Sunday, April 20, 2014

What did the Romans ever do for us?

I visited the Roman Baths in Bath this weekend. It is a beautiful place, but this time I was struck by the fact that the reservoir and water management system that maintains the baths is the original Roman engineering. Water has been flowing for 2,000 years: through the dark ages, the age of chivalry, the industrial revolution and the atomic age, and still we were walking around on top of that Roman engineering, and watching the over-flow water pour through the great Romain sluice

Today in an age when we build for obsolescence in just a few years, we would call this massive over-engineering. Our financial experts tell us to discount our investments heavily for each additional year into the future: as a result the value of anything in 50 years time is almost zero.
Our ancestors thought differently. Bath was a pilgrimage site apparently, but it was still a tiny town on the very edge of the vast Roman empire. What I visited was Roman engineering for Peoria, Illinois. The only conclusion is that everywhere, Rome built with an extraordinary quality of engineering. The beautiful three layered viaduct of the Pont du gard is another example of Roman engineering for a run-of-the-mill urban centre of 60,000 people (Nimes) that I remember visiting many years ago:

Perhaps our ancestors have something to teach us. Infrastructure doesn’t survive 2,000 years by chance. The Romans must have been building for the ages. I don’t know how much written evidence we have for the philosophical world view of these lowly Roman engineers at the fringes of the Pax Romana, but it seems evident that they valued the quality of their engineering beyond its purely practical results. Would anyone have noticed if those engineers had cut a few corners and the whole edifice started to crumble 100 years later? I can only assume they built it right, because they believed it was the right thing to do. To stretch it further:  imagine arriving in this remote backwater of Northern Europe, with the knowledge and tools to transform the natural environment around you. There must have been something extraordinarily exciting to be those engineers building these great structures that would last long after they themselves were gone.

So does this mean anything for us? I think it does. I traveled to Bath on a railway line built 150 years ago by the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Trains still race through his great tunnels and over his bridges. In fact in the West, many of us live in cities where we rely heavily on infrastructure built in the Victorian period. I live in a London house that like millions of others is over 100 years old, that uses sewers of the same age, and I travel on many underground lines that were already finished in the early 20th century. Inhabitants of New York, Boston or Paris have the same experience. Our Victorian forbears also built to last, and the great cities of the world all benefit from this approach.

So what has changed? We are far richer than the Romans or the Victorians, and yet our ambitions in the Anglo-Saxon world seem to have shriveled. Today, it is viewed as madness to build infrastructure with a long-term view - despite the fact that borrowing is at historically low rates of 1 or 2% per year. There is enormous political resistance in the UK to building the first high speed railway line to the North, despite the fact that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will undoubtedly be benefiting from it. In the US, spending on infrastructure has fallen dramatically and most visitors to New York City are struck by the appallingly poor transportation infrastructure for such a great metropolis, where it is impossible to get from JFK to Manhattan by a fast direct train, and where the subway leaves big swathes of the island poorly served.

The main streets around me in London are dug up 2 to 3 times a year, bits of infrastructure (water, gas, electricity, cable…) placed in the clay and then covered over. It’s a process the Romans would be entirely familiar with. It seems hard to believe it wouldn’t make more sense to spend more upfront, build proper ducting for these services and those that will come (fibre to the home?) and never need to dig up these roads again.

Closer to my own working life: in the Internet we have some of these same issues. Too often in the tech industry we worship businesses for the price for which they are acquired, rather than the long-term impact that they have. The Valley talks a lot about culture, but in fact all that dynamism creates remarkably few businesses that last, and even fewer with a strong culture. It seems inevitable that as a result we tend towards an engineering culture that does not build for the long-term, and focuses on “good enough” instead of excellent. Apple is a great counter example, with both a very strong culture and the powerful idea that its products must be excellent before they are released – I suspect that for this reason Apple after Jobs will continue to be much more potent than its detractors claim.

I believe much of this should be blamed on the culture of finance, and of shareholder value measured by the current stock price, that became so popular starting in the 80s. If the “truth” is that everything should be discounted back to net present value at 10-15% per year, then of course the future doesn’t matter very much. The fact that our children will live in this future doesn’t really figure. Similarly too much focus on the near-term stockprice often means we reduce longterm value creation: I truly believe that the best way to create value for shareholders is to focus on creating longterm value for customers.

Of course this message is overly simplistic. London is currently building the massive Crossrail project (very cool website if you like your engineering physical not just digital - check it out), that will undoubtedly provide infrastructure we are still using in 100 years. And outside the anglo-saxon sphere, France is famous for the network of high speed rail it built in the 80s, and German cities are always noticeable for their efficient airports and network of autobahns. But despite this, I feel there is something to learn from those Roman baths and the engineers who just wanted to build something right.


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