Planning Infrastructure for the Climate of the Future

Most healthcare planners use the extrapolation of the past – a slow and steadily evolving past – to help them make decisions regarding infrastructure investments. But, science, and the IPCC, are telling us that business as usual is the wrong way to think, now. We must begin to think differently about what we build.

For several decades now, we have been thinking about sustainability, and ways we can design buildings to have a lower impact on the physical environment. Climate scientists refer to this kind of strategy as Mitigation. Climate scientists and policy makers also think about Adaptation – building things that will survive in a changing climate. This is a fairly new science, often framed, in the design industry, as resilience.

Both of these ideas are becoming daily more critical, but both depend on a better understanding of probability, economic analysis, and scenario planning. None of these disciplines feature prominently in healthcare design, these days, and they therefore risk that the owners of these huge investments, much like the generals in the Maginot line, will find themselves outflanked by the forces of the future.

As an example, in a 2000 paper in Energy Policy, Shane Gary and Erik Reimer Larsen coined the term “Carbon lock in” to refer to the complex of economic forces that essentially dictate the choices a firm makes with respect to energy supply. Generally, with the structures of energy markets, accounting rules, and “tradition”, designers opt to invest more or less in the same old thing in terms of fundamental systems. But, the multiple factors of technology, evolving energy markets, and accelerating reality and perceptions about climate change are likely to make the traditional assumptions outdated.

Indeed, carbon lock-in poses a significant threat to new healthcare buildings, which are generally built with decades-long investment horizons. Missing the mark and investing in yesterday’s technologies could prove disastrous.

This session will briefly examine trends in Mitigation and Adaptation trends, and then focus on ways to use scenario planning and other tools to help future-proof buildings, especially with an eye towards avoiding carbon lock-in.