There’s something about road-building, and the evolution of roads, that speaks to the challenges of political leadership and constituent relations: discerning situations, tackling challenges, developing new techniques, but also working with the foundations and tracks you’ve already laid out. 

The very first “roads” were just well-worn paths, but with empire-building came the necessity to create a methodology. As I read it, the Romans initially developed road-building with complex materials for two main reasons: first, to address the muddy and wet roads that delayed the movement of troops: second, to keep produce clean when transported from farmland. The materials combined for use included crushed stone and capstones on more heavily-traveled roads. Carriage-makers also incorporated spring-based shock absorbers into horse-drawn transport vessels. 

The Romans built nice roads all over Europe. After the fall of the empire, they generally deteriorated, but their “alignments” — basically their worn paths and lines — continue to form the basis of many significant road systems, the most well-known being Britain’s A1 — the descendant of two millennia of transformations from the Roman roads listed in the Antonine Itinerary, to the route from London to York known as “Ermine Street,” and later the Old North Road, which in turn became part of the Great North Road, and so on. The road system constantly changed though, compensating for flooding, traffic damage, the importance of new commercial routes, and other reasons. 

What’s the takeaway? One lesson is surely that infrastructure is built when the government needs it built. Once it’s in place, it can endure literally thousands of years. The choices officials make influence large-scale planning in ways that will be remembered and examined centuries later. Who knows what our successors will say about the “roads” of information and data we’re sharing now, not to mention the emerging “internet of things” that promises to share material substance as freely as we now share information?  

The Enlightenment, early industrialization and the dawn of capitalism brought about professional road-builders, scientists and engineers of roads. The pioneering rock star road-builder in Britain was John Metcalf. In 1765, Parliament authorized the building of a series of toll-funded roads in York, and John Metcalf won the contract to build about 180 miles of them. He developed a way to allow rainwater to drain into roadside ditches via a convex (curved) surface. He also built a road across a bog using rafts as foundations after other engineers told him it would be impossible. Metcalf had a reputation as an eccentric jack-of-all-trades, and I like to imagine that his personality resembled Christopher Lloyd’s Emmett Lathrop “Doc” Brown from the Back to the Future series.

John Metcalf was also blind, by the way, from smallpox when he was six years old. 

The takeaway from John Metcalf? Part of innovation often involves bending (or perhaps “curving”) the rules. Metcalf literally curved the roads. But he also had the audacity to put roads on rafts so that heavy carriages could drive over them — quite possibly to prove to skeptics that it could be done. 

The road, a kind of conduit, is a metaphor for communication systems too. How are we changing the way roads are configured, to accommodate more people, more “trips?”  This is a good question for constituent communications. What rules do we need to break — in what ways do we need to curve the road — to avoid the “flooding” of external noise, while also expanding access? 

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