We all know what infrastructure is. It’s the big stuff in the economy like roads, railways, pipes, power lines and airports that help the little things—like people, parcels, electrons—get around. It’s good for the economy. And if infrastructure is good, more of it is better. Right?

After all, when infrastructure fails to keep up with the needs of a growing economy the consequences can be grave. Take traffic congestion, for example. Various experts put the cost of congestion in Australia’s capital cities at around $15 billion per year, growing to $20 billion by 2020, mostly in the form of lost productive time. These are big numbers and they call for big investments. That’s why the Australian Government “has committed to investing a record $50 billion to reduce congestion and build infrastructure for the 21st century”.

With additional investments by the states and territories, the Government hopes “to generate $126 billion of investment in productivity-enhancing infrastructure”.

But how far will that go? According to Engineers Australia, the current value of Australia’s economic infrastructure shortfall exceeds half a trillion dollars – so the answer is ‘probably not far enough’.

Road networks

More money can bring wider roads and bigger pipes and cables. But, by itself, can this approach deal with the fundamental challenges? Let’s consider traffic jams. The first recorded traffic jams occurred in London in the late 1660s. Cast forward three hundred and fifty years and the peak hour traffic in many of the world’s cities is no faster. And the cause of those early traffic jams? Ironically it was an improvement in the paving of roads!

This diabolical problem—infrastructure investments leading to the very infrastructure deficiencies they seek to address—cannot be solved with cash alone. We need to start taking a more critical look at how we use our infrastructure and consider more carefully some of the emerging ideas and technologies that can help us use it better.

Obviously most roads are not congested most of the time; though to those of us who have to deal with the daily grind it may seem otherwise. Two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon every weekday equates to roughly 12 percent of the week. That’s a lot of time. But why not look at it the other way: it means most roads have excess capacity available for the other 88 percent of the week.

Most vehicles on the roads during peak times are occupied by one person: the driver. According to a study conducted by the Institute of Transport and Logistic Studies at the University of Sydney, “at least one in three drivers who commute to work during peak periods in most major cities do not need to do so.”

Furthermore, they could ride-share. Ride-sharing services like Uber are taking off around the world, even as government authorities try in vain to stamp them out. According to marketing firm Vision Critical, the ‘sharing economy’ now directly involves 80 million ‘sharers’ in the United States, 23 million in the UK and 10 million in Canada and the numbers are growing rapidly.

The rapid growth of sharing sites has profound implications and opportunities. Let’s do the maths: major roads are heavily congested for only 1/8th of the time; 1/3rd of the drivers don’t need to be on the road at peak times; and roughly 2/3rds of seats are vacant during peaks.

These are massive efficiency opportunities that the sharing economy could easily unlock, thereby virtually eliminating brain-frying congestion and the need for all that extra concrete, steel and bitumen.

And, from the environmental perspective, that’s only the start. For many years the Rocky Mountain Institute has been highlighting the ludicrous fact that a typical passenger vehicle uses less than 0.5 percent of fuel energy to propel its driver from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’. Only about 5-6 percent accelerates the vehicle while the rest is lost in converting the energy stored in the fuel to actual “movement”. Public transit is obviously a much more sustainable solution, as would be more efficient electricity-powered private vehicles and this may well be where traditional hard infrastructure solutions start to converge.

Electricity networks

Electricity networks suffer from similar issues to roads; it’s just that they are felt less personally because the congestion is invisible. In fact the electricity grid across Australia’s eastern seaboard is only about 50 percent utilised across the whole year, with peaks being very acute and relatively infrequent.

According to the Australian Energy Regulator, during the period 2010-2015, $39 billion is likely to be invested in Australian transmission and distribution networks – much of it to deal exclusively with “peak events”. Just like with the roads, important questions are not being asked loudly enough. Are more and bigger components the answer to network congestion problems? Will they make the peaks go away?

Electricity demand should be even more flexible than the demand for roads – but unlike when we’re stuck in traffic, it’s not entirely clear to us electricity consumers when our extra demands are crowding the network. The electricity just comes out and the bill gets paid at the end of the month (usually).

What if we could see the benefits of shifting some of our demand when networks are constrained, and better still, what if we could share in some of that $39 billion if we helped do something about it? Peaks might well disappear leaving us with appropriately scaled networks that would be more than adequate all of the time, just as they are most of the time presently.

Networked networks

Perhaps we can’t be trusted? Maybe the electricity networks need something more bankable than engaged consumers driven by financial inducements? This is where a well-integrated “networked” network of infrastructure may well come in.

Highly efficient electric vehicles such as those manufactured by Tesla can hold enough charge in their batteries to drive for almost five hundred kilometres before recharging, or roughly five hours – and much longer in a traffic jam! How often do we need that much capacity? What if the electricity network could call this new generation of vehicles to lend a hand at peak times by contributing a little bit of energy when needed and giving it back when the pressure’s off?

It could be rewarding for both parties to the transaction and with new ultra-fast charging batteries such as those being developed at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore that can be 70 percent recharged in just two minutes, the risks of being left short of power could be very small indeed.

Furthermore, all those concerns about solar and wind power messing up the grid – a combination of batteries and smart communications networks could easily deal with them.

Infrastructure problems are fast becoming software problems: that is, not the kinds of problems that are going to be answered with concrete and steel. We are at an incredibly exciting point in our history where the answers to so many of society’s greatest challenges are all bound up together; so let’s start heading down a cleaner, greener, cheaper road.

This article was originally published in The Fifth Estate.