In the Foundation Trilogy, science fiction writer Isaac Azimov imagines a universe where mathematics can predict the future. The protagonist uses the “Foundation” to re-engineer the present in order to influence the future.
We invest over a trillion dollars a year in new carriers, ports, roads, railways and airports. The big question is, are these the right type of infrastructure? If there were a way to model the future reliably, would we trust it to redirect this investment?
In a world of austerity in public finances and scant natural resources, should today’s governments attempt to set up their own Foundation for transport infrastructure?
The signs are there. Business-to-business freight transport is no longer able to operate to capacity. The shift in Asian countries from export-driven to consumption-led economies is damping global transport growth. Huge brands like Adidas have begun to “near-shore” their factories. The increasing scarcity and cost of extracting commodities is improving the case for local recycling, bypassing the need for bulk imports.
Public opinion against food miles is creating a market for urban farms, lab-grown meat and hydroponics. Three-dimensional printing may mean that small manufactured goods never see the inside of a container. The switch to renewable energy is cutting down the demand for transported fossil fuels. Even as ever bigger ships and ports are being built, the trend is shifting from mega-ship, hub-to-spoke distribution to small, carrier point-to-point distribution.
The signs are just as persuasive in business-to-consumer freight. Business is booming. The culprit? Smart new digital technology bringing real-time planning, open traffic data and social customer service.
Digital companies like Amazon are gradually transforming into formal transportation service providers, eliminating the waste associated with document handling and freight booking. Agile new digital platforms for crowd-based, last-mile delivery solutions such as on-demand delivery services are turning investors’ heads. Driverless vehicles, automation and drones are undermining the essence of traditional infrastructure.
The notion is just as strong in passenger transport. Public authorities see mass multi-modal public transport as the engine of the economy. Congestion, poorly integrated systems, rapid population growth and urbanisation are driving different solutions. Old systems of herding, flat-rate pricing and prioritising the needs of infrastructure are giving way to more bespoke solutions for the passenger.
Modelling transport on a city-wide scale is already possible. MATsim Singapore is a powerful tool that simulates transport flows, helping to plan future mobility needs and their supporting infrastructure. Can it be upgraded for modelling international freight?
We can let natural progress take its wasteful course or we could set ourselves the task of engineering a less wasteful, faster route serving the public good.
The protagonist in the Foundation Trilogy understands that manipulating the future requires a foundation of the best minds to integrate all strands of human knowledge into a unified theory of society. It will take something similar in transport planning and engineering to nudge it onto a path more closely aligned to future needs.
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