Real Future

America’s cities are falling apart. Can infrastructure hackers save them?

This is Episode 16 of Real Future, Fusion’s documentary series about technology and society. More episodes available at realfuture.tv.

It’s no secret that America’s urban infrastructure is a mess. In its most recent report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the country’s infrastructure a D+, and estimated that $3.6 trillion would need to be spent by 2020 to bring all of our roads, bridges, dams, and other crucial infrastructural needs up to modern benchmarks. And from time to time, you hear terrifying statistics like: 47 bridges in New York City are “structurally deficient,” or “40% of LA’s roads are dangerously under-maintained.”

The UN estimates that by the year 2048, 6 billion people will live in cities, and all of those people will need roads to drive on, clean water to drink, and sewers to carry their waste away. In America, these crucial pieces of infrastructure, many of them decades or centuries old, can’t simply be rebuilt—they have to be patched, hole by hole.

We tend to think of infrastructure issues as political problems, which can only be solved by convincing politicians to apportion more money to repairing aging bridges and dams. But what if we viewed them as technology problems? What if we took our infrastructure issues into our own hands, and focused our energy on developing new tools to keep our cities from falling apart?

As it turns out, this kind of thing is already happening in Los Angeles, where a group of public-sector technologists has banded together to try to solve the city’s infrastructure problems, using home-grown tools like sewer drones and traffic dashboards.

In this episode of Real Future, Cara Santa Maria meets these “infrastructure hackers,” and tries to find out if the tools they’re building can actually help our cities, or if they’re just patchwork substitutes for a real, urgent long-term fix.

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