What can LEGO teach us about saving the planet?

Can Lego save the world? That is one concept that caught out in studying How massive issues are completed, a brand new guide by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner. Flyvbjerg is probably the world’s main authority on mega-project failures – or how massive issues get completed, however woefully late and at woefully price – and so he makes it unlikely he’d be an optimist.

For many years, Flyvbjerg, a professor of administration on the College of Oxford, has compiled a database of enormous tasks from high-speed railways to internet hosting the Olympic Video games. His findings have been so bleak that he proposed the “iron regulation of megaprojects”: these are outpaced by time and funds, time and time once more. Even worse, there’s a lengthy tail to those disappointments. A major minority of megaprojects will not be solely late and dear, however disastrous as nicely.

Regardless of this bleak proof, he and Gardner have confirmed that we will work miracles if we as a substitute use a precept extra acquainted from Lego units. This precept is modularity: a fancy Lego mannequin is assembled from a restricted set of bricks, every of which is exactly made and interchangeable with different bricks.

Modularization has an a variety of benefits. The primary is that particular person parts will be manufactured on a big scale, which shortly reduces prices. Within the Nineteen Thirties, an American aeronautical engineer named T.B. Wright made a cautious examine of plane factories. He concluded that the extra usually a specific mannequin of plane is assembled, the quicker and cheaper the following one shall be.

Employees discovered the perfect methods of working, and particular instruments could be developed to assist with sure duties. Wright discovered that the second aircraft was normally 15 % cheaper than the primary. The fourth aircraft shall be 15 % cheaper than the second, and the eighth aircraft shall be 15 % cheaper once more. Each time backlog manufacturing doubles, unit prices fall by 15 %. Wright referred to as this phenomenon the “studying curve”.

The researchers later discovered studying curves in additional than 50 merchandise from transistors to beer. Generally the educational curve is shallow and typically it is steep, but it surely at all times appears to be there. As a result of modular tasks continuously use the identical plans and constructions, they mock the educational curve for effectivity.

There are different benefits to modular tasks. They’re extra possible to have the ability to use factory-made parts, and once you construct advanced issues in factories, you are much less inclined to fancy the sudden once you make them on a development web site – particularly if that development web site is deep underground or offshore.

By their very nature, modular development tasks are possible to have the ability to proceed even when there’s a drawback with one ingredient of the construction. This helps clarify why, in Flyvbjerg’s database, benchmark tasks are proof against essentially the most dramatic “black swan” price overruns, that are at all times a threat to different massive tasks.

These are the everyday joys. Now turning to the issue of local weather change, an attention-grabbing sample emerges. Low carbon vitality tasks embody among the most modular and least modular designs in Flyvbjerg’s database. Photo voltaic and wind energy are on the normative finish, whereas nuclear and hydropower are on the reverse pole. Maybe it is no marvel, then, that costs for photo voltaic and wind tasks are falling quickly.

I’ve no objection in precept to nuclear energy, however I do marvel if clear and protected nuclear energy will be made affordably, except nuclear crops are capable of change to a a lot smaller and extra modular design. Nuclear energy crops have been supplying energy to the grid because the mid-Fifties, however they aren’t getting less expensive, maybe as a result of we’ve not been capable of replicate the identical designs usually sufficient to climb up the educational curve. I maintain studying information tales about firms having massive plans for small reactors, so perhaps it isn’t inconceivable.

Nonetheless, the distinction with photo voltaic vitality is hanging. Silicon photovoltaics started offering sensible energy across the similar time: The US satellite tv for pc Vanguard 1 was the primary to make use of them, carrying six photo voltaic panels into orbit in 1958. (The solar at all times shines in house, what else would you utilize it for?) Activate a satellite tv for pc Thousands and thousands of {dollars}?)

On the time these photo voltaic panels produced half a watt which was undoubtedly a painfully excessive price. By the mid-Nineteen Seventies, photo voltaic panels had dropped to $100 a watt, or $10,000 for sufficient panels to energy a light-weight bulb. By 2021, the price shall be lower than 27 cents a watt.

That is the educational curve in motion. The training curve for photovoltaics has been estimated to be about 20 % steeper than that of plane. Chris Goodall, creator of a keynotes that the world produced 100 instances extra photo voltaic cells between 2010 and 2016 than it did in all of the many years earlier than 2010. Batteries—an vital customary complement to photo voltaic photovoltaics—are additionally racing down a steep studying curve.

There’s a related story to be informed about wind energy. The wind turbine is made of ordinary parts, and the wind farm is made of ordinary generators. The value of wind energy has additionally fallen quicker than most proponents might have dreamed of two or three many years in the past.

I am no nuclear energy knowledgeable, however I am certain modular reactors needs to be doable. I hope that. We want massive issues to occur in our capacity to generate clear vitality. And one of the best ways to progress is to begin with small, repeatable blocks.

Tim Harford’s new guide is “How one can make the world add

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