Sometimes it is good to have a wake up call about priorities. In our throw away culture (that is slowly changing) it is time to look at the value of maintenance. Andrew Russell from the SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel from Virginia Tech do just that in an article in the New York Times. What are your views
Let’s Get Excited About Maintenance!
It’s been a bad summer for maintenance, especially in New York. Last month Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, underscoring a problem that New York subway riders understand all too well: The M.T.A. relies heavily on emergency repairs because it does not conduct sufficient preventive upkeep. Likewise, in the wake of two recent derailments that caused major disruptions, Pennsylvania Station this month closed aging tracks for repairs and reduced the number of trains serving the station — another example of the costs of neglecting maintenance.
Sadly, the neglect of maintenance is not limited to New York, public transit or this summer. All varieties of American infrastructure — roads, bridges, airports, sewers — are in decrepit condition. Lead poisons the water systems of Flint, Mich., and hundreds of other cities and towns across the nation. The American Society of Civil Engineers considers 17 percent of American dams to be “high hazard potential,” including the one outside Oroville, Calif., that nearly collapsed in February.
Why are we in this predicament? One obvious answer is that officials in federal, state and local government do not allocate the resources necessary for preventive maintenance. But their inaction is a symptom of a deeper problem, one that is too seldom discussed: Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.
When Americans talk about technology, they often use “innovation” as a shorthand. But “innovation” refers only to the very early phases of technological development and use. It also tends to narrow the scope of technology to digital gadgets of recent vintage: iPhones, social media apps and so on. A more expansive conception of technology would take into account the diverse array of tools, including subways and trains, that we humans use to help us reach our goals.
While innovation — the social process of introducing new things — is important, most technologies around us are old, and for the smooth functioning of daily life, maintenance is more important. Statistics are difficult to come by, since American federal agencies do not account for maintenance costs in a standard way. But in the computer industry, software maintenance — that is, fixing bugs and distributing upgrades — can account for more than 60 percent of total costs. According to one study, roughly 70 percent of engineers work on maintaining and overseeing existing things rather than designing new ones.
It’s not just maintenance that our society fails to appreciate; it’s also the maintainers themselves. We do not grant them high social status or high salaries. Typically, maintenance is a blue-collar occupation: mechanic, plumber, janitor, electrician. There are white-collar maintainers (like the I.T. crowd) and white-jacket maintainers (like dentists). But they, too, are not celebrated like the inventor.
Once you notice this problem — innovation is exalted, maintenance devalued — you begin to see it everywhere. The entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk, for example, announced on Thursday that he had been given “verbal” government approval for an underground transportation system between New York and Washington. He has also proposed a similar project that would revolutionize transportation in Los Angeles by creating an enormous system of underground traffic tunnels.
Apart from the practical problem, in Los Angeles, of creating a tunnel system in a region known for geological instability, Mr. Musk’s idea indulges a fantasy common among Silicon Valley types: that the best path forward is to scrap existing reality and start over from scratch. With urban transport, as with so many other areas of our mature industrial society, a clean slate is rarely a realistic option. We need to figure out better ways of preserving, improving and caring for what we have.
Always eager for the photo-op and the exciting new announcement, politicians, too, prefer creating shiny new things to maintaining old, dingy ones. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York is an enthusiastic supporter of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, a proposed streetcar line that would cost many billions of dollars to build and run. But a recent report by the Transit Center, a public transportation advocacy group, estimates that New York City bus service could be greatly improved with relatively small costs and a few simple fixes like redesigning bus routes — giving the city far more bang for its buck.
Unlike innovation, which has a cottage industry devoted to its study and cultivation, maintenance is not something we spend a lot of time trying to understand better. Perhaps if we thought harder about it, we would grant it the prestige and the funding it deserves.
There is certainly a financial reward to greater understanding: Maintenance is big business. Giant industrial corporations like General Electric and Boeing make heavy investments in tools and procedures for predictive maintenance, since their success depends on the reliability of their products and the existence of orderly routines to follow when things break down. Even in the digital industries, where the gospel of innovation is sacrosanct, the kings of “disruption” — Netflix, Amazon — keep their customers happy only through reliable and well-maintained data and distribution networks.
To shift our focus from innovation to maintenance would also create an opportunity for greater political consensus. Maintenance is an area of public policy where conservatives and progressives should see eye to eye. The conservative tradition asks us to preserve what we have inherited from our ancestors, and the progressive tradition seeks to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. What better way to do this than to maintain the technologies bequeathed to us by past generations, and to recognize and reward the efforts of the maintainers who keep our society working?