You Can’t Drink an iPhone

June 11, 2012

By Arne Hessenbruch, Founder, Boston Denmark Partnerships

The other day my son said to me: “the iPhone has to be the most exciting technology ever invented”, and as a boring, elderly specimen of the human race, I couldn’t rest until I found a counter-argument.

Do please let me know, whether you are on my side or my son’s!

Generally speaking, I would argue, we take the technologies developed before we were born for granted, find those developed while we were teenagers cool, and consider those developed during ripe old age frivolous and unnecessary.

It is hard to try to imagine the thrill of technologies when they were new, but I think electricity must have been absolutely amazing. Not only could you effortlessly light your house and without smoke, but you began to have truly labor saving devices: washing machines, irons, electric stoves.

And what about running water? Not to have to carry water every day must have been so absolutely amazing, and then to have the freedom to use and waste
water: hot baths, showers, cleaning and cooking with plentiful water, and of course irrigation. It must have changed life in such a fundamental way.

Of course, we now take water so much for granted that some prefer to drink water out of bottles, nicely packaged and branded, instead of the tap water that has not much of a marketing machine behind it. But in 2012 the thing is: we just cannot take it for granted.

The water infrastructure in the Eastern US hails from the early 1800s, and like all infrastructure, it needs to be maintained. In the last couple of decades we have failed to do so, and it is crumbling.

In 2009, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts set up a Water Infrastructure Finance Commission to recommend a way forward, and a report was duly produced this year.
The main recommendation is that water works should charge a water rate high enough to cover their costs, including the cost of repairs and investments in new technologies. This would entail that water users all pay more; me, you, everybody!

Here are Massachusetts’ average monthly payments for water ($28), sewer ($41), cell phone ($55), cable TV/internet ($70), and electricity ($55) – and the water rate may not be the lowest of them in the near future. If you find it expensive, it is because you have paid too little for water for decades.

We have all paid too little in the past and let the infrastructure decay – and now the chickens are coming home to roost. A stitch in time saves nine, and the longer we ignore the problem, the more expensive it will get. But the usual issue is: who will pay?

Massachusetts Senator James Eldridge, the chairman of the Water Infrastructure Commission that produced the report, is worried that the burden of higher water rates will hit the poorest communities hardest, and the report also contains some suggestions for how to alleviate that particular pain. There are some federal grants for water investments, but since they will likely be cut in the current political climate, the report also suggests setting up a Massachusetts trust fund to the tune of $200m a year (paid as a percentage of the water rate).

But it is not all gloom and doom. If we do invest, we can invest in a better technology than the 200-year-old one we have now. Smarter meters take less labor to read. With sensors, we can anticipate leaks before they get too bad, and that will also make us less wasteful of the water we do send down our pipes. With more energy efficient pumps we can provide the water more cheaply.

So we are facing a painful increase in water rates, right when the economy is not too hot. What a pity the proper investment was not carried out half a dozen years ago, when the economy was booming! But once we have invested in the modern infrastructure, we can look forward to the rates coming back down.

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