California High-Speed Rail

Artificial Ecologies and the Networked Megastructure


D:GP’s current project is on the California High Speed Rail (CHSR). Built over the next decade, CHSR will represent the largest single infrastructural investment in California’s history. It will physically link the state’s north and south capital centers, as well as bring the Central Valley region “on line” like never before, making it, for good and ill, a new regional hub.

But like any major infrastructure, and transportation, its reach and effects far exceed its core machinery. The design challenges of CHSR are not limited to the train: they connect urban, interaction network, energy systems, industrial, and econometric design, and others.

Infrastructure as artificial ecology

The Obama administration has identified HSR as a national priority as part of making inter-city transportation more scalable and sustainable. Shuttling an expected 80 million fares per year, CHSR can be seen as a 200 mph rolling city. As it speeds through smaller cities, it will spur densification and link them to capital metropoles. It will anchor new regional intermodal transportation systems, relieving the pressures of the automobile imperative. But its most important impacts go well beyond transportation design: for it to succeed CHSR must perform as a robust meta-urban spine, linking mediating emergent economies up and down the state.

D:GP sees CHSR –and infrastructure more generally– not as single fixed machine, but as an artificially-developed ecological system. The design problems it poses relate to interfaces operating at multiple scales, at the scale of a city and the scale of a person, of a data-object and a track grid, some fixed and in motion, some singular and collective. Our long-term research maps important points of convergence and divergence within these networks as the basis of a flexible policy framework.

Integrative interaction design across multiple scales

By modeling CHSR as a complex socio-technical network (and not only as a transportation system) key design opportunities are clarified and design policy can be developed. These are driven by specific challenges:

  • How can each of the currently proposed 26 stations be carefully planned to support appropriate-scale multi-use programs, to plug-in with surrounding urban fabric beyond transportation intermodality, and to amplify bottom-up applications of the infrastructure and its pubic setting?
  • As an integrated information and computational environment, CHSR will be a site of robust interactive economies, locative social media, and innovative work/play programs. As a vast hardware/ software platform, how can CHSR be designed as an open, scalable platform able to react to unforeseeable needs?
  • If CHSR may also be seen as a rolling supercomputer, generating, sorting, sensing, and provisioning exabytes of data, and its track system may house a strong public fiberoptic backbone linking state and municipal governments together enabling new service efficiencies, how can it support governance and beyond the needs of transportation?
  • As a core catalyst of alternative energy sourcing, from tidal power to solar accumulators, and of bidirectional distribution over smarter large and small grid networks, how can CHSR spur similar shifts in other large public and private projects?

The stakes of investment and invention

CHSR will inevitably effect the social and technological fabric of California in critical ways, but how so? For a state that had seemingly abandoned centrally-planned public infrastructure, does CHSR signal a post-recession trend toward macrotechnologies as platforms for microeconomies, or a one-off opportunity to build megascale foundations? Either way it is critical to strategize the investment to ensure maximum societal payoff.

Through CHSR we ask fundamental questions anew: What is a city when it is physically linked with other cities, when it is in motion? What is the microsociology small-scale, location-based communication networks and what role if any should government have in ensuring they are most useful to its citizens? What impact do we want to ensure or prevent on the California environment? On growth and sustainability? In commute what is impact on the social experience of time passing and space contracting? In short, how does advanced public technology lead to a better quality of public life?

Given the resources and dynamism of California, CHSR should be the most advanced public transportation system ever realized, but it won’t be if its design does not draw the imagination and expertise of the state’s talent base. D:GP serves as one platform for this collaboration to redefine priorities and to focus possibilities.

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