Macroengineering: mammoth projects need love, too

In an epoch for privacy, environmental protection, decentralization, and peace, it may appear curious that there is a substantial upwelling of interest in a field of study dubbed macroengineering -- the study, preparation, and management of the largest technological projects that society can sustain. It may seem even odder that the late E. F. Schumacher's "Small Is Beautiful" is regarded as a central text, and that the System Dynamics approach -- which emphasizes that interconnection of many elements in analysis of national and world problems -- is regarded as fundamental and fruitful.

But whether we like it or not, large-scale engineering enterprises have become increasingly typical of the way the world does its work. These enterprises are becoming so pervasive in their effects that both evaluation and management have become exceedingly complex tasks. And while a generation of social criticism has been directed against the sins of bigness, Americans have suddenly become aware that their once-vaunted talent for organization and technical prowess has been eroded by an inability to institutionalize cooperative procedures, precisely when severe competition threatens their national balance of payments, the integrity of the dollar, and the "standard of living."

Actually, large-scale organization is no newcomer to history. The mammoth early walls of Jericho were erected about 9,000 years ago -- more than 6,000 years before Joshua arrived with his trumpet. The Roman roads, the Grand Canal of China (1,300 miles long), and the urban citadels of the Incas and the Aztecs remind us that contemporary society, in Churchill's celebrated phrase, "has a great deal to be modest about." What makes the modern situation different is not , then, the ability to organize men in large groups to accomplish stupendous engineering feats, but the ability to combine this capacity with "advanced" or "high" technology.

Psychiatrists, investment bankers, architect-planners, and lawyers, as well as engineers, have all contributed to the delineation of this new field. What are some examples of problems taken on by today's task forces?

First, let us consider the worldwide wave of urbanization. A single metropolitan development, the Jubail Complex in Saudi Arabia, will eventually involve a higher investment than the Apollo Program. The new federal capital of Nigeria will rival Brasilia and ancient Alexandria as a center of government and Administration. And the United Nations, in the underpublicized model town designed under Peter Land's direction in Peru, showed that economy can be combined with high aesthetic and social achievement.

In fact, Boston and other American cities have much to learn from Peter Land's successful demonstrations of cluster housing: With appropriate changes in regulations and procedures, it is feasible to accommodate as many people in clustered, individually owned houses as can fit into a 12-story high-rise apartment building. Professor Land's forthcoming book on his United Nations Housing Project in Lima, Peru, will deserve wide -- and intensive -- reading.

Transportation provides other examples of creative opportunities. Scientists now feel that pipeline transport (so-called tube-flight) -- jetting people and goods in capsules through tubes and eventually at supersonic speed where appropriate -- can supplant long-distance air travel and freight traffic between our larger cities.

Much design work, prototype construction and testing, and economic analysis remain to be done. But the environmental benefits may be of such magnitude that this could be a case -- or a cluster of cases -- where leading environmental groups may wish to combine their influence and resources with engineering research organizations so that the needed technologies may be sifted and applied without the customary delays that face expensive new infrastructure projects in our rather argumentative society.

Macroengineering offers, therefore, an institutional as well as a conceptual mechanism for launching those public-benefit programs that respond to both environmental and economic imperatives.

It has been fashionable to decry the too-short time horizon of a two-year member of the House of Representatives or a four-year president. But the chief executive officers of many major corporations have relatively short terms of office, too, and are therefore inhibited from investments in long-range programs; and they are subject to pressure from shareholders for quick results.

Both government and industry, therefore, share a need for procedures that will permit the serious consideration and implementationm of large-scale industrial projects.

Of course the decision to invest a hundred billion dollars in a supersonic ground transport network (as proposed in a brilliant and provocative paper by Robert Salter at a macroengineering symposium in 1978) would require enormous public and political support. Whether this idea can be revised and refined to become a pragmatic test case for a "new wave" of environmentally oriented engineering, only the future can tell.

What is apparent, however, even at this provided us with enticing technologicalm am! swers to somem of the problems of pollution and congestion. Whether the "solutions" will provoke still larger difficulties must be studied in such disciplines as Systems Dynamics, wher complex interactions can be simulated and assessed. But the thought that the airplane may soon be obsolete (except for short-haul flights) because it is too slow can provide interim comfort to both environmentalists and to afidionados of "high technology."

The recent presidential campaign popularized the slogan of "reindustrialization" without, however, shedding much light on methods to achieve it. I submit that, if the United States is to regain its place in the industrial sun, it will have to forgo both the shortsightedness of a two-year planning horizon and the impracticality of a 100-yar time-horizon.

Can we not summon the consensus and the momentum needed to modrenize the American infrastructure, giving priority to social and environmental needs, and enlisting thereby the intelligent support of industry, government, the profssions, and also of those "pressure groups" that stand for long- range values as opposed to short-term patchwork?

A word of caution is necessary. To move from the facile generalizations about "common interest" and "shared values" to the steel and concrete of specific programs will require institutional adjustments as well as changes in individual and group perceptions. On the engineering level, I see an immediate need for consortia formed to build prototypes of engineering systems to make a solid contribution to environemental and economic health.

Let us take the case of electromagnetically levitated transport -- cars elevated by magnetic force. This was successfully demonsrated in a scale model built may years ago by Henry Kolm and his associates at the Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory.But neither American government for industry rose to the challenge; it has been in Japan and in Germany that full-scale prototype development has taken place.

Americans have been technically innovative, even brilliantly so, but their institutionalm performance has been less glorious. Unless Hamlet is to become a national model, they must develop rational procedures for teamwork, for combined decisions, and for the assumption of medium-rang e responsibility for the application, testing, and maintenance of infrastructure systems deemed desirable for the nation's future.

Ultimately, what is needed is a new profession of engineer-management. Could we not provide a career path for a selected group of broadly trained professionals, giving them actual experience in industry, with the Corps of Engineers, and in the various disciplines principally involved in any large engineering project?

It is not enough to be "against" bigness. Technology is providing us with a cornucopia of choice. We shall need the capacity to evaluate new proposals -- and often to revive old ones -- lest decisions to proceed, or to abandon, be made on irrational grounds.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.