Narratives
Narratives
142: David Gilford - Infrastructure
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142: David Gilford - Infrastructure

In this episode, we are joined by David Gilford. David's work focuses on the intersection of the private and public sectors, applying technology and new business models to solve urban problems. He currently leads policy and strategic partnerships for Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (SIP), a company that spun out of Alphabet to build next-generation infrastructure ranging from robotic recycling systems to roadways for connected and automated vehicles. We discuss the evolution of infrastructure, the role of local government and communities, and the need for more innovative public-private partnerships.  Learn more or contact him at davidgilford.com. In this episode, we cover: 

David’s background.
0:05
 
What’s the right kind of partnership?
2:44
 
The trade-off between speed of building infrastructure and the negative externalities.
8:44
 
Inefficiencies in the environmental process.
10:16
 
Public engagement through digital channels and digital channels.
15:11
 
Broadband gaps in the Us.
17:54
 
When will autonomous vehicles replace human drivers?
23:46
 
Autonomy as a wind problem.
29:19
 
Policy policy and policy politics.
32:51

Transcript:

William Jarvis 0:05

Hey folks, welcome to narratives. narratives is a podcast exploring the ways in which the world is better than in the past, the ways it is worse in the past, where it's a better, more definite vision of the future. I'm your host, William Jarvis. And I want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to listen to this episode. I hope you enjoy it. You can find show notes, transcripts and videos at narratives podcast.com.

Will Jarvis 0:37

Well, David, how are you doing this evening?

Unknown Speaker 0:39

i Well, I'm doing very well. Thanks.

Will Jarvis 0:40

How are you? Doing great doing great. David, thanks so much for taking the time to come on the show. Do you mind giving us a brief bio and some of the big ideas you're interested in?

Unknown Speaker 0:50

Absolutely. So I've really been fascinated since I was a kid really on the sort of the difference between sectors. So having, having experienced both living in a small town and a big city, then started as I started to started to study and learn about the kind of the ways that the economy worked really fascinated by the parts that move really fast, sort of seeing the rate of technological change isn't the things that seemed to be kind of just to take for granted or that are slow and always there. And that's, that's probably been the most the closest thing to sort of a consistent thread through my career starting and working in entrepreneurship in a in a telecom startup, but right out of college, and then then going into the federal government and seeing the very much more bureaucratic, slower moving side of side of things. And kind of along with that, I guess the you know, a big idea that sort of animated my career is really just thinking, what what can I learn from from one sector? What are the strengths and weaknesses? What levers exist in a given sector? And then, you know, how can I apply that to something else. And that's really meant that I've had the opportunity to switch from things as different as local governments, big corporations, you know, tech startups, and now currently in a, in a company that is investing in the future of infrastructure, sidewalk infrastructure partners, and, you know, in through all through all of that, I've really just been been fascinated by how to apply the the technological innovations that happen to problems that really matter from transportation to energy sustainability, and so forth. And I feel just privileged to have had that opportunity to look at that look at the problems from from a variety of different perspectives.

Will Jarvis 2:23

I love that. I love that. I'm curious, having seen all these problems from these different perspectives? Who do you think is most effective at solving some of these big infrastructure challenges? I mean, obviously, there's some level which which government has to be involved with big infrastructure projects. But and there are capital constraints for startups, you know, you can only get so much capital to work on big infrastructure. What's the correct kind of partnership? Is there a partnership model that works the best? Is it just government doing things? Is it something else?

Unknown Speaker 2:54

Yeah, it's there's there's certainly no silver bullet. But I think what's really clear is just the magnitude of the problem. We see it all all over the place in terms of infrastructure that it hasn't, it hasn't even really, in some cases just even been maintained to the level that it was initially built, let alone evolved to deal with the sort of the requirements of of the 21st century. But to your question, I think it really requires partnership between the public and private sectors that can take a lot of different different forms. But at its core infrastructure really is all of those things that our modern life depends on whether it's the clean water that comes out of the tap, when we turn it on the fact that we shouldn't have to worry about our whether our electricity is, is functioning. It so that really means that it's it's something where government has it has a huge role to play. And government in many cases is setting the stage for infrastructure. If you think about where infrastructure is located, it's typically in public rights of way, it's in the shared spaces, it's underneath our cities, it's connecting our cities, it's in the air, it's all sorts of all sorts of places. But I think the the tricky part comes when you figure out how how, how do you even How do you even address a problem where there may be different maybe different definitions of what the problem is, people have different perspectives. There are a lot of different business models, there's technology that that evolves very fast, but the kind of standard ethos of move fast and break things can be pretty dangerous when applied to infrastructure, particularly anything about the critical systems, whether it's the cybersecurity of our of our electric grid, or the you know the quality of our air in our in our drinking water. But I think the the things that give me hope is seeing the entrepreneurs that that focus on this and know that it is it's a difficult problem and it's it's not as simple as publishing something into an app store and getting kind of some viral traction around it. It really requires the public sectors buy in. And I think that there's there's a willingness in a lot of places to look for new ideas given that the status quo is really not working for anyone but the you know, a lot of the a lot of the devils in the details about how do you get that contract, how do you bring private capital into into a problem like this? How do you make sure that there's a balance of risk and reward? So all those things I think are there's a lot of people focusing on it. And I've been in the sector for quite a while. And it's really only in the past few years that you've seen the this sort of level of excitement. Some of it's driven by the public sector, the fact that there's been some action on infrastructure, investing on climate and things like that. But a lot of it also is just the realization on the on the private sector side that this is a huge market opportunity. And it's something that if you can, if you can solve a problem that affects literally everyone in the world, that's about as kind of a big a tam, as he as you can imagine. The the tricky part, of course, is, is aligning timeframes, as I alluded to, and the difference between the fast pace typically of the technology industry, and they're slower, slower relative pace of, of government and policy in particular. But if you can find those places where you can align interests, and really, and really move the needle, it's the the opportunities are tremendous.

Will Jarvis 5:50

It definitely definitely feels like there are huge opportunities, especially in infrastructure now. Is it your sense that things have gotten much worse at the infrastructure level in America over the last, let's say, 50 years? It definitely only seems that way with just with the power grid, and Texas and California, you know, constantly going down. You know, we think about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, you know, there's countless examples where, you know, the roads seem to be beat up, just like physical infrastructure, like we have not been able to maintain it not really been able to, to build new things. In the physical world. What do you think has gone wrong there? And am I right, in assuming that it just seems to work less well than it did in the recent past?

Unknown Speaker 6:30

Yeah, I think I think you're right. And I think that there's at least there are two big factors that come to mind immediately for this. One is that there's a big difference between building infrastructure should of having having an exciting project launch, have a ribbon cutting, have everyone use something for the first time, that typically will get a lot of attention, and in many cases attract capital, versus the critical work of maintaining it over the next 50 years, 100 years, in some cases, like 150 years. And that so that disconnect between building and maintenance is I think, at the heart of why you know why we look. And so I live in New York City and for example, we have, we have the the most robust comprehensive public transit infrastructure anywhere in the country, in part because it's the oldest but it also means that we have a legacy of deferred maintenance, we have to deal with, we have things that were designed in many cases say before air conditioning was invented, or let alone before Wi Fi and cell service was invented, and all those things that need to be worked into the system. So it's both it's about it's both about maintaining, maintaining versus building. But also sort of second piece is just how how much more rapidly technology has been evolving over the past few decades. And I think that's the way that's changed the way we use infrastructure change what we expect from infrastructure, and even just thinking about the past two to three years with with COVID. And the realization that I think, had been had been there all along. But that sort of now no one could ignore it, just how much we how much we rely on digital infrastructure, particularly connectivity. So now it's a pretty common placing that would that that connectivity is a form of infrastructure and that broadband is is some form of a public, a public good, and that if you don't have access to the internet, it's really hard to participate fully in society, whether an economic opportunities or in access to medicine or access to education. But I think it's that that change was already underway. And it's in some cases, it takes a it takes a crisis for people to really reckon with just how severe it is. And for things to move up to the top of the agenda. So I think there's, there's a mix of that this is a problem that has been 100 years in the making, but also that it's, it's a problem that has accelerated and importance just given the increasing demands that we put on infrastructure, particularly, to be able to do all of the new technologically driven applications that are part of daily life. Now.

Will Jarvis 8:45

That makes sense. It makes sense. I want to come back to broadband in a little bit. But I do want to ask question here at you're sitting in New York City, and we're talking about infrastructure, so I can't help but think of Robert Moses, and you know, kind of Bobo's and you know, bulldozing, you know, neighborhoods to build roads, and all this this crazy stuff. You know, and this is something we see in the PRC right now, where they are able to do kind of infrastructure very, very quickly, by I guess, you know, maybe there's this like trade off between, you know, the speed at which you can build infrastructure, and then, you know, taking care of all the interest groups we have to worry about, have we gone too far on being unwilling to, you know, displace buildings or things to build infrastructure? And are we too worried about, I guess, negative externalities at some point, but at this point, or should it? Are we not worried and we strike kind of an optimal balance at this point? Yeah, I

Unknown Speaker 9:44

think I think it's would be hard to find someone that would argue that we have an optimal balance right now because a lot of good projects are not happening and a lot of bad projects still still do happen. So I think the it's it's a tricky question, because we kind of like how infrastructure was built. built over centuries in the United States, our policies and our regulations were built over centuries, and they were built to address real problems. The challenge is that it's easier to kind of add new rules than to kind of start from first principles and think about is this the optimal optimal system. And in part, it has to do with the risk aversion that's sort of understandable in the in the public sector, when these are systems that people's lives in many cases depend on. But it also means that as you add one, one process on top of another process, there are inefficiencies that come about. And you know, the classic example is, if you think about in New York City, how it only took a few years to build the Empire State Building. And we're in the midst of a congestion pricing program that has also been going on for, for, you know, it was passed a few years ago, but it's been something that's been talked about for decades. And there's no actual there's not the same scale of physical infrastructure that's needed. But even so the process of environmental review the process of, of going through the many levels of government does add add years, in some cases, decades to projects. So I think there's, there's a need to rethink a lot of this, but it's not where I would disagree with some people who say that it's just a matter of making things move faster, is that there are reasons why why we need to make sure that our environment is protected, that people are protected, for example, you know, it's when we think about how fast things were built in the old in the old days, it's important to also remember that it was the workplace wasn't very safe, right. And so people would die in construction of skyscrapers and things like that, and take risks that we as a society are not willing to take any more under, you know, rightly so. So but I do think it's, I think it's that that balance is always a bit of attention. Some of it has to also do with how policy takes longer to change than technology does. And it has to do with a lot of reasons. There's not there's no Moore's Law of policy, policymakers or anything like that. And in some cases, as technology increases, even if it took the same amount of time to go through a cycle of evaluating something, figuring out what the right legislation or regulation should be enacting that, that cycle, even if it was the same as it now is, it was as it was 50 years ago, there are so many new business models, so many, so many new applications of technology, let alone the technology itself. That means that that cycle moves a lot faster. So I don't know if we will find the optimal balance ever. But I do think it's something that we should keep keep revisiting and and you're one of the one of the strengths of the US is that we have a diversity of different forms of government. One city may be very different from another city and how it governs itself, we have 50 states that are you know, some people have famously called laboratories of democracy. And I think using that to our to our advantage would be would be great. It'd be nice to be able to see what works and what doesn't, and then share best practices and see what works. I think the the flip side of that is it's challenging to do to scale something out across across the entire country, if each state has its own regulatory regime, and from certainly from a private sector perspective, lack of certainty is in many cases, a bigger barrier than regulation itself. It's, you know, companies can adjust to regulations. But what's harder to do is to sort of price in the uncertainty about what is, you know, is this business going to be allowed in state A versus state B? And does it need to take a totally different, totally different form?

Will Jarvis 13:07

Right, this is definitely a big challenge. I want to double click on something you mentioned there, the environmental review, we had on Eli the radio, I don't know if you know him, he's a scholar, CG, Utah State. And anyway, he talks a lot about and works on policy, he talks a lot about NEPA. And how NEPA has kind of paused a lot of regulation is paused a lot of building, because you have to undergo environmental review, for everything that can be delayed by interest groups that don't want to have new things built, you know, NIMBYs that can kind of, you know, essentially lobby the government or ask for more environmental reviews to kind of just, you know, extend the timelines that which things can get built on kind of indefinitely? How big of a problem you think NEPA is, is it something we should be worried about? And if so, what should we try and do about it? To kind of improve it, not them either?

Unknown Speaker 14:00

Yeah, I think part of it is is really about understanding what the true what the true risks are, and making sure that the burden is commensurate with those with those risks. And so there are there are prophecies where they're categorical exceptions for certain types, certain types of projects. But I think over time, as I mentioned earlier, the the general trend is to add add things in scope rather than rather than removed from from scope. So I think, some form of process of basically being able to, you know, and this is kind of making, making this up as I go, it's not a fully formed thought. But I think that the intention of if you look at every federal form, there's this paperwork reduction act thing, I don't know, I would be interested see how it if this actually has made an impact, but even when you're filling out a passport application or anything like that, it'll say this estimated burden to complete this is 20 minutes or something like that. There was a lot that required that and that probably created its own challenges in terms of added bureaucracy. But if there was extra kind of labeling for environmental review or something where it was clear to the pub Blood that this process adds two years to the timeline, or that's 10 years or something like that. I think it would spark some really healthy debate about what what level of scrutiny is optimal. Because even in many cases, there'll be maybe people that support a project in theory, but they want to, they want to make sure that it is fully vetted. But they don't necessarily realize that this is going to prevent the project from ever, ever, ever taking place. You know, it's not to say that would solve all the problems. And there certainly there is a sort of a general challenge around people not wanting, they want something to happen, but not not in their backyard, of course. But I but I do think that it's that having a little bit more transparency in the process would be helpful. I also think another another thing, potentially positive trend that I've seen recently is just broader public engagement through through using using digital channels, whether it's the kind of pivot to zoom hearings, and so forth in the pandemic, or collecting feedback electronically. Because the challenge from from a lot of the pretty good, like the local level, is if you're trying to build something, and you have you go to a public hearing, and there are 10, people who show up who are very angry and upset about the project that carries a lot of weight with the elected officials who are in the room, understandably, they see their constituents there. And they're, you know, the the supporters may be outnumbered 10 to one by by opponents. But sometimes that's not an actual reflection of the of the sentiment in the community. So making sure that everyone, not just people who have the time to attend those, you know, a public meeting at 6pm, or whatever, whatever the time may be. Having a broader set of input, in many cases can enable the local government to make informed decisions and say, you know, I know there are going to be some people that are not happy with this, anything you do in government there are people will be unhappy with. But the for the majority of the community, they will benefit from this, they want this, they understand it. And it'd be no put some put some of their sponsibility is on is on the government to make sure that that process exists, and that people are educated. Some of it is also on the the person who's trying to build to make sure that they're clearly communicating it, because these are complex topics. And people understandably don't want to spend hours getting up to speed on the ins and outs of a particular type of infrastructure and what the real risks are, and all and everything like that. So having making sure that there's the kind of clear communication in in a format that people that is accessible to everyone in the community, I think could could help remove some of the some of the opposition that can come from it from almost a reflexive opposition to something new coming to the coming to the community.

Will Jarvis 17:32

Makes sense, marketing and messaging really matter when it comes to you know, putting the product on the table? Absolutely. Makes sense. Makes sense. I want to talk about broadband a little bit now. How would you grade America and our access, like public access to broadband at this point? Like how much coverage do we have? How well do we do? How poorly do we do at this point?

Unknown Speaker 17:54

There's there's a few ways of looking looking at that. So there are rankings of countries that for for decades have shown that the US is not in the in the top 10 In terms of internet speed, and things like that. And I think that is reflective of the fact that other other places have been able to deliver to a broader selection of their or of their population, faster speeds. So I think that that's one thing. But the other, the real challenge is that the data has been very inconsistent. So until recently, the FCC has essentially relied on self reported data from internet service providers with very coarse coarsely defined metrics. So really thinking about, if there is service available in one place in a in a block or in a in a region that that whole, that whole region is considered to be served. Even if it's really only one out of 25 people that service, there's also the difference between thinking about access as there being a possibility of connecting versus having that service. So there there are at least two very different broadband gaps in the US one, which gets gets a lot of attention. And it certainly is, is easy to visualize and understand is that there are people who live far from a city they live in rural areas where it's difficult to have that infrastructure to their house, right. So if they're only if they're only four houses in a five mile radius, sort of take an extreme example, the the economics for bringing fiber to each of those may or may not make sense. There are a number of programs that are making some progress around that it's typically fairly expensive, because just have the the economics involved of taking high fixed costs and splitting it over fewer people. But that's that's that's sort of one that's sort of one problem that, that there are programs to address. And there's there's some progress and there are also ways that the technologies include including fixed wireless access can can help address. There's another problem and that actually, in many cases is bigger in terms of the numbers, which is that of the people in the US who don't have broadband access at home. The majority of them are in cities and metropolitan area Is, which seems counterintuitive because the infrastructure is primarily in cities. But the both the infrastructure is not distributed equally around the city. So I'm in I'm in New York, I happen to have a choice of a few different internet service providers here. But if I lived a couple miles away, I might only have one. And if I lived in, in other parts of the city, I might have one, but that one choice doesn't have fiber. So very different levels of access even within, you know, one of the wealthiest cities in the world. And then you layer on to that the affordability challenge that there, there are people for whom a 60 $70 per month broadband subscription is prohibitively high. There have been programs to reduce the cost, there's the affordable connectivity program from from the federal government with the support of a number of internet service providers that have plans at $30 per month, and a subsidy that consensually make it free for for certain low income individuals. So those things, those things are still problems, there's, there's a number of programs to try to address it in part funded by all this recent federal legislation. But at the core of it requires not just not just ensuring that there's a fiber optic cable to each person's house, but also that they have the the ability and the tools. And by tools, I mean, not just the sort of financial capacity, but the devices, the digital literacy, the training in some cases, so that they're able to fully to fully take advantage of that, of that access. Another Another interesting statistic is that of the of the people who don't have sort of normal broadband access at home, the majority of them do have internet access, it comes through their incomes through their smartphone. And smartphone, as we all know, can accomplish a huge number of things and can provide a lot of benefits. But there's certain applications for example, writing an essay at home, if you're if you're if you're a middle school student, and you're trying to type it on your phone, it's a very, you're quite a disadvantage compared to someone who has a nice desktop with a big with a big screen and is composing their their essay there. So those sorts of subtle differences and of having a big impact on the on the benefits that accrue and making sure that more people have access is really key, in my view to true economic competitiveness across the across the country.

Will Jarvis 22:06

Makes sense? Makes sense. Are you bullish on technologies like Starlink, and 5g to solve some of the like problems with, you know, fiber, or like actually physically getting cables to people? That makes sense?

Unknown Speaker 22:18

Yeah, so I'm bullish in the sense that the more tools we have, the more different situations can be addressed. Where I'm less bullish is that any one of these technologies solves the problem on its own. So I think Starlink is a great example. Starlink means that in in places, like where my family lived in rural Colorado, where there was there was absolutely no internet access other than the dial up or a very expensive, very slow DSL connection, they can now for 100, or 200, ollars a month have high quality internet access. So that's the value of that shouldn't be understated. But it doesn't it doesn't replace the need for for fiber in a city, the sheer density of the number of people in place like New York City, or even a much smaller city means that it's far more economical to run fiber to each to each household, who then could have the ability to have much higher access speeds than you could ever get from from satellite and has to do with the kind of physics of light versus radio waves, what you can get what you would have glass fiber can carry versus bandwidth versus spectrum that has to be shared with all that with all the users between here and the satellite. So there's some sort of physics reasons behind a lot of that. But it is it's great that that innovation is happening things like you know that the new iPhone can send distress messages over satellite, if you're, you know, hiking in the middle of nowhere and you get lost, you can contact emergency responders through your phone, even if there's no signal. Those types of things are adding new connectivity options. But again, they're not they're not solving the problem, the kind of core problem on their own.

Will Jarvis 23:46

Make sense? Make sense? Going off of that. This is related. It's all what timelines, do you think we'll see autonomous vehicles make up the majority of vehicles on the road? You know, connectivity is an issue with making this happen. But but you know, is it 10 years away? Is it 20 years away? What's your sense of that?

Unknown Speaker 24:05

Yeah, I mean, the the kind of stock answer I'm tempted to give is 10 years away, but 10 years away is always been how far like if I can think back, you know, at least at least 1015 years that it was 10 years away. And I think we're learning different things, right, we're learning that that there's a difference between autonomous vehicles that can operate in 99% of situations and autonomous vehicles that can replace a human it's quite different because they're just the levels of reliability that we truly need to be able to say go to sleep in a car or to not you know, not have your hands on the wheel or to be able to go in the in an icy road at you know, with with fog. In an unpaved road. There's so many situations that humans can kind of intuitively deal with try and understand if it's safe to keep keep moving. That a even the best AV systems now without without a bunch of support in terms of a variety of sensors, mapping and things like that are going to run into ran into problems. So I think it's, in some sense, the full like full adoption, where most of the cars that we see on the road, that their abs I think is still is still a ways away at its heart, I hesitate to put a specific number on it. But I think that that little bit misses a bigger point, which is that autonomy is happening now. But it's happening in particular use cases. So I don't I don't think about autonomy as when is every is every car going to be naughty and not have a driver in it? But more when can we? When can we get the benefits of it to a at scale. And so I think things like cargo, I think shuttles I think domino freight and sort of deliveries, there are a number of applications where the where there's either a more defined unlimited set of places that the vehicle needs to be able to go or conditions or routes that could enable that to happen in the next few years. You know, of course, there are there are a number of campus scale autonomous shuttles, like ride share type programs, things like that, that are already that are already happening at scale. But I do think that some of some of the innovation is really going to be the the evolution of infrastructure along with the vehicles themselves. And that's actually one of the one of the things that that my company has been doing through our platform, Kevin, who is really thinking is really thinking about what intelligence is needed to in in the infrastructure to be able to accelerate that transition. So right now, if there were a laneway on a highway, it's the same way that you think about a carpool lane or high occupancy lane, that was optimized for autonomous vehicles, there are a number of vehicle systems that are either in in development or commercially available, that could that could operate with that with your hands off and your eyes off the off the road, because the road itself would be able to communicate that it was safe for the vehicle to have to proceed autonomously. So it's things like making sure that you have connectivity, you know, low latency, high bandwidth connectivity available everywhere. sensors to understand if there's obstructions, things like that. So then we're gonna see a lot of innovation on the infrastructure side, that is going to enable more specialized applications that will still be very, very big from thinking about what is what is the future public transportation look like? What is the way they are goods moves or supply chain type improvements. Autonomy is really should be, should be seen as not a single product, but a an approach. And I think over time, we'll realize that the same way that you think about like robotics and technology more and more broadly, that it's, it's less one vertical, and really a whole range of different of different problems that are being that are being solved by by a whole set of different technologies.

Will Jarvis 27:43

That's really cool. And so can you talk a little bit more about cat? Is it Kevin? Yes. Very cool. Very cool. And just FYI, I know you guys are working on effort in Michigan. I was just up in Detroit recently. So I'd love to hear more about that, like how that's progressing and what the plan is there.

Unknown Speaker 27:57

Yeah. So the plan, the plan in Michigan is to do a first of its kind, connected autonomous vehicle, or calve laneway, from Ann Arbor to Detroit. So essentially, it'd be a 40 mile stretch of the highway, that kind of as, as I was alluding to, would have the infrastructure needed to be sort of an earlier adopter of and providing sort of a better experience for autonomous vehicles. And that's a that's a partnership between K Ave and the state of Michigan. It's something that was announced a year or so ago. And it's been kind of progressing through all of the sort of the the development phase now. And the idea is that the in the future that as roads, as roads evolve, that being ready for autonomy, and having the that technology, it will be kind of a core piece of roads, if you think about how roads were built in the past they they've evolved a bit in terms of from everything about from dirt roads to our current interstate system. But they were they haven't really evolved is on the on the on the technology side and digitally. And we think that this is a really exciting time for that where innovations in 5g innovations in digital twins and simulation, things like that can be combined to add add new functionality to roads that can enable better, better use of them from a variety of a variety of different applications.

Will Jarvis 29:19

That's really cool. It's really cool. So it almost sounds like a vision where you've got a I like to think autonomy as a weird problem that a wind problem, it's like, you'd like you said humans are actually surprisingly reliable at some level, and that we can deal with all these different kinds of edge cases in different problems that pop up when we're doing something complicated like driving. But computers are less good at these edge cases. So if you can remove a lot of obstacles, a lot of edge cases, you could actually bring autonomy to bear faster and in a variety of situations. And that sounds like what you guys are working on with cabinet. Just really cool. Thanks. Absolutely. Going off of this I want to talk about public transit a little bit. A lot of people especially on you know, urbanist Twitter complain a lot about our lack of public transit in the US. And I like public transit, I would like more public transit. But I often wonder if the problem with America is that we're just kind of too spread apart, you know, with with low population density just makes it uneconomical to build a lot of public transit. You work in policy, and you're quite familiar with infrastructure? What's the deal with public transit in the US? Is it just kind of uneconomical to build? Or is there something else going on?

Unknown Speaker 30:30

Yeah, I think the answer is really both there are there are challenges that have to do with our density and our population pattern. So you have some some places that are dense, you also have commuting patterns that evolve you have the sort of the growth of suburbs and excerpts and people traveling long distances to, to their, between their home and their workplace. But I think what's important to remember too, is that the dat is not purely a function of geography, yes, we're a big country. But it's really policy choices that drove a lot of that, right. So the creation of the Interstate Highway System was it was a policy choice and a public sector led investment, for example. So I do think that there, it's fun, it's a bigger challenge to have everyone in the USB connected by public transportation that it would be in a, in a in a small country. So of course, you know, a place like Singapore has a has advantage in terms of it's a much more compact country or the whole country is essentially is essentially one city, it's fundamentally easier to deliver a comprehensive system, whether we're talking about transportation, or broadband, or energy or anything, and over a smaller area. But I don't think that that lets us off the hook completely. We have we have the ability to through policy, but also through technology and innovation, to rethink some of those patterns. The most, I think the most obvious of which to some degree is the the change in commuting patterns. So public transportation is in many cases used as a way for people to go from their home to their to their office, the reduction in commuting and a lot of places is, it's certainly been a double edged sword, it means that a lot of people don't have to spend as much time on public transportation or driving, because they're able to work from home at least a few days a week. Of course, it's not an option for all jobs. But it also the sort of that one of the downsides or challenges that is that public transit systems across the country have been struggling with reduced ridership, and that that having having less money coming in at the farebox means that they have to make up for that and other in other areas, whether it's increased government support, or in many cases cutting service. And the the challenge that I see with this is if you if you reduce service and say for example, trains go from it running every every 10 minutes to every 30 minutes, because of fewer people on the train, what ends up happening is that fewer people ride the train because no one wants to get to the get to the station and realize they just missed the train and have to wait half an hour. So then it's a little bit of a vicious cycle there. So that's, that's an example where there are there are policy drivers that are within within our control collectively as a country to think about, you know, how do we how do we prioritize what service should be available, where things should be subsidized, where they should not be subsidized. And technology is, I think, just one one lever among many of delivering, delivering new options. New technology, I think has the has the possibility to augment public transportation, if you think about autonomous shuttles that are able to bring people who are who don't live where the rail was, was built, and it's it's too expensive to extend in the rail. You can imagine a shuttle that brings people to public transportation. That's one possible outcome. Another possible outcome is that everyone has their own personal shuttle and traffic gets worse, because everyone is autonomously being brought everywhere. And the difference between those is not really about technology. It's about it's about policy. And that's what's exciting, but also really challenging about this as you think about what is the impact of a given technology going to be? It's a pretty complex interplay between policy, technology, business, politics, all of these things that ultimately, it's ultimately hard to predict, right. So it's, if you think about the before Uber launched, it was hard to really imagine how much of an impact it would have to go from yellow cabs in some cities to almost anywhere you you arrive, you pull out your phone and go from point A to point B, in a lot of places that increased increased access for people who don't have a car for whatever reason, it may or may have reduced ownership in some in some places. But otherwise, it increased traffic because there's more more cars on the road. So I think it's not it's not always apparent what a given technology is going to do. And that's why it's critical that there's the policymakers and the technologists and the investors and everyone in this in the sector, are are talking and are sharing data and perspectives and things like that. Because the one thing that's that is predictable is that the whatever people think technology is going to be impacted. technology's going to have, they're going to be off in some degree or other whether it's about how long it takes to happen or whether it's who are the first adopters whether it's how fast it skills with liquid it replaces all those things are really hard to predict even if you know the technology itself is going to work.

Will Jarvis 34:59

That's great. That's Great. David, I've got one bad last big question for you here. And it is if you had to pick one gap that America has in infrastructure, what is that biggest gap? And what would you do to try and fix it? If you you know, if you can talk to policymakers and private industry and tech, get everybody aligned, like what is that biggest gap?

Unknown Speaker 35:20

I think what's one area of interest, which we haven't really spoken much about that I that I do think is at the center of a lot of this is, is energy, because our energy system is going through a tremendous amount of stress of transition. If you think about everything from the global supply of natural gas, the disruption, the depression was caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, things like that have made energy prices, of course, a sort of a very important driver of everything from inflation to concerns about Europe being you know, too cold this winter, without durability to heat themselves, sort of shows that these things that we take for granted, can very quickly go from being something that is manageable to something that is, is in some cases, life threatening, or if people are not able to actually have the energy that needed to keep them keep them safe. But you know, at the same time, we have a big technological change happening, particularly around the shift from fossil fuels to electricity, particularly renewable electricity, those are very different things. The going, for example, if we if we change every gas powered vehicle in the country to an electric vehicle, there'd be some great impacts in terms of of emissions from the tailpipe, but we have to figure out how to get that, that get that electricity, how to deliver it, how to charge it, that's a ton of new infrastructure that's needed. And there's a lot of policy choices that are needed that will will affect where it's where the where that generation is built, how its distributed, how you keep the grid in balance, when you have people charging vehicles that when they get home from work at the same time that the sun is going down and things like that. It's I think it's also a tremendous opportunity for for innovation and for making, making the making the grid more resilient by by embracing the kind of dynamism that digital technology enables. So it's goes from being a pretty much a static system where the energy flows in one direction from the central power station to your home. And you are kind of a passive consumer of electricity, to something that's much more dynamic, where people may have a battery, say like a power wall at home, they may have a f150 lightning that they that they plug into their house, they have all kinds of things that are both users of but also either storage of or generation of electrons, that that is a tremendous transformation of one of the oldest most complex machines in the world, the power grid is is is mind boggling when you think about how much we how much we depend on it and how little most people see of it. And think of it and the fact that unlike basically any other commodity, it's it's an instantaneous commodity that can't be just kept in a tank, the way that you know the way that everything from from oil to corn and all other kinds of commodities that we rely on. So that that balance of supply and demand is is critical to get it right as the system as the system evolves, is there's a lot of an element of rebuilding the plane as it's in flight. That's that has to happen here where we can't, we can't turn off the system while we fix it right? This all had everything has to work and has to work 100% of the time or as close to close to that as possible, even as we face storms and disruptions and heat waves. And you know, the kind of near misses in California over the past over past month or so, I think are both a warning of how critical the problem is. But also, you know, I find a little I find a bit of optimism in that in things like the fact that when the California grid was nearing a point where there would be rolling blackouts, people voluntarily cut back their energy consumption. And you could look at it on a graph and see how quickly people responded and turned off things that they didn't need. And that actually prevented prevented things from things from from being much worse. We certainly believe that technology can make that much more of an automated process that people benefit from in participating. So we one of the one of the companies we've invested in ohmconnect is working with about 200,000 households in California, connected to their smart thermostats and being able to incentivize people for their when they're when they're able to, to choose to adjust their temperature or to turn off certain devices that they're not using. And that that I think kind of shifts the nature of what is a power plant, you know, because we think of virtual power plant is really a collection of individuals who have devices, they may have energy storage, they may have electric vehicles, and that kind of orchestration of what's being used and when and where enables a whole level of flexibility to this into one of the again one of the oldest most complex things that humans have created. And in terms of the power grid.

Will Jarvis 39:41

That's great. That's great. I I'm curious, you know, you work in policy, and I'm a big nuclear advocate and supposed to be this, this, the next kind of level of energy production for the world was gonna be nuclear power. We've kind of regulated ourselves out of building new plants at this point. Do we Do you have any hope that we will be able to kind of to build new nuclear plants again and kind of get around this kind of roadblock we've put there for ourselves because of, you know, some scary things that happen, you know, the last century, which were not as bad as they're kind of depicted in, like, you know, media portrayals and things like that, you know, Chernobyl was not as bad as you know, these dramatized television series we saw Long story short, we miss out on a lot of clean, cheap energy, because we were unwilling to build nuclear plants. Do you have any hope for the future there? Are you bullish on nuclear?

Unknown Speaker 40:32

It's tricky, because there's a lot of still a lot of fear around around nuclear. And some of it is sort of, as you described, that it's when things have gone wrong, it's been very dramatic. And it's been things that it's hard for people to wrap their head around the true risk and all of that the technology, of course, has evolved a lot since since the days of the last reactor constructions at scale. I do think it's, I do think there's, there's a high likelihood that there's innovation that ends up that ends up making a significant difference there. I don't know which countries are really gonna be the first to embrace it. I think that's something that's shifting a lot and in part due to the energy versus energy crises that I referenced. So there's been you know, prior to this year, a lot of decommissioning of older nuclear reactors in Western Europe and Japan and the US, kind of around around the world. That has not been has not been replaced by any new nuclear, of course, I think that if if we get to a point where it is clear that the the economics, the economics and the environmental impact, are going to make it an imperative to develop nuclear, I do think that there's I think people will be willing to revisit to revisit this. The challenges though, in the way I'm reason I'm still a little bit hesitant is that you asked about nimbyism, and to people's concerns about you know, even even something relatively straightforward being being built in a neighborhood that's changed. I think that will be a really powerful obstacle. So I don't know I, on the one hand, from a sort of a, an optimism in terms of technology that the technical problems will be will be solved. But I don't know exactly when and how people will embrace it in terms of saying in my, in my neighborhood, I mean, to me not even a neighbor in my city, I would be comfortable with the construction of even even small modular reactors that may have a much better safety profile. But it's there's something almost have a visceral reaction or fear to nuclear beings, particularly located near where people are. So I just think that made that may keep the market size a little bit a little bit smaller than it would otherwise be in terms of citing. But again, it's it's hard, it's hard to predict, particularly given the scale of the need globally. And so I do think some countries are going to embrace it faster. And maybe the early movers will show that it is that it is safe and can cause a bit of a renaissance. But But I think I think time will tell

Will Jarvis 42:54

that sounds great. I Oh, look, here's how I here's how I that that we're able to convince people and and do the positive PR because it is it would be such a boon for for all of us. David, thank you so much for coming on the show. Where can people find you? Where should we send them?

Unknown Speaker 43:10

Yeah, so I'm pretty easy to find online. I'm either David Guilford or D Guilford on most most channels. So relatively easy to find there. You can learn more about our about about the company at sidewalk infer.com. But yeah, happy to, you know, people can find more information there and feel free to get in touch.

Will Jarvis 43:31

Awesome. Awesome. Thanks, David. Appreciate it.

Unknown Speaker 43:34

All right. Well, it was really a pleasure speaking with you and join the conversation.

William Jarvis 43:42

Special thanks to our sponsor, Bismarck analysis for the support. Bismarck analysis creates the Bismarck brief, a newsletter about intelligence great analysis of key industries, organizations, and live players. You can subscribe to Bismarck free and brief dot Bismarck analysis.com. Thanks for listening. We'll be back next week with a new episode of narratives. Special thanks to Donovan Dorrance, our audio editor. You can check out documents work and music at Donovan dorrance.com

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Narratives
Narratives
Narratives is a project exploring the ways in which the world is better than it has been, the ways that it is worse, and the paths toward making a better, more definite future. Narratives is hosted by Will Jarvis. For more information, and more episodes, visit www.narrativespodcast.com