself in. In this article we’ll try to analyze in greater detail what startup society solutions may arise in the fields of infrastructure.
After the landing of Hurricane Maria, a mix of downed trees, power lines, and flooded roads clogged up the road network of an island with one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world. A major issue with the relief and assistance effort is the fact that there isn’t enough transport personnel to ferry aid from the ports to the affected areas inland:
"When we say we that we don't have truck drivers, we mean that we have not been able to contact them."
-Governor Ricardo Rosselló
The people are there, the relief is there. The problem is that there isn’t a way to connect the two – Puerto Rico’s road network has been eroded, blocked, and cracked beyond usability. Additionally, communication and energy networks have also been severed. There is a silver lining to the destruction, however. It is this: When there is no operational system to replace, leapfrogging to a decentralized system becomes infinitely simpler.
How can we hope to prepare Puerto Rico for the future with everything falling apart?
Research into infrastructural planning more often than not focuses on the servicing of potential demand as observed by a central planner. We do not purport to know what the best road network for Puerto Rico would look like, and we also believe that no central planner does, either. Even if the grid were to be perfectly constructed, the tolls, maintenance, and other aspects can hardly be accounted for, even if a central planner were to distribute responsibilities into local sectors, lack of competitive pressure is an insidious crack in the foundation.
Without competition between the infrastructural service providers, best practice will soon give way to status quo: the infrastructural network will be perfectly happy to perform the bare minimum of road upkeep, as they do not fear reprisal from other service creators. A startup society network of localized competitive road projects would be a far more beneficial solution for Puerto Rico in the long term – shopping malls and distribution warehouses built near motorways construct and maintain their own approaches to these motorways at a lower cost than do centralized agencies, at no loss to quality.
Centralized construction of roads leads to there being roads, but the limitation of such a system comes in the field of reliability: such organizations fear no reprisal and as such make no attempt at cost minimization.
Consider the following: There are more than 150,000 drinking water networks throughout the U.S., whereas there are only 3 power networks (Texas, Eastern and Western interconnections). To put this into perspective, an average water system services 2,000 people, whereas the average U.S. electrical network services just over 100 million people.
Why is it that drinking water seems to be organized in decentralized, local systems and electricity is not? The argument can be made that water traveling over vast distances consumes way more energy to transmit than does AC electricity – fair enough. However, the size scales are so disproportionally misaligned that it cannot possibly be that this is the most efficient way of organizing electrical power.
Large infrastructure systems are designed to deliver services in a way that attempts to distribute economic cost, environmental impact and maintenance over a large area. To anybody even remotely acquainted with the startup societies model, this seems unlikely – federal regulations (be it in the EU or U.S.) are usually the least transparent and the same goes for large-scale infrastructure projects such as these.
The historical case for robust, large, interconnected systems with a focus on economies of scale is increasing in redundancy through the innovations coming from all around the world in the field of localized energy generation. Be it Tesla’s power-generating roof tiles, local wind solutions (though these are subject to strict zoning regulations) or geothermal, energy’s getting cheaper and more efficient with each passing day.
Over 70% of Puerto Rico’s surface falls within the “mountainous area” and gets regular westerly winds clocking in at over 18 miles (30 km) per hour. It is this area that is predominantly damaged by the blackout brought about by Maria. Localized energy production, rather than energy production through the Puerto Rico Power Authority (PREPA), which is a centralized agency for power distribution with a less-than-stellar track record: 40% of the population without power and over $3 billion.
Currently, communications are a massive problem in Puerto Rico – handheld battery or crank radios are the norm for displaced persons, whereas more elaborate systems are available in less-stricken areas. This field is one of the most important ones – to be split into two periods:
Puerto Rico is filled with driven and capable people who can self-organize to a high level. However, without a means for these same people to talk to one another, progress is stifled. Details about missing persons, logistics, news and announcements must be consistently produced and communicated to the population. Radio works well for the near-term resolving of acute issues, but a more permanent solution must be put in place to foster a prosperous environment for the displaced and reestablished alike.
The fault of Puerto Rico’s internet network came about as the island relied on cable communication which, although faster than wireless, is more prone to infrastructural failure. A new initiative desires to provide the people of Puerto Rico with wireless internet access through the use of balloons, of all things.
This is a step in the right direction: in the near term, providing satellite internet access to bases (such as relief effort vans) is a great way to keep the population up to speed on the goings-on, but this solution is only scratching the surface of a much more effective way of life in the island overall.
We won’t bore the reader with the latest in laser communication technology or new ISP approaches. The truth remains, however: barring a meteor strike, satellites are a safer bet for a geographic area prone to violent storms.
The Startup Societies Foundation wishes to turn Puerto Rico from a hurricane-swept commonwealth of the U.S. to a new world city on par with Hong Kong or Singapore. This can and will be achieved through the removal of public/private partnership monopolies and establishing a more localized, responsive and competitive environment of governance to foster the return of Puerto Ricans that have chosen to travel to the mainland in pursuit of better opportunities.
Puerto Rico has an excellent geostrategic location, motivated people and the only thing stopping it from becoming a Caribbean powerhouse is lackluster governance. This can be changed. The island can be changed.
But we must start with (literal and figurative) foundations for the journey of a 1000 miles.