Monday, August 17, 2015

Bridge maintenance as a collective action problem.

Collapsed bridge on the I-10
On July 19th a bridge collapsed on the I-10 that connects Phoenix with Los Angeles. Heavy rain caused flash flooding which eroded the eastbound bridge to give way. As a consequence the I-10, the main highway between Arizona and California was closed for a week and travelers had to drive a few 100 miles extra to go to their destination.
Is the bridge collapse a rare accident or can we expect more due to increased intensity of rainfall events and lack of maintenance of bridges (and infrastructure in general)?
This bridge collapse coincided with me reading the book "Too Big to Fall" by Barry LePatner, a construction lawyer of New York City. LePatner discusses a number of cases, such as the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, in detail and provides a historical analysis of the incentives to built and maintain infrastructure. Unfortunately, the incentives are tailored to building new roads and bridges (where the costs are shared with the federal government), and maintenance tend to be postponed. Furthermore, there has been a lack of coordination on how inspections need to be done. While there are now standard inspections, new technologies might be used to create smart infrastructure to get more often relevant info on key indicators of the structural functionality of the bridges.
The book provides interesting material to start looking into the provision of bridging services as a collective action problem where current perverse incentives lead to an under provision of maintenance and inspections. Together with increased extreme weather events due to climate change, we can expect that this will have major consequences for our society. Unfortunately those topics do not get the attention in political debates that they deserve. Strategies have to be made how to cope with the failing infrastructure and increased vulnerabilities.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Who rules the world?

The new book of Paul Steinberg, a professor of Political Science and Environmental Policy at Harvey Mudd College, is entitled Who Rules the Earth? The book is an engaging discussion on how rules rule our lives and the interaction with the environment. Unlike many people may assume rules are constructed because individuals care about a problem and try to find solutions. For example, building codes have a potential big environmental impact and thus changing those rules or creating new standard (like LEED) can have major impact. Based on personal observations and stories, Professor Steinberg shows us that rules are everywhere and key to understand how we can solve environmental challenges.
His students created a website where you find animations, news updates and a game to get immersed  even more with the rules and the environment. Although rules and regulations may sound like a boring topic. Steinberg is doing a great job to make it engaging and raise awareness. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Eco: how to save the world?

In my previous post I lamented the lack of resource dynamics in (video) games. Some of you let me know about resource constraints in some games, but many of you recognized the lack of ecological realism. Now a new multi-player game is announced: Eco, which will focus on the fragility of the world we live in. It is a survival game for the the resource you share with others. The ecosystem consists of predators and prey. Eat or be eaten. As human avatars you need to harvest resources to survive, but if you overuse the resource, you and the whole world will be affected. In fact, the developer mentions that the server might be physically wiped if the world collapsed. This might sound dramatic especially since many lifeforms will outlive humans, but it is an interesting option. No restart is possible, nor having extra lives.
I wonder how the developers deal with trolls, those gamers who purposely want to collapse the system. Anyway check out the Trailer and see whether this would be an interesting alternative to the robust worlds.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Resource dynamics in video games

During the recent winter break I got introduced by some younger family members to Clash of Clans and Boom Beach, which are strategy games you can play on your ipad or other devices. You make investment decisions for defense and attack infrastructure as well as infrastructure to extract resources. For example, in Boom Beach (see figure below) you occupy an island and use gold and wood resources to build and support your army (to attack island of other players and rob their resources). There is a saw mill that generate construction material and it will not reduce the amount of forest on the island. In fact, if you have collected sufficient gold from the unlimited gold resource, you can increase the capacity of the saw mill which will not affect the amount of trees on the landscape.
So we can conclude that the game has no relevant renewable (let along non-renewable) resource dynamics. Just invest in better technology to extract the resources and everything will be fine. Why do I bother about this? I don't want to spoil the game. In fact, the games are entertaining and addictive, which is exactly why millions of people play these games. But the lack of relevant resource dynamics affect the perception of people on how to solve resource problems. I understand that it might be more challenging to develop a game with limited resources to attract millions of players (everyone wants to grow their army to stay in the game). On the other hand, it is like assuming gravity does not exist for the convenience of the game dynamics.
It might be an interesting challenge for the gaming industry to try to capture relevant resource dynamics such that people learn not only to develop complex strategies to combat other armies but also derive a better understanding of the complex dynamics of short term benefits of resource extraction and long term consequences of a livable planet.