2023-01-02 8 min read


NOTES, 2023-01-02.

When I tell people that I write about manufacturing, engineering, and infrastructure, I know it sounds pretty dry. Even if I tack on “with a very earnest approach!,” it doesn’t quite capture what we bring to this work every week. In 2022 more than any other year, this newsletter has served as a diary of curiosity about the built world. If there is one thing that I hope you take away from everything we published last year, it’s that we really care. We care about the world – the decisions that shape it and the products and systems we build to keep it all running. We care about the people we’ve gathered together – the community of readers, of Members, and of writers.

It feels fitting to step into a new name in 2023 – and I'm proud to inaugurate the first official issue of Scope of Work. But before we move forward, I’d like to take a moment to retrace some of the ground we covered in 2022. Of the 52 Monday newsletters, 39 were written by 23 guest writers. On top of that, we published 19 feature articles from 10 writers over the year. It’s been an absolute delight to think through the world every week with these writers. Here are my takeaways and reflections on the stories we published last year.

-Hillary Predko


  • Spoiler alert: Langdon Winner’s 1980 article, Do Artifacts Have Politics? (which we read in the Members’ Reading Group last year) concludes that yes, of course they do. Winner argues that beliefs and values are built into objects from their conception, and that understanding these forces “must involve both the study of specific technical systems and their history as well as a thorough grasp of the concepts and controversies of political theory.”

    In the past year, we spent a lot of time examining these cultural and political tensions in the built world. In February, TW wrote about how the long shadow of colonialism is embedded within food processor adoption, illustrating “the complicated ways in which technology incarnates economic history, and the cultural burling that results.” In August, Shannon wrote about the legacy of Shaker culture, whose proto-minimalist approach becomes trendy “during tumultuous periods.”
  • After reading Vaclav Smil’s Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing, I set out to evaluate his arguments in light of the tumultuous decade that followed its publication. They largely track with the insights of the manufacturing policy leaders I consulted, but two major trends affecting the sector today weren’t on his radar:

  • Changing demographics: “an estimated 125,000 manufacturing firms are owned by baby-boomers, and risk closure when these owners retire.” Without succession plans in place, key supplies could drop out of supply networks and disrupt production.

  • The loss of industrial spaces: Cities across America are losing industrial spaces to other uses. Without policies in place to protect and expand industrial zoning, the manufacturing sector cannot grow. I didn’t have space in the article to focus on this trend as much as I would have liked (and it warrants its own feature in the future).

    We also weren’t able to arrange a conversation with Saul Griffith to discuss Electrify. One of my only regrets from the past year is that I didn’t make the time to write a piece on the book anyway – his work on electrification, and the work of the associated NGO, Rewiring America, is urgent and actionable. The book has been a real inspiration in the Member community, and we frequently have conversations about installing solar panels, heat pumps, and induction stoves (I recently switched to induction!). While we didn’t have a piece focused solely on Saul’s book, solar and heat pumps did make it into the newsletter often.


One of the true joys of publishing deep dives on materials has been finding images and gifs that illustrate the processes. Anna and Kelly’s essays on stretch wrap and baltic birch were particularly fun, leading me down rabbit holes into corporate websites and the endless stream of factory videos on YouTube. I have immense respect for industrial producers who invest in beautiful documentation of their work. This video of stretch wrap production is just stunning, as is this video of plywood production. Of all the processes covered in these pieces, unrolling a log into veneer has got to be the most satisfying to watch. I would love to find more opportunities to get a foot inside these spaces and capture our own footage of production – shout out to Natasha for taking beautiful photos inside a neon workshop to illustrate her piece.


  • Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn was the most surprising book I read last year – the depth of research, the discussion of different philosophical approaches to building and living in structures, and the pithy quotes (“Function reforms form, perpetually”) blew me away. I particularly loved the case studies, which document how specific buildings have been renovated and adapted to different uses across time. Stewart summarized the three key takeaways in our interview as: “long life, low energy, loose fit.” These same principles are well applied in the radically simple architecture of Walter Segal, who set off a DIY home building movement in the UK. I look forward to reading Stewart’s forthcoming book on maintenance; one chapter has been released, and it’s incredible.
  • On 2022-07-12, I couldn’t pull myself away from the JWST photo reveal press conference. It felt so good to be celebrating this breakthrough in our knowledge about the universe in real time – Twitter actually felt like a positive place to be for one morning! Space science is advancing so quickly these days, it can be hard to keep up as a curious onlooker. I’m grateful for the guides we pulled in to help navigate the extraterrestrial realms last year: lee on the history of visualizing the cosmos, Fred on the history of space settlements, and Ben and Andrew on the fast-advancing capabilities of in-situ resource utilization. If you want to keep abreast of space news, see Ben and Andrew’s excellent newsletter, The Orbital Index.


  • I’ve long admired Matthew Hockenberry’s critical work on supply chains – if you haven’t pursued his Supply Studies Syllabus, you really should. It was a real honor to bring him on to write about the history and future of just-in-time (JIT) at the height of last year’s ubiquitous supply chain issues. The essay pushes back against a popular argument: JIT has taken too much slack out of production systems and enabled supply chain breakdowns (most famously stated by Flexport CEO Ryan Peterson, who I have quoted on the matter).

    In the piece that Matthew wrote for us, he outlines how most companies have never been able to hold stockpiles of inventory and how JIT simply “formalized a pre-existing (if more partial) way of doing things. Inventory didn’t go away–it was just better distributed, leveled out to raw(er) ingredients coming together at a more appropriate time.” In short, “governments stockpile; manufacturers don’t.” He argues that the scope and geographic distribution of issues wrought by the pandemic are beyond what excess inventory could have covered. While many have called for a revaluation of JIT and a return to “just in case,” Matthew points out that “the truth is there is nothing to return to; for nearly all of the consumer economy, ‘just in case’ never really existed in the first place.”
  • Our lives and neighborhoods are woven together with micro-logistics networks. I had the pleasure of exploring one such network when the City of Montreal let me go on a snow removal ridealong. I later found this 1957 video, which follows the same journey beat by beat; while the technology has changed, Montreal has been excelling at snow removal for decades. Meanwhile, in Ameena’s neighborhood in the Bronx, the barrels for sale at local shops are just the tip of the iceberg of a niche logistics network. Members of the Caribbean diaspora pack barrels with products for family and friends back home: “despite the expansion of e-commerce, many Caribbean countries still don’t have access to simple conveniences like online shopping, making it difficult to obtain necessities. Relatives in major U.S. cities mollify this by making sure their loved ones back home get the goods they want and need, with no ocean standing in their way and no barrel packed too full.” Check out barrel packing videos on TikTok!


I always love to bring in a voice with deep expertise in a niche topic. When I heard that a friend of a friend had helped develop the ASTM standards for bouncy castles, I knew I had to track him down. Michael is a mechanical engineer who works certifying amusement park rides and was swept up (along with manufacturers, regulators, and park operators) into developing a more comprehensive standard. He’s just one of the 32,000 technical committee volunteers who dedicate their time to fine tuning the world around us.

Similarly, Cindy is a mechanical engineer and human-centered designer who worked for years designing flight decks for commercial aircraft. She shared her expertise in a thoughtful piece about the constraints and tradeoffs that shape flight deck interfaces. Automation and human operators are in constant tension, and designers need to balance the role of both to keep everyone safe. I found the role of muscle memory in interface design particularly interesting:

In the design of safety-critical human-in-the-loop systems, the human is the biggest source of uncertainty, yet somewhat ironically must be given the final authority. Therefore, there are many aspects to human cognition that must be considered in flight deck design. Haptic feedback and tactility both play key roles in helping pilots develop muscle memory, which is a major reason why flight decks are still full of physical controls. In many cases, pilots can access crucial controls without looking due to consistent locations and differentiated inputs, building a mental model of control locations inside pilots’ brains. Recurrent pilot training of both routine and emergency procedures reinforce these mental models.


In a 1980 episode of Cosmos, Carl Sagan sat in a beautifully appointed hall at Oxford, was served an apple pie, and delivered his famous line: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” It’s always stuck with me – I appreciate Sagan’s ability to illuminate the wonder of the world with a simple turn of phrase. Everything is connected, everything is worthy of awe.

The quote sprung to mind when editing Thomas Thwaites’ interview about The Toaster Project (hence its title, clearly). With a simple provocation – trying to make an appliance from scratch – Thwaites unfurls the complexity and wonder of the world around us. Every object, every piece of infrastructure connects to so much more. There are no discreet parts, no tidy boundaries. I am immensely honored to be able to spend my time navigating the tributaries of the material world. Thank you for traversing these connections with us this year, and for bringing in new threads.

A 6,200-year-old piece of indigo cloth from Peru.

Read the full story

The rest of this post is for SOW Subscribers (free or paid) only. Sign up now to read the full story and get access to all subscriber-only posts.

Sign up now
Already have an account? Sign in
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Scope of Work.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.