The 7 Megatrends that Will Affect the Future of Infrastructure, Part II


by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

This is the second half of a complete report on the future of infrastructure in Ontario, commissioned by the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario. The first half can be found here, and provided the conclusions, along with dealing with demographics and technology. This half will deal with climate change & environmental degradation, the global economy, human longevity & health management, the widening tears in the fabric of society, and the rapidly eroding job market. While this report is about Ontario’s infrastructure needs, the comments more broadly apply to virtually all jurisdictions in the developed world.

Climate Change & Environmental Degradation

The most important thing to remember about the coming effects of climate change is that Mother Nature always gets paid. Damage from extreme weather cannot be avoided, ignored, postponed, or overridden by political opinions. Repairing the damage left by such events can be ignored or left to someone else, if the political will to do so is strong enough, but there would still be economic costs that would affect everyone.

Climatologists have been quite clear that no individual weather event can be traced specifically to climate change. However, the rising incidence of extreme weather events is directly traceable to climate change. This means that as the Earth’s climate changes, regardless of why it is changing, we will experience a growing number of weather disasters, from flooding (as happened in Calgary and, to a lesser extent, Toronto), to drought (as is happening in Western Canada right now), stronger hurricanes, thunderstorms, blizzards, ice storms, and so on.

In other words, we cannot predict a once-a-century storm, but we can predict that once-a-century storms will now happen more frequently. Hence, we may have to plan on enduring such events once-a-decade, or even more often, instead of once-a-century. This will require a much stronger – and more costly – response to weather and climate than in the past, and a more robust infrastructure to be prepared for such events.

In some ways, the worst part of this is that we don’t know how changing climate will play out in terms of weather, so we don’t know how to prepare. Will Ontario experience flooding or drought? Will our winters be warmer and snowier, or colder and drier? We don’t know, and that uncertainty carries its own costs in planning terms.

For instance, suppose that in Ontario, Tornado Alley, currently focused in southwestern Ontario, were to shift eastward somewhat, and the GTHA were to start experiencing regular tornados. Would we be prepared? Current building codes do not contemplate frequent storms of such power. Imagine downtown Toronto, say at King & Bay, experiencing an F3 tornado, for instance.

What we do know is that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. It is therefore clear that we must consider this in any future infrastructure plans.

Water Supply

A more predictable future issue relates to water supply, partly because Ontario, like most other jurisdictions, has avoided necessary investments in maintaining and upgrading water management systems, and because the availability of fresh, potable water is becoming a critical issue almost everywhere.[1]

Moreover, Canadians generally, and Ontarians in particular tend to feel we have all the water we need, and hence don’t tend to think about water supplies. Walkerton proved that this isn’t necessarily the case, but there’s more to the issue of water than just bad management, as this quote from Statistics Canada indicates:

“In Ontario, the threat to water availability is high (more than 40%) in the urbanized south-west part of the province. This is caused by large industrial and municipal water use and a low inland surface water supply.  According to the OECD classification scheme then, this region was under water stress during these years [2005 & 2007]. In other parts of the province, the results of the indicator calculations show a low threat to water availability.”

And, as mentioned earlier, almost all of Ontario’s population growth is in the south-western parts of the province. Accordingly, Ontario cannot afford to be complacent about water.[2] Moreover, while this Statistics Canada study studied water usage during 2005 & 2007, the study uses a 30-year average of the water supply. Hence, this wasn’t just a case of two years that happened to be unusually dry, this is a much broader problem related to the concentration of industry, and population growth in southern Ontario.

One of the simplest ways that municipalities can deal with potential water shortages is quite simple, relatively cost-effective, and uses well-established, off-the-shelf technologies. It is to process sewage back into potable water, which would significantly reduce the need for additional fresh water. The problem is the so-called “yuck” factor.[3] Some communities in California have overcome this by pumping purified water back into aquifers, which also increases aquifer . Or, to make this approach more palatable, municipalities can return the sewage, processed to drinking water quality, to streams, rivers, or lakes for other, downstream centres to use. This happens in lots of places in North America, including Saskatoon and Edmonton, which make use of South and North Saskatchewan Rivers, respectively.

A more exotic future solution may be the use of nanotechnology water filters, such as those created using graphene – a highly organized form of carbon that is finding many applications. The potential to create a filtration system using graphene that is relatively cheap and effective on an industrial scale has not yet been proven, but is worth watching.[4] However, even if it proves to be successful, it leaves unanswered the other fundamental question (after cost) that bedevils desalinization efforts: What do you do with the toxic impurities that have been separated from salt or polluted water?

But however it’s done, population growth, especially in southern Ontario, will require that water infrastructure be given a high priority.

Solid Waste

Next garbage, or solid waste, will be a persistent problem until we face it squarely, and stop trying to sweep it under the carpet. Efforts to divert solid waste from landfill to recycling are commendable, but won’t be enough as we are running out of landfill sites.

The major problem with recycling is that it depends heavily on the market prices for the materials recycled. This will be particularly problematic in future as China, which has been the engine of demand for commodities of all kinds, will experience lower rates of economic growth in the future, which will lower the demand for, and hence the prices of, most commodities. In turn, this will make recycling less appealing economically.

Some parts of Europe have taken a different approach to recycling by legislating that the cost of a product should include the cost of recycling (or disposing of) the materials involved. Whether Ontario adopts that approach or not, we should be studying what other jurisdictions have done with garbage, and adopt those techniques that are most cost-effective, and that take fullest account of the environmental consequences of use. The days of ignoring environmental consequences are ending, no matter how big the tantrums of those who want to continue to just dump.

Sweden has a very successful, if somewhat controversial, approach that is economically very successful: they first recycle as much material as they can, typically about 60% of solid waste, and then incinerate the balance, generating power by doing so. They have been so successful in these efforts that they have run out of garbage, and are now letting their neighbours pay them to take garbage for incineration.[5]

Many environmentalists in North America deplore this practice (and in the process seem to feel that they are holier than the Swedes, but on what seems to me to be thin evidence). They typically object on two principal grounds: first, that incineration produces dangerous pollution, and second, that it’s a sin to destroy materials we may be able to reuse.

The first point can be refuted: “SEMASS, a waste-to-energy facility in Massachusetts, in the US, uses 1 million tonnes of municipal solid waste to generate 600 million kilowatt-hours of electricity every year and recycles 40,000 tonnes of metals. The annual toxic emission is less than half a gram”[6]

As for the second, I’d say let the burden on proof be on those who believe there’s an economic way to deal with the roughly 40% of solid waste that isn’t currently being recycled. If they can demonstrate ways of doing so, then such techniques should absolutely be adopted. If not, then waste-to-energy incineration should be given serious consideration.

Fortunately, Ontario has a test case in its own backyard. The Durham Region York Energy Centre is just completing a waste-to-energy facility. This $286 million facility is projected to process as much as 140,000 tonnes of waste each year and generate approximately 17.5 MW of energy. As operations start up, the rest of the province will be able to witness, first hand, the feasibility of waste-to-energy as a means of dealing with the residue of solid waste after all possible recycling avenues have been exhausted.

The Global Economy

I want to touch on two aspects of the global economy that will affect infrastructure.

The first is that they global economy is likely to grow much more slowly over the next 20 years than the last 20 years. This is happening for a number of reasons.

First, China’s population is aging very rapidly, and it’s workforce is actually in decline. This means that virtually all of its future growth will come from productivity growth. Admittedly, this still leaves them with a lot of growth potential, but it also means that their future growth is more likely to be in the range of 5-7% than 8-12%, and will gradually slow even The current crash in Chinese stock market, and the subsequent economic fallout, could cause an even more rapid deceleration in economic growth.

Next, the other major sources of growth are experiencing significant teething problems. India has yet to show the will to cut through their thickets of red tape, and until they do, their growth will remain modest rather than robust. Brazil is sliding back to its socialist ways, and reverting to the habits of bad . As a result, their growth is stalling. Rounding out the BRICs, Russia was never really a growth story, but rather a country that rode high while oil prices were high, but didn’t diversify their economy. Add to this that Russian population is in rapid decline and demographics argue strongly against solid economic growth.

There are other, emerging countries that will boost global growth, many of them in Africa, but they are not yet of a size or importance to matter as much as China and India on their own.

Education Must Change

Next, I want to turn to the importance of education and its infrastructure to Ontario’s future.

The hollowing out of Ontario manufacturing due to globalization, which took place over the past 20-30 years, is largely done, but the fundamental lesson from globalization needs to be remembered: There is now one, world-wide marketplace, and we are competing not only with each other and our American neighbours, but with everyone else in the world as well. The stakes are high, the competition is unforgiving, and there is no going back.

The ultimate implication of that is that we need to have a globally superior education system, and education can no longer end when people cease to be young adults, but must carry on through our working lives. As well, our education system has to take account of the faster pace and the unforgiving demands of a global economy.

Ubiquitous access to the Internet has rendered the memorization of facts to be of minor importance, while the ability to perform wide-ranging research, absorb information quickly, ask critical questions, and be creative enough to produce innovative solutions to real-world problems are key. Yet, our primary and secondary schools continue to be hobbled by a “back to basics” mentality more suitable to the 19th Century than the 21st. Meanwhile, roughly 75% of budgets for public education are spent on salaries.

In an era when globally competitive organizations are lean and forced to be innovative, this antiquated model needs to be phased out. In particular, education should be customized to each individual student to enable them to approach their greatest potential.

With computers becoming far more capable – I’m hesitant to say intelligent – Ontario could be investing in technologies that allow human teachers to be more effective, working one-on-one with students when students have a problem, and allowing them to work in a self-directed fashion under computer supervision most of the rest of the time.

But no matter whether this is done in traditional ways, with teachers, desks, and classrooms, or through technology, Ontario must move its schools to focus on creativity, critical thinking, and customized education rather than lecturing and memorization.

Meanwhile, post-secondary education is experiencing a revolution, with or without the permission of Ontario colleges and universities. Distant learning and online education, are becoming commonplace, and the traditional role of the lecturer is under scrutiny. Why should a college employ local teaching assistants, for instance, to perform lectures when some of the best lecturers in the world can be available online, and when the students can view such lecturers on their own schedule rather than the ?

Tutoring would still be necessary, but even that can take place remotely. And the emergence of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) and online degree and diploma programs indicates that the future of the traditional, ivy-covered campus is very much in question.

I would suggest that Ontario should be focusing on finding the best technological solutions being used anywhere in the world, asking each post-secondary institution to focus on what they are best at doing, and aiming to provide post-secondary education to a much broader audience than at present. Let me take these one at a time.

That technology is often, but not always, replacing traditional post-secondary models is clear and irrefutable. But we should learn from the eHealth fiasco: rather than re-inventing the wheel, we should find who’s doing the best work in this already-well-traveled field, and buy the technologies off the shelf.

Next, we should be prepared to offer not only traditional degree and diploma-granting programs, but also just-in-time learning for a wide-range of fields. In this way, Ontarians can upgrade their skills piecemeal, and often without having to take time off work. Such learning may or may not lead to major credentials, like Masters or Doctorate degrees, but would encourage incremental learning, and credentialing that is focused on specific tasks for workers in the public, private, and non-profit worlds.

And we shouldn’t restrict such learning only to Ontarians. I believe we could make a sound financial case for selling Ontario education – from primary school through graduate studies – around the world. Indeed, I believe we might be able to make Ontario’s education system self-financing. Even more important is that by so doing, our post-secondary institutions should be allowed to increase the resources they have available to pursue excellence.

What we should not be doing is building mausoleums to pander to the egos of rich donors in support of 19th Century education.

Human Longevity & Health Management

According to Statistics Canada, life expectancy in Canada for men rose from 59 to 77 years in the 80 the years from 1920 to 2000, while women did even better, going from 61 to 82 years. That means Canadians saw an increase in life expectancy of almost 3 months per calendar year, on average, through most of the 20th Century.[7]

Much of this was due to advances in health care, particularly in childbirth. However, other, related advances were also helpful, such as the refrigeration of food, and the identification of antibiotics.

The future holds even greater promise. Researchers now have a rapidly expanding understanding of human genetics, how diseases affect the body, and how environment and heredity interact to help, and harm, health. As a result, we can seek cures and treatments deliberately rather than by accident, or by trail-and-error.

Meanwhile, technology is making it possible to do things earlier eras would not have believed possible. We are already growing replacement parts for the human bodies, from kidneys to heart valves, and the expectation is that we will eventually be able to replace virtually every human organ from an individual’s own stem cells (with the possible exception of the brain itself). Hence, if your heart is wearing out, or has incurred significant damage due to a heart attack, we can grow you a new heart from your own tissue, and replace the old one with a new, healthy one.

We are learning how killers like cancer or diabetes work, and finding ways of stopping them. We are starting to be able to design vaccines, antivirals, or pharmaceuticals for a specific purpose, such as stopping or curing previously incurable diseases, such as SARS or Ebola. We may even be able to come up with a vaccine to prevent the common cold.

Meanwhile, wearable computers, with computer genies or avatars, will be able to monitor our health, heartbeat-by-heartbeat. This will let us intervene much earlier than we can today. We’ll be able to significantly improve outcomes when a crisis develops, such as a heart attack or stroke, or when a disease, such as influenza, is developing. Indeed, precursors are already emerging in the marketplace that can perform some of these functions, from the Nike+ app that monitors your heart and running pace, to IntraXon’s MUSE system, that monitors brain activity and provides feedback to help the user reach a calmer state of mind. Systems like these, and many others, will continue to be expand in scope until they become wide-ranging health and well-being monitors.

As well, the exchange of data will supercharge medical research. Individual health information (stripped of personal identifiers) will be shared between each person’s wearable computers, and regional, provincial, national and global health databases. This will provide a massive amount of searchable data that will enable computer intelligences and medical researchers to identify risk factors, genetic strengths, and help locate cures for existing and emerging diseases. (For more detail on this, see the FutureSearch blog post, “Health Care to the Year 2035”.[8])

While all of this is wonderful news, it does have two implications for our health care infrastructure. First, people will be living longer, perhaps decades longer, than they have in the past. And second, this could add to the overburdening of the health care system. Accordingly, in planning the future of health management infrastructure in Ontario, it will be critical to identify the most cost-effective means of health management.

Cost-Effective Health Management

Cost-effective health management will be very different from traditional health care. The practice of medicine should make steadily increasing use of technologies, such as IBM’s Watson computer intelligence, to assist health care providers in making faster, more accurate diagnoses, to map out an evidence-based health management regime for every Ontarian that needs it, and to do so using the least-expensive means possible.

This approach may lead to non-traditional approaches that raise the hackles of many groups involved in today’s health care system. Demographics implies that we will have fewer doctors, and their services may be too precious for them to continue to act as the health system’s gatekeepers. And it may be that hospitals should be avoided unless there is no other alternative that will serve. This is so because hospitals are enormously expensive, and because they serve as an inadvertent breeding ground for infection, especially antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

In place of these traditional entry points to the health care system, it may be that money should be invested in clinics that specialize in initial visits (i.e. gatekeepers), staffed by nurses or physician associates and supported by computer diagnostic systems; others that specialize, and create assembly lines, for in-demand procedures, like endoscopies, knee, hip, or retina replacements, or the treatment of hernias. Such clinics would cut waiting times, improve outcomes by having procedures done by doctors who specialize in them, and relieve the pressure on the rest of the health system by dealing with the most demanded procedures.

In turn, this might mean that Ontario should no longer build or expand hospitals for treatment (as opposed to research) except in locations that are significantly underserved. What is clear is that we will not be able to afford the traditional answers that have grown up, organically, over the decades at a time when cost-effectiveness will be critical to the survival of taxpayer-funded health care system.

The Widening Tears in the Fabric of Society

The rise of homelessness, and the growth in the penal system have important implications both for the social good, and for infrastructure planning.

What I will not address are the moral implications of these issues. There are people who believe that being homeless or being in jail is a sure sign that someone is a bad, unworthy person. Others believe it means such people are victims who must be helped. I don’t wish to enter into that discussion.

Instead, my concern is whether we are properly allocating the infrastructure investments related to these issues, because both will become more expensive in the future.

In the case of homelessness, there is a very real risk that an increasingly difficult and unrewarding job market will throw a steadily rising number of people onto the streets, to become homeless.

In the case of the penal system, there are two issues. The first is that in a difficult employment environment, having a prison term on your résumé will almost certainly kill your job prospects. In effect, when someone is imprisoned, they become almost automatically unemployable for the rest of their lives. The second problem with the penal system is that aging prisoners require a steadily increasing amount of health care, making their upkeep more and more expensive.

Neither homelessness nor the penal system are of interest to the general public, but the costs to society of sweeping the problems under the rug are probably high enough to justify a radical revamping of both. Yet, part of the problem is that our reactions to these two issues are so close to being knee-jerk that we don’t even collect much data on the costs.


On the subject of homelessness, two American jurisdictions did collect data, and also tried an apparently radical solution: giving homes to the homeless with few, if any, strings attached. One was liberal New York City; the other conservative Utah. The result?

“Between shelters, jail stays, ambulances, and hospital visits, caring for one homeless person typically costs the government $20,000 a year. Providing one homeless person with permanent housing, however — as well as a social worker to help them transition into mainstream society — costs the state $8,000”[9]

Yet, there’s a real barrier to this kind of reform, which is public opinion. Most people are opposed to giving homeless people something for nothing, especially if it encourages others to take advantage of the system. We fail to realize that we are implicitly paying what might be called a “homeless tax” by not giving shelter to the homeless.

Therefore, a better solution might be to find a way to have the recipient of such housing contribute something in return. They could, for instance, be offered the opportunity to buy their home through an installment system. Or they might be asked to earn their housing by helping build additional housing.

Ironically, this may actually be harder and more expensive to police, but the politics of something-for-nothing may require it.

The Penal System

There is much more documentation relating to the costs of the penal system, more so in the U.S. than in Canada. In fact, even neo-conservative Republicans, such as the arch-conservative Koch brothers, in the United States have flipped positions, and are now advocating a revamping of the entire legal system, particularly jail sentencing, because the result are so costly, and the system is so ineffective.[10] No thinking person still advocates that “getting tough on crime” is an effective answer.

To pick a particularly stark example of the direct costs of the penal system, New York City’s Independent Budget Office found that “in 2012 it cost the city $167,731 to hold each of its daily average of 12,287 inmates, or about $460 per inmate per day. Undergraduate tuition at Harvard University is $38,891 annually, or $155,564 for a four-year degree.”

In other words, it would be cheaper to send a NYC inmate to Harvard for four years than to lock them up for one year.[11] This is, admittedly, an extreme example. In 2010, for example, the average annual cost of imprisoning an inmate in a U.S. federal prison was US$28,284. In California in 2009, the cost of keeping someone in a state prison was US$47,102.[12]

In Canada, the costs are comparable. A 2012 report from Corrections Canada indicates that it costs an average of C$113,974 to keep an inmate in a Canadian federal prison.[13]

Are there alternatives? Yes there are, and technology will increase the range and subtlty of these alternatives as smart computers and wearable computers will be able to monitor the locations and behavior of people convicted of non-violent crimes with increasing sophisticated and precision. But we don’t have to wait for technology to bail us out.

The Don Drummond report, commissioned by the Province of Ontario, indicated that it costs $183 a day (which projects to $66,795 a year) to keep someone accused of a crime in jail, compared to $5 s day ($1,825 a year) to keep them on supervised release.

It’s clear that Ontario should learn from America’s mistakes, and stop looking at incarceration as the only solution for people accused, or convicted, of committing a crime. In fact, a recent Globe & Mail editorial noted that more than half – 55% – of people held in provincial and territorial jails have not been convicted, but are awaiting trial. The editorial concluded that “The system is broken.”[14]

Paying attention to the megatrends relating to these two aspects of society clearly requires fresh, open-minded thinking – and a clear fix on finding better uses of infrastructure spending than on traditional facilities to cope with homelessness and .

The Rapidly Eroding Job Market

It is much harder for someone to get a job today than it was 50, or even 20 years ago. This is largely due to two factors that have drastically reshaped the job market, one well known and documented, the other widely acknowledged, but largely overlooked: the first is foreign competition, and the second is domestic automation.

Foreign competition has hollowed out employment in Ontario’s economy, notably in the manufacturing sector, as Rapidly Developing Countries (RDCs) grew with the emergence of the global economy. In particular, China and India drew tens of millions of jobs away from more expensive, developed countries, including Canada. The result is that it is no longer possible for someone who has no desire to go to college or university to have a friend or family member speak to the foreman at the local factory, and get a job on the line. That just doesn’t happen any more, although it was commonplace in the 1960s and before.

Foreign competition is not going away any time soon. China may no longer be as big a draw for manufacturers as it was, but manufacturing jobs will chase low wages to new places around the world. They are unlikely to return to Ontario because it costs too much to live in an expensive, developed country like Canada.

Meanwhile, even this trend is being disrupted by the other factor at work: Automation. As computers continue to get cheaper, faster, and more sophisticated at greater-than-exponential speeds, the work that they can do faster, more effectively, and more cheaply than humans expands at ever-accelerating rates as well. This has been discussed, but its importance has been largely overlooked. And it’s no longer just blue collar jobs that are being replaced by machines. For instance, law and accounting jobs are rapidly being replaced by sophisticated computer systems. Indeed, any job, at any level, that involves routine, doing the same kinds of things repeatedly, is very much at risk to being replaced by computers, robots, and automation.

Although this doesn’t directly relate to any specific infrastructure system, it does affect all of them. If these trends continue – and I see nothing that can stop either of them, short of massive global disasters of some kind – then our governments and our society will need to take a completely different approach to the employment markets.

Moving Our Education System Out of the 19th Century

If we do not change how we educate and equip people for employment, then our governments will see their tax base erode, the divide between the haves and have-nots will expand, economic growth will be stunted by lack of consumer demand, and, based on what has happened elsewhere, we will see a rise in social unrest. And, as an important side effect, this will undercut the investment funds required for infrastructure investments.

What can we do about this? First we need to move our education system from the 19th Century to the 21st, as described above, including encouraging grown-ups to return for additional educational “top-ups” on a just-in-time, as-needed basis. As well, students in secondary school and higher should be tutored in practical job-seeking skills.

Then we need to be more proactive about helping people find – or create – jobs. At the moment, most job seekers are pretty much on their own, with occasional, inconsistent government help. This needs to become more systematic, and more robust to cope with the labor markets of tomorrow. And such systems should provide access to additional training to allow workers to upgrade the skills they need to find work.

And helping job seekers create their own jobs as entrepreneurs will also be necessary as people will increasingly be responsible for their own careers, whether they sign their own paycheques, or someone else does. This includes providing course materials in the Ontario education system on how to create and run a business, plus systems in the economy to help people start and sustain businesses. Hence, low-cost services that help with accounting, payroll, taxes, plus providing mentors for entrepreneurs, much as CIDA does abroad, would all be valuable. The government doesn’t necessarily need to run such programs, merely make sure that they are available.

Governments should seek to work with private sector employers to accomplish these things, rather than try to do it all on their own. And they should remind employers that if consumers aren’t earning any money, they are unlikely to buy many products. This was something that Henry Ford knew quite well, but which corporate chieftains seem to have forgotten.

© Copyright, IF Research, October 2015.

[1] Worzel, Richard, FutureSearch blog post, “Water Is Not the New Oil: The Future of Water, Part I”,

[2] “Water Availability”, Environment Canada website,

[3] Poon, Linda, “Bill Gates Raises A Glass To (And Of) Water Made From Poop”, NPR website,

[4] Harper, Tim, Agenda website, “Can graphene make the world’s water clean?”,

[5] Pierce, Alan, “Models of Sustainability: Sweden Runs Out of Garbage”, Pachamama Alliance website, 25 Nov. 2012,

[6] Kushal, Neeraj, “Growth vs garbage”, The Times of India website, 28 Apr. 2012,

[7] Statistics Canada website,

[8] Found on the FutureSearch website at:

[9] Bertrand, Natasha, “Utah found a brilliantly effective solution for homelessness”, Business Insider website, 19 Feb. 2015,
See also Surowiecki, James, “Home Free?”, The New Yorker magazine, 22 Sept. 2014, from their website,

[10] Goodwin, Liz, Yahoo! News website, 12 Nov. 2014,

[11] Aljazeera America website, “Report: Annual NYC inmate cost exceeds four years at Harvard”,

[12] Hirby, J., “What Is the Average Cost to House Inmates in Prison”, The Law Dictionary website,

[13] Thibault, Eric, “It costs $113,000 a year to lodge a federal prisoner: Report”, Toronto Sun, 28 February 2012,

[14] “Most of Canada’s prisoners have never been convicted of anything. Why are they in jail?”, Globe & Mail editorial, 17 July 2015, from the website,

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