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Foundations & Frontiers

Imposing buildings are an emblem of modern cityscapes. It seems that with each passing year the tallest skyscrapers in places like Manhattan and Shanghai reach ever higher into the clouds.

However, the rules of structural engineering assert that there are limits to how tall buildings can get. There are no such limits when we build in the other direction — down. The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building on Earth, stands at around 2,700 feet tall. One of the deepest holes ever dug, the Kola Superdeep Borehole (a scientific drilling experiment carried out by the Soviet Union in the 70s) is over 15 Burj Khalifas in depth.

There’s a lot of untapped potential with underground construction. And in fact, as the global population has grown and concentrated in dense urban centers, figures like Elon Musk have argued that it’s high time we stop thinking about our civilization in two-dimensional terms — existing on the surface of the Earth — and begin thinking in three dimensions.

If everything from transportation networks to utility infrastructure were to be expanded underground, it would help solve problems endemic to modern cities like traffic congestion.

Large, powerful boring machines capable of producing underground structures have been available in their modern form since the 1970s. Unfortunately, that was also the last time the tunneling industry saw any significant innovations. Since then, the costs of digging and building underground have skyrocketed — particularly in the United States, where laying down just one mile of underground tunnel can cost upwards of a billion dollars, the highest price tag in the world. As our need for more sophisticated underground construction has grown, the costs of doing so have ballooned in tandem.

Further Reading on Molecular Manufacturing:

  • A Contrary Research’s report on the inner workings of The Boring Company.
  • An essay in Palladium Magazine on why America can’t seem to build much these days.
  • Austin Vernon on why tunnels are our transportation future.
  • A New Yorker piece detailing what it was like to dig the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the longest traffic tunnel in the world, and one of the most geologically challenging.
  • A fascinating conversation between Raymond Niles and Kyle Kirschling on substeading, turning the ground beneath our cities into high-powered transportation corridors.

How We Work

Every time a light switches on in the US, a sophisticated system for generating and transmitting electricity is at work behind the scenes. This system has slowly built up since the emergence of the first commercial power station, Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station, in 1882. Its continued function relies on the diligent but rarely-noticed efforts of a legion of engineers and operations professionals working to keep the lights on in America.

One of the more visible – and yet rarely celebrated – roles within that system is that of the lineworker. Lineworkers are tasked with a deceptively simple job: keeping every home and business in the country powered and connected at all times. That involves building out new wire, repairing broken poles, and performing routine maintenance – often while suspended forty feet above the ground.

Despite the onward march of technology, the core tasks of a lineworker – like climbing poles, handling wires, and ensuring the ongoing flow of electricity – remain central to the job. To understand that job, we spoke to Bryce Conner, a lineworker who has worked for the City of Seattle for seven years on both maintenance and upgrade work.

Contrary Research

Contrary Research publishes thoughtful analysis of the best private technology companies.

Announcing Contrary Research Radio: Contrary Research Radio is the newly launched podcast of Contrary Research. Diving deep on the world's most exciting private tech companies. Join Kyle Harrison, General Partner at Contrary, in conversation with the founders, leaders, and thinkers building the future of tech. Listen to our first episode with Aidan Gomez, CEO of Cohere; in it, we cover Cohere, its place in the AI landscape, and Gomez's predictions for the future of LLM development.

Zepto*: Zepto is a grocery and consumer product rapid delivery company founded on the idea that faster delivery speeds could lead to better (instead of worse) unit economics. Zepto’s bet is that if it can deliver groceries faster than competitors using well-designed technology, hyper-local infrastructure, and a rigorous operating cadence, it could serve more customers per unit of labor time, saving costs while generating a superior user experience. Read the full report here.

Tecton: Tecton, founded in 2018 by the team which built the Michelangelo ML platform at Uber, is building a feature platform for production ML applications. Tecton’s platform expands on feature stores, incorporating data pipelines and infrastructure traditionally built by data engineers and making features self-serve for data scientists. Read the full report here.

Citizen: Citizen provides real-time 911 alerts and allows users to contribute toward resolving situations by broadcasting live videos and sharing relevant updates. This kind of crowdsourced crime reporting is intended to foster transparency and fill the gap left by traditional news outlets, providing users with immediate, accurate information about safety issues in their surroundings. Read the full report here.

Arctic Wolf: Arctic Wolf provides enterprise-class security to small and medium-sized organizations which lack the expertise and resources to navigate the universe of cybersecurity products and services, or develop their own solutions. With its SOC-as-a-service (SOCaaS) product, the company offers technology and human expertise to businesses that otherwise would not be able to build security infrastructure. Read the full report here.

* Contrary is an investor in Zepto through one or more affiliates.

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