Innovation and Demosclerosis

A common trope among certain observers of China is that “China doesn’t innovate”. They copy, and act as a parts and assembly supplier to Western innovation. This isn’t even false, or unreasonable. China is a developing economy and they have a lot of catching up to do in terms of technology and business methods. Why should they reinvent the wheel when they can just learn how to use the wheels the OECD nations have already invented?

But this situation should not be confused with the idea that the Chinese are not an innovative people. Historically they have a long record of innovation, often inventing things (such as paper, the printing press, and gun powder) hundreds of years before the West had them. Culturally their disdain for the merchant class and centralized government prevented these innovations from being widely adopted, but the innovation was certainly there.

Further, we in the rich west have gotten complacent in some of our fields. Computers and IT are very innovative, but what about education or air travel? What about infrastructure? In 2008 the US Congress passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, requiring passenger rail plans to be developed by States. In California that mandate didn’t even result in a plan to build high-speed rail until 2013, and construction of just Phase 1 (connecting L.A. and San Francisco) isn’t expected to be complete until 2029. Meanwhile during roughly the same time period (2007-Present), China has gone from zero miles of high-speed rail to 10,000 miles of working track. That’s more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined.

Now high-profile infrastructure projects like this always beg the question of whether we should build them, of if they’re worth the money, but that’s not the discussion today. The point is, both the USA and China have already decided they should, but only China did. There are reasons for that related to their comparatively lower labor costs and undeveloped rural countryside, but let’s not make excuses for ourselves. The West has hundreds of years’ head start in development, and all the laws and regulations we’ve collected as a result thereof seem to be holding us back more than they are pushing us forward.

This finally leads me to the real topic of this post (I’m terrible at getting to the point quickly), which is the Broad Sustainable Group of China. Broad Group (for short) has been around for a while now, primarily in the HVAC and air quality business. They make industrial-strength HVAC units, the ones that manage air temperature and humidity for major office buildings, very large apartment buildings, and sports complexes. They’re state of the art, managed in real time from a control center in Broad Town, a company town in Hunan, China of, well, Chinese scale and proportion (that is to say, large).

But what Broad Group is catching attention for these days is building really big buildings, really quickly. In fact, they aren’t built so much as assembled. They’re manufactured in a central factory and then flat-packed and shipped by truck to their destination, like Ikea furniture. All the wires, pipes, lighting, air ducts, etc. are built into the module back at the factory, so the assembly process on site consists of lifting the pieces into place using a construction crane and bolting them together.

The first building I’m aware of that Broad Group has built using their new was during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They built a pavilion there in a single day, but I cannot find a video of that now. Since then they have assembled a 15-story hotel in two days, a 17-story building in two days, a 25-story building in 17 days, a 30-story building in 15 days, and a 57-story building in 19 days. There have been others, but not all of them have been captured on video.

All this construction is leading up to Broad Group’s desire to build Sky City One, a 200-story tower (838-meters, or 2,749 ft, tall) that will be the tallest building in the world when complete. And they want to assemble it in 90 days. That assembly time doesn’t include the time spent at the factory building and assembling the modules, which would be a process of six months to a year, but for comparison the Burj Khalifa in Dubai took five years to build from start to finish.

Now before you start freaking out about safety or quality, take a look at this video of Broad Group simulating one of their buildings being shaken by a Richter Scale 10 earthquake. This seems to be a safe design, and in the six years they’ve been building them I haven’t heard of any of them falling down, burning, or experiencing some other catastrophe. They seems to be taking this side of things seriously.

The Broad Group’s methods convey other benefits besides speedy construction. For one thing, building this way is much safer for the workers, as most of the work is done in the controlled environment of a factory, with industrial robots lending assistance, and not in chaotic construction sites. There’s a lot less waste, clean-up is easier, and basically all the same benefits we saw moving to factory production of our cars, machines, and tools. And most importantly, it’s CHEAPER, which is something I’m sure anyone who’s bought an apartment in Manhattan could appreciate. Building more and better things for less is the sina qua non of economic growth.

This is an innovation that could have happened anywhere in the developed nations. This isn’t cutting edge science, and the engineering is easily within our grasp. But we don’t do things this way. Why? No doubt some architect will tell you a story about how we value our individuality too much, but all the Toyota Camry’s I see driving around belie that hogwash. The truth is that we don’t build things this way because we have forgotten that innovation is something that should happen in every industry, not just “technology” companies like Google and Microsoft. We have allowed the laws around permits and site inspections and zoning to calcify around how buildings were constructed at a certain time in our history, and there progress stopped. Meanwhile in China, without that legacy, innovation marched on. China, in this one field, is now more advanced than the West, as they made a step of progress we could have made – should have made – forty years ago or more.

But all is not lost. Here’s the good news: China has shown it can be done. This is as good a time as any to reflect on the laws we have, and reconsider our approach. Rather than specifying how we build, and send in site inspectors to shut down construction now and then (which is costly), we ought to focus on the results we want (especially around safety and environmental health) and then let innovation bloom again to find better, cheaper, faster ways of meeting those needs. This is how the developed West can ensure that the future happens here too, and not just in China.

2 thoughts on “Innovation and Demosclerosis

    1. That’s definitely a part. If you have a local regulation that says only a licensed electrician can install the electrical wiring, how does that work for a pre-manufactured building? The wiring is installed at the factory, and the local assembler just has to connect the right wires together (blue wire connects with blue socket, etc.) when the modules are snapped together. Does he need to be an electrician to do that? No. But I bet the local union would fight that.

      And multiply that by every union that would be effected, and you can imagine the political gridlock that would result.

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