(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr. Find out more at my newsletter.)
We’ve all experienced a time when things fall apart. Ancient software gives up the ghost after a harmless update. A roadway collapses despite people knowing it needed work. Larger disasters, such as the pandemic, confound us as things are just falling apart.
Why is it that the infrastructure of our lives goes to hell, even when we know it’s coming? Even when we made some effort to fix them?
I have a theory because of my work in IT, my interest in infrastructure, and my career in planning. Simply, we kick problems down the road until they accumulate, and many happen all at once.
Allow me to explain.
Imagine there’s a problem – a decaying road, an aging piece of software, an outdated government policy. The best idea would be to fix it, and maybe even make it better (aka “ruggedization). That is the best thing to do- but we don’t.
What we do is we partially fix things and kick a lot of the work down the road. We patch that concrete, we tweak the database connector, we throw in a new form and that’s it. The heavy lifting, the replacement, the reorg or whatever can come later.
Of course, when it’s time to do the real work, we kick it down the road a little more. No one wants to vote for that tax increase, no one wants to tell the boss how much that new software will cost. A half-baked attempt is made, and then we wait.
Because we’re not really fixing a problem, breakdowns come faster and faster. Software crashes more and more. Delivery lines snarl and fail yearly instead of every year or two. But we keep delaying a fix.
But it gets worse, because if you’re trying to avoid fixing one problem, you’re probably avoiding others. All those problems you don’t return, and they keep coming faster as well. Eventually, a lot goes wrong at once, and everything goes to hell.
In short, if you keep delaying addressing problems – be it software or infrastructure – the problems keep coming back all the faster until things break.
You’re probably nodding at this. We’ve all worked on that project or dealt that government official or were in that building we suddenly had to leave.
A lot of what’s wrong in the word is the bill coming due – social meltdown, economic difference, bad infrastructure, the climate. We’re going to need to buckle down and fix things if we want a decent future.