Infrastructure for appropriate scale

What do I mean with appropriate scale? It’s a “how long is a piece of string” question, but to put a number on it, things that serve about 1000 to 10,000 people at a time, so, about a neighbourhood’s worth of people.

I am careful not to use the word “decentralised” scale, because that tends to imply a too-small scale. I think individual and family scales are for most applications too small. I don’t like “off-grid” for the same reason. Practically speaking it is not efficient and not cost-effective to operate at such small scales, and ideologically speaking it is exclusive, limited to people who have the time and/or money to invest in impractical feel-good solutions, leaving more vulnerable people behind.

I also don’t want to side-step government or go rogue, which is what “decentralised” seems to mean these days. I want to work with local governments, I want to cause constructive friction where required, to force better accountability and enable service delivery where it matters.

On the other hand, large scale infrastructures and solutions are typically inflexible, not resilient to rapid changes, and insensitive to fluctuating needs. They may have some economy of scale, but in my opinion are only “cheaper” mainly because they externalise costs to already exploited workers, do not provide the solutions or freedom of choice to the people they purport to serve, and externalise massive costs to the natural environment.

Large is not always the best scale. For example, in a sunny climate like South Africa, solar water heaters make sense for individual households. Solar PV panels for electricity are bringing the ideal number of people to include in an independent installation down more and more. But storage and demand management pushes the number up again.

Growing your own food is in my opinion a terrible waste. It’s hard work, and you just can’t make enough cash to still thrive in the current economy. Subsistence is possible, but it’s not fun, and the risk of losing everything is ever-present. Large scale agriculture on the other hand is also wasteful, and damaging on all sorts of levels. A certain level of specialisation is good, and then sharing knowledge, markets and infrastructure like transport or milking stations make sense.

What I am talking about when I say the Infrastructure for appropriate scale, is not the solar water heater, or the PV panel, but the support infrastructures for these scales. The storage and load balancing, for example. The layers of information (hence my interest in the metaverse), the knowledge and connections supporting these installations.

Public transport, maintaining the roads and the railways has a very large appropriate scale. But the trains themselves, and last-mile resources have smaller scales that are appropriate, and there car-sharing and micromobility are appropriate options.

Building infrastructure, software and services to give the benefits of large scale implementations, while having the ethic of care towards people and the planet … that’s the sweet spot. A sort of global conglomerate of local villages. Millions of connections of ~ 1000 people strong groups.

In a way, this is what Airbnb and Uber tried to do. I need to look into what worked, what didn’t, and why. That of course hints at two elephants in the room, one, the enshittification (Cory Doctorow’s word) of enterprises that started out providing a valued service, and two, services that should be provided by government as a public good at a large appropriate scale, but aren’t.

Then I wonder if my interest in islands, and part of the decision to move to São Miguel in the Azores, has to do with this. There is an isolation which forces different approaches, and the cost considerations are different, which helps with establishing prototypes. In that regard I am currently exploring true zero-emission, sustainable Atlantic seafare for livestock, passengers and freight using small (merchant) sailing cargo ships.

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