NextGen – and the Age of Renovation

What makes the present – this point in history – unique? Does this age have a name?

Is this perhaps the age of innovation? To be sure…but the fact is that innovation has been with us a long while – for a couple of centuries, say. The telegraph, the telephone, radio, the internal combustion engine, they all date back a while now.

What’s really new? What’s special about the here and now?

Here’s one candidate.

Maybe we live in the Age of Renovation – the age of taking pre-existing infrastructure and replacing it with something more modern – and accomplishing all this without skipping a beat. The Age of Renovation deserves to take its place alongside the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Age of Exploration, the Renaissance, the Age of Reason.

Want an illustration? Here’s a quotidian example, accessible to all of us. Roadways.

When my generation was young, we saw the Interstate Highway system being put in, all across America, east and west, north and south. But that system was installed some at some distance from the existing roads. As our parents drove, we kids could look outside the side windows of the car and see the highways being built, magnificently wide, gently curved, gently sloped, but in what seemed like a parallel universe, quite removed from the car. As we poked along, in lines of cars trapped behind aged, underpowered, overloaded trucks, snaking along hilly, curvy, two-lane roads, we could see the future, but only from afar.

Fast forward to 2011. Today’s driving experience, especially in and around any large city, is a drive through a construction zone. It’s wall-to-wall jersey barriers, orange-and-white barrels, traffic cones, heavy machinery, orange signage, doubled fines. Change is occurring just as before, those new traffic lanes are being added, but not at a distance. Instead they’re being introduced right on our existing roads, even as we continue our daily commute – (more or less) uninterrupted. The engineering of highways is no longer just about grading, and pouring concrete or asphalt, and erecting overpasses – it’s about doing all these things without diminishing the utility of the critical infrastructure it’s upgrading. It’s equal parts construction and uninterruptibility.

Highways are visible to all of us, but other infrastructure upgrades are less so. So think about the switch from analog broadcast television to digital. Or the conversion of all those telephone landlines to high-speed digital data transmission. Or the infrastructure within your house – the electrical wiring – to carry digital signals and link your new smart appliances (refrigerators, etc.) – to the rest of your home-based IT network. Coming soon if not there already.

The point is that one hundred years ago, as we were installing critical infrastructure, we weren’t replacing anything pre-existing. There was very little to replace. We had a virgin landscape, a blank sheet of paper, a clean slate – pick your favorite metaphor.

Today the opposite is so.

And the Age of Renovation comes at a price. It’s expensive to build highway capacity on roads we’re already using, versus off to the side.

Sunday’s Washington Post highlighted another such example: the information system that supports aviation. Entitled the Next-Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), this modernization replaces radar-based aircraft flight control with GPS-based satellite technology. The current radars capture plane position only every ten seconds or so. GPS technology enables updating aircraft position second-by-second. This means we can safely cram far more airplanes into the same airspace. Planes will be able to fly more fuel-efficient routes to their destination, with quicker departures from airports, more direct flight paths, less backup at the arrival end. Fuel savings will be enormous. The passengers’ travel experience will be improved.

Sounds great, right? But now, start thinking what such a changeover implies. The aircraft will need new avionics. But the early adopters won’t start to see any benefit until 80% of the fleet has been equipped. Ground equipment will also need to be swapped out. All parties – pilots, air traffic controllers, mechanics, etc., etc. – will have to be retrained. More flights will demand more runways. Expect litigation from counties, municipalities and individuals over changes in the noise patterns, emissions, you name it. And what about all that military airspace? How will the new system intersect with that constraint?

The bill for all this totals to some $30-40 billion – and that’s if the renovation keeps to schedule. It’s already behind. And remember – this is The Age of Renovation. Air travel can’t be suspended for a decade while we put all this in place. It can’t be interrupted. We will have to be able to operate under both the old protocols and the new for an extended number of years.

Note that weather observations, products and services for aviation play into this as well. Weather is already responsible for about half of flight delays. As we crowd the airspace, the demands on aviation weather forecasters – both government and private-sector, will only increase. Our community is scrambling to keep pace with this emerging need – at a cost of more millions of dollars per year.

More such renovations are underway, or waiting in the wings: communications and IT continuously supplant aging technology. The military, still adapting from the nuclear-missile threats posed by the Cold War to globally dispersed insurgency and terrorism. Health care. Maybe even governments themselves.

Renovation, not mere innovation. Switching out what we have for something new. Never skipping a beat. Complicated. Expensive.

Ain’t it great?

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