What can LEGO teach us about saving the planet?

Can Lego save the world? That is one concept that caught out in studying How large issues are carried out, a brand new e-book by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner. Flyvbjerg is probably the world’s main authority on mega-project failures – or how large issues get carried out, 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 huge tasks 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 price range, time and time once more. Even worse, there’s a lengthy tail to those disappointments. A big minority of megaprojects will not be solely late and dear, however disastrous as effectively.

Regardless of this bleak proof, he and Gardner have confirmed that we are able to work miracles if we as a substitute use a precept extra acquainted from Lego units. This precept is modularity: a posh 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 may be manufactured on a big scale, which shortly 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 quicker and cheaper the subsequent one shall be.

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

The researchers later discovered studying curves in additional than 50 merchandise from transistors to beer. Typically the educational curve is shallow and typically it is steep, but it surely all the time appears to be there. As a result of modular tasks often use the identical plans and buildings, 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 if you construct complicated issues in factories, you are much less inclined to fancy the surprising if 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 factor of the construction. This helps clarify why, in Flyvbjerg’s database, benchmark tasks are resistant to essentially the most dramatic “black swan” value overruns, that are all the time a threat to different giant tasks.

These are the everyday joys. Now turning to the issue of local weather change, an attention-grabbing sample emerges. Low carbon power tasks embrace 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 tasks are falling quickly.

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

Nonetheless, the distinction with photo voltaic power is placing. Silicon photovoltaics started offering sensible energy across the identical 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 all the time shines in area, what else would you employ it for?) Activate a satellite tv for pc Tens of millions of {dollars}?)

On the time these photo voltaic panels produced half a watt which was undoubtedly a painfully excessive value. By the mid-Nineteen Seventies, photo voltaic panels had dropped to $100 a watt, or $10,000 for sufficient panels to energy a lightweight 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 p.c 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 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 ordinary parts, and the wind farm is made of ordinary generators. The worth of wind energy has additionally fallen quicker than most proponents may have dreamed of two or three many years in the past.

I am no nuclear energy skilled, however I am positive modular reactors ought to be doable. I hope that. We want large issues to occur in our capacity to generate clear power. And one of the simplest ways to progress is to begin with small, repeatable blocks.

Tim Harford’s new e-book is “Methods to make the world add

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