A New Engineering-Challenge Discipline: Rapidly Rebuilding Societal Infrastructure

A New Engineering-Challenge Discipline: Rapidly Rebuilding Societal Infrastructure

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.”
Alfred North Whitehead, English mathematician

How quickly can an individual engineering student or team of students rebuild from scratch the advanced technology infrastructure of society?  From raw materials to simple tools, from simple tools and steam engines to more advanced energy systems (force multipliers), from metals and glass lenses to photography and sensors (perception multipliers), from energy systems and sensors to more precise measurement and control systems (precise production scale-up), from lithography and printing and computers and software to self-replicating machines as envisioned by John von Neumann as a real-world follow-on to the symbolic-world’s Universal Turing machines.  Highly advanced nested, networked service systems have this ability to replicate near copies of themselves at multiple scales.  Like Defoe’s Robinson Cursoe, competitors will test themselves and discover accelerated alternative pathways that might have emerged if history had unfolded differently.  On the way to self-replicating 3D printers, competitors will explore new pathways and combinations of technology and discover new innovation recipes from the same or new sets of ingredients.

The first part of the engineering design challenge is to estimate the quantity and purity of raw materials that will fit in one standard size shipping container.  The shipping container must contain only raw materials of set purity levels, and from this competitors will compete to rapidly rebuild societal infrastructure.

The second part of the engineering design challenge is to plan the intermediate steps to reach the ultimate goal.  Just like for chess games, over time patterns of effective opening plays will emerge.  What is the best sequence of intermediate technologies, and scaffolding technologies to get to self-replicating machines and universal 3D printers?

Finally, let the competition begin!  Competitors open their shipping containers on standard size lots and go, start, begin the challenge of rebuilding societal infrastructure.   In the container, the teams are allowed camping gear and basic supplies – but cannot use these materials in the rebuild challenge, only to provide for their basic personal needs as they compete. They are allowed smart phones for accessing information and people outside the competition area.

In early versions of the challenge, the starting shipping container can contain a few “cheats” to help the games be more interesting to watch and speedy to the conclusion.  Overtime, the cheats will be removed as more creative patterns that can avoid the cheats are discovered.  Many variations of this game can be imagined. For example, one quite different version aired on TV as a reality TV show called The Colony and it was complete with IBM Fellow John Cohn.

I expect many others have thought about doing this before from RepRap to Maker subculture.
Are you interested in making this latest “imagination challenge”, learning platform real?
Then please contact me on Twitter @JimSpohrer.


 Other related quotes on the importance of learning to rapidly rebuild infrastructure:

“The problem was the problem. MacCready realized that what needed to be solved was not, in fact, human-powered flight. That was a red herring. The problem was the process itself. And a negative side effect was the blind pursuit of a goal without a deeper understanding of how to tackle deeply difficult challenges. He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: How can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours, not months? And he did.”

Fastcodesign on Gossamer Albatross main lesson

“This was something I had to do, not just dream about it, but do it… I suppose too I was here to test myself.  Not that I had never done it before, but this time it to be a more thorough and lasting examination. What was I capable of that I didn’t know yet?”
Richard Proenneke, American naturalist
Quote from: Alone in the Wilderness


  1. Pingback: Societal Design Challenge | Service Science

  2. A service science perspective on sustainability and resilience that my colleagues and I have been developing is based more on the concept of holistic service systems (cities are an example HSS), which provides “whole service” to the people in them. Sustainability and resilience performance measures are correlated with how rapidly the city (holistic service systems) can be rebuilt from scratch (time, energy, materials, knowledge burden, etc.). Optimizing the process of rebuilding from scratch has many implications, related to the circular economy – http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/index_en.htm

    Here are some readings and old blog posts…

    Whole Service – creating new cities (HSS) from scratch

    New Engineering Grand Challenge Discipline – rapid rebuilding of HSS from scratch

    the focus is “annual rapid rebuilding from scratch performance measures for sustainability and resilience”

    Here is a video to watch for some inspiration of what might be possible….

    And about the man and his ambitions…

    Knowledge burden is a concept in system design that many people are not familiar with – and it relates to how much knowledge has to be transferred from one generation of people to the next to sustain a reasonable quality of life…

    There are many ways of talking about the knowledge burden – some say we live in a “peoplebyte” world with “personbyte” people.

    ….about ten minutes in Cesar Hidalgo talk begins which is relevant to rebuilding societal infrastructure

    And a presentation about rapid city building

    And another perspective on rapid city building with a focus on governance, and getting the rules right…

    how one might approach thinking about:
    -> smarter city (holistic service system) performance measures for sustainability and resilience

  3. Excellent article on robots made from soft materials:
    Mr. Griffith is at the forefront of a movement known as soft robotics, which aims to revolutionize the way we think about building things. Researchers at Harvard University have released a tool kit to make loudspeakers and prosthetic hands using soft materials.

    Hypothesis: If people had the challenge of rebuilding society from scratch, if they find a way to rapidly build a 3-D printer/Robot combination that has the capability of rebuilding a copy of itself from scratch – that would be the best tool for turning knowledge and ideas into stuff.

    The machine is known as the “Kinematic Self-Replicating Machine”

    The original reference (as far as I can tell) to the first serious attempt to design and build such a machine was Jon von Neumann late 1940’s lectures which were crystalized in a 1955 special issue of Scientific American: Kemeny, John G. (April 1955). “Man Viewed as a Machine”. Scientific American 192 (4): 58–67. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0455-58.

  4. Yes, I am interested in 3D printers that can print all the parts to both other 3D printers and robots, and robots that can assemble 3D printers and other robots.

    The above would be a key end-goal for a new engineering grand challenge:

    von Neumann’s thought experiment
    A detailed conceptual proposal for a physical non-biological self-replicating system was first put forward by mathematician John von Neumann in lectures delivered in 1948 and 1949, when he proposed a kinematic self-reproducing automaton model as a thought experiment.[12][13]

    See also

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  8. 1. Open Source Ecology (let’s get a standard kit for rebuilding basic machinery for sustainable agricultural society)

    2. Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny (what is the invisible hand guiding evolution?)

    3. The Machinery of Life (the power of random walks in nature – speed of molecular movement is extraordinary – if molecule scaled to car-size, then faster than light speed).

    4. Some “buried slides” about 200 years to re-capitulate human progress…
    See slides 72-76 (just enter 72 in box on lower right-side of slide)
    slide 73 is maybe most relevant

    5. I find this intriguing as well… small things that allow sustainability (needs sun, CO2, minerals for sustainable food):

    For reasons of improving innovativeness, equity (competitive parity), sustainability, and resilience – I think some of us need to “nudge” the world to educate the next generation on rapidly rebuilding societal infrastructure 🙂 yes, maybe whimsical, but a lot of truth is first told in jokes too.

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  11. Or maybe the final challenge should be the remote operation of a 3D printer that can self-replicate in space under ground control…


    “Surely you have a satellite of your own? If you don’t, Alex “Sandy” Antunes’ first book, DIY Satellite Platforms, walks you through the essential steps needed to design a base picosatellite tough enough to withstand a rocket launch and survive in orbit for three months.
    Sandy’s newest book, Surviving Orbit the DIY Way, will help you conduct a series of hands-on tests designed to check your satellite’s readiness. You’ll learn precisely what the craft and its electronic components must endure if they’re to function properly in Low Earth Orbit.
    These books literally take you to the stars.”

  12. A nice practical example of why “different rebuild recipes” for societal infrastructure is very important can be found in this TED Talk by Steven Johnson…


    The example is a neonatal incubator for subsaharan Africa built from used car parts, a fan, headlights, battery. The $40,000 high-tech version is useless when it breaks (the knowledge burden). However, the one built from used car parts can easily be repaired by local knowledge of car mechanics and other do-it-yourself or DIY experts.

  13. In the shipping container will be purified elements such as copper zinc tin and selenium and these elements can be used to make thin-film photovoltaic cells. 12.1% efficiency was achieved in 2012 . CZTS PV cells may yield up to 500 GW/year – closer to Terawatt levels of renewable electricity the planet needs  http://www.technologyreview.com/view/428946/ibm-breaks-efficiency-mark-with-novel-solar/

  14. Dr. Samuel Arbesman, Senior Scholar, Research and Policy, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
    reminded me that that students have re-invented proofs first made thousands of years ago…

    See Pythagorean Theorem and its many proofs…

    “Proof #52: This proof, discovered by a high school student, Jamie deLemos (The Mathematics Teacher, 88 (1995), p. 79.), has been quoted by Larry Hoehn (The Mathematics Teacher, 90 (1997), pp. 438-441.)”

    Re-doing history can be a sport both physical and intellectual… and even social.

  15. the best way to predict the future is to inspire the next generation to build it better…

    If you believe the statement above then really the key will be to create a more integrated view of history – possible histories that are faster or more optimal to get to our current level of technological infrastructure as well as governance/rules/decision making infrastructure as well…

    With this better view of history, we can create options for future states of the world – possible futures…

    Finally, using the future to improve our understanding of today, and take more informed actions…

    Transdisciplinary is different from interdisciplinary, though many people consider them synonyms – they are not…
    Transdisciplinary is more holistic, seeking to re-unite knowledge into an integrated whole… the elephant on steroids so to speak…

    The service science framework known as the “systems-discipline framework” is a transdisciplinary framework, as it tries to holistically show how all disciplines interconnect to all systems – within the conceptual framework of service science.

    Think of it this way — history unfolded in a somewhat random, unsystematic way… why did the steam engine (1698 – http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blsteamengine.htm) get invented before photography (1839 – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dagu/hd_dagu.htm/)? could it have happened in a different order? the ordering on innovation, and creation of disciplines is very unsystematic… imagine redoing history in a more optimal sequence…. what would that be like? how quickly could all existing technologies be recreated, if we knew what order to do things in… the optimal order for recreating all human knowledge.. and then going a step beyond, and integrating that knowledge into a coherent whole that individuals could each understand…. here is a light-hearted view on that grand challenge: http://service-science.info/archives/2189

    I think of it terms of time…. unfolding phenomena (universe since the big bang), research, education, practice (both commercial and policy)… however, there are many orders in which research, education, and practice can unfold – many possible paths that history might have taken… what if we could simulate these many paths? and see each path as a sequence of innovation – in one path the steam engine comes before photography and in another protography comes before the steam engine… if one can conceive of all possible paths, and see the one that would have been best, then shouldn’t that be the path that we teach students in university – once they learn the optimal path, they could learn “real history” as the particular unfolding that led to their existing society… but what is really exciting is what could happen next — now have the students project into the future – and use their imagination about possible futures to understand the present better, and what they might want to do in university next…

    The best way to predict the future is to inspire the next generation to build it better… to do that they need to understand the past in new ways, and understand the future in new ways, and then they can realize the present in new ways…

    Also Read:

  16. Open Source Ecology (OSE) is a network of farmers, engineers and supporters, whose main goal is the eventual manufacturing of the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS). As described by Open Source Ecology “the GVCS is an open technological platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small civilization with modern comforts.”[3] Groups in Oberlin, Ohio,Pennsylvania, New York and California are developing blueprints, and building prototypes in order to pass them on to Missouri.[4][5] The devices themselves are built and tested on theFactor e Farm in rural Missouri.


  17. This MIT Media Lab video addresses the challenge to so much knowledge “the knowledge burden”
    Networks Understanding Networks, Pt. 1: Welcome by Nicholas Negroponte, Joi Ito, and César Hidalgo
    about ten minutes in Cesar Hidalgo talk begins which is relevant to rebuilding societal infrastructure
    We are personbyte individuals in a peoplebyte world
    Each of us has limited capacity (bounded rationality), but high quality of life demands a lot of knowledge

    The knowledge burden problem:

    Summary notes that are relevant from the MIT Media Lab event:

  18. 4 examples going in the right direction individual and institutional proof-points

    1 person built a tractor in 6 days
    TED Talk 2011 – Marcin Jakubowski on the Global Village Construction Set & Open Source Ecology
    Great 4 minute TED Talk is well aligned with the above challenge

    1 person built a toaster “from scratch” in 9 months
    TED Talk 2010 – Thomas Thwaites: How I built a toaster — from scratch
    Great 11 minute TED Talk is well aligned with the above challenge

    1 company built a 30-story hotel in 15 days

    1 man built a log-cabin “from scratch” in 3 months
    Proenneke was 51 years old when he built is log cabin
    The construction time was 3 months, from start to finish
    It’d been estimated that the total cost of Proenneke log cabin was less than $100
    Proenneke used only hand tools to build his log home
    Proenneke lived at his log home in the wilderness for 31 years, until he was 82 years old

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