What can LEGO teach us about saving the planet?

Can Lego save the world? That is one concept that caught out in studying How huge issues are accomplished, a brand new e book by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner. Flyvbjerg is maybe the world’s main authority on mega-project failures – or how huge issues get accomplished, however woefully late and at woefully value – 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 initiatives from high-speed railways to internet hosting the Olympic Video games. His findings had 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 big minority of megaprojects are usually not 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 a number of benefits. The primary is that particular person parts will be manufactured on a big scale, which rapidly reduces prices. Within the Thirties, an American aeronautical engineer named T.B. Wright made a cautious research of plane factories. He concluded that the extra usually a selected mannequin of plane is assembled, the sooner and cheaper the following one shall be.

Employees discovered the very best 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 known as this phenomenon the “studying curve”.

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

There are different benefits to modular initiatives. They’re extra possible to have the ability to use factory-made parts, and whenever you construct complicated issues in factories, you are much less inclined to fancy the surprising whenever 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 initiatives are possible to have the ability to proceed even when there’s a drawback with one aspect of the construction. This helps clarify why, in Flyvbjerg’s database, benchmark initiatives are resistant to probably the most dramatic “black swan” value overruns, that are at all times a threat to different giant initiatives.

These are the everyday joys. Now turning to the issue of local weather change, an attention-grabbing sample emerges. Low carbon vitality initiatives embody a number of 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 surprise, then, that costs for photo voltaic and wind initiatives are falling quickly.

I’ve no objection in precept to nuclear energy, however I do surprise if clear and secure nuclear energy will be made affordably, except nuclear crops are capable of swap 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 are not getting less expensive, maybe as a result of we’ve not been capable of replicate the identical designs usually sufficient to climb up the training curve. I preserve studying information tales about firms having huge plans for small reactors, so perhaps it is not inconceivable.

Nonetheless, the distinction with photo voltaic vitality is putting. 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 employ 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 value. By the mid-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 fee shall be lower than 27 cents a watt.

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

There’s a related story to be advised about wind energy. The wind turbine is made of normal parts, and the wind farm is made of normal generators. The worth of wind energy has additionally fallen sooner than most proponents may have dreamed of two or three a long time in the past.

I am no nuclear energy professional, however I am certain modular reactors ought to be potential. I hope that. We want huge 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 e book is “The right way to make the world add

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