Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a major drive across industry and infrastructure has been to build centralised systems managed by top-down, command and control structures.

In industry, this shows up as a push for growth in size, and the concept of invent then push-to-market products.

So we build centralised sewage systems that take sewage out of city streets – and push it out into processing plants with outfalls to our rivers and oceans. We build remote electricity generators and pushed energy out from them into one-way distribution grids. We capture rainwater in massive dams and pipe it to cities, suburbs and homes.

We build cars on massive production lines, pushing finished products out to dealerships that push them to customers. We’ve industrialised farming, shifting from diverse seasonal crops to broad-acre, fertilizer-driven monocropping. We separated the delivery of different services into individual, large-scale networks of water pipes, electricity cables and gas pipelines.


“Bigger is better” comes with big overheads and big system losses.

Big systems embed big wastes

Anyone who’s seen a burst water main knows that massive amounts of water get wasted. Less obvious but equally costly (in everything from maintenance to GHG emissions) is system leakage.

Pumping water from source to treatment plant to storage and distribution requires enormous amounts of energy. Utilities use the phrase “non-revenue water” to describe the gap between what goes into a municipal water system and what ultimately comes out the tap. The World Bank calculates that 8.6 trillion gallons are lost each year through leaks…

Producing billions of kilowatt-hours of electricity to pump water through breaks in the world’s water-distribution networks—rather than into homes or businesses—is expensive. It also produces unnecessary emissions.

One of the old ways of thinking is that big problems require big infrastructure solutions, like building dams, bridges or huge sewerage systems. But with today’s technology often big isn’t the best way forward.

Big systems have big administration overheads

We’ve proved that with computers; while the 1970s and 1980s were all about big, central computer systems, today the majority of computing is done on networks with lots of small processors.

The internet isn’t driven by one big central computer – it’s lots of little computers. Home solar power systems and rain water tanks were just the beginning of a shift from big supply networks and systems to local, independent living. Whole neighbourhoods are collaborating to achieve resource self-sufficiency. And smart businesses are doing it too.

Big power distribution grids come with substantial transmission losses, and when the power fails, it impacts businesses, consumers and essential services over a wide area. So an increasing trend in rural and remote areas is stand-alone generation, often combining renewable sources with batteries and diesel backups.

Smaller and more local is smarter

A shift to smaller, localised services reduces the waste within a system. It also reduces the impacts of system failures. And by designing for specific local needs, it can achieve multiple wins.

What opportunities are so close to home that you just haven’t seen them? Where could you be assuming ‘costly high-tech’ when it just isn’t so? Where could you mine the interest and expertise of the people in your business instead of paying consultants?

How could you meet local needs from local resources, creating local jobs and restoring local ecosystems?

Example: An Australian regional manufacturing company reduced its cooling costs by piping hot water from their production process through a second-hand car radiator installed on the factory roof. This smart idea came off the factory floor, not from an executive policy.

Example: A small Australian power tool wholesaler built a new office/warehouse complex. It used smart thinking about passive solar design to orient the offices on the site so they got maximum
natural light and energy efficiency. It took a full year to find out how efficient the high-tech new light bulbs they bought actually were – because for the first few months they didn’t need to switch the lights on at all!

Example: A UK local government authority decided it wanted to get serious about its environmental impact. It started a range of projects to reduce its greenhouse gas production. It installed small gas-fired co-generation plants that provided power and heating to office buildings during the day and local residences at night. It now provides nearly all its own power and heating from its own local grid. (And the key project leader has since moved on to work
for the City of Greater London.)

Supplying to a small area minimised the loss of power in transit from remote power stations, reducing the total amount of power required. Supplying heat as well as power meant that separate fossil fuel heaters weren’t required, radically reducing greenhouse output.

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