ARE you in the game for large-scale responses to environmental public health disasters? Ones that may take us into the middle of the following century and still be functional and essential? For a start, try the Katrine Aqueduct.

Happy, hard-hatted engineers from Scottish Water were glorying this week in their refurbishment and upgrade of this mighty 160-year-old construction, officially opened by Queen Victoria on October 14, 1859. £20 million has been spent on a range of reinforcements and repairs.

Yet this system of underground and overground pipes, which uses gravitation to slide fresh water down from Loch Katrine to the greater Glasgow area, is “in remarkably good condition for its age”, says David Wilkinson, Scottish Water’s senior project manager. He added: “It’s mainly constructed from tightly joined masonry blocks in an arched shape. Very little movement or even mortar deterioration is evident. The quality of the workmanship is very impressive.”

Reading all this, my mind went immediately into futures mode. What could we imagine and decide to start building now, in response to our multiple crises (pandemic, global warming, automation, a planet on the move), that would still be serving us in 2181?

Because the Katrine Aqueduct was certainly an urgent response to an acute biological and technological crisis. Cholera came to the British Isles in the 1800s but became epidemic in the slums of industrial cities like London and Glasgow in 1848, with a terrifying 50% kill rate.

The historians tell me that Scottish medics worked with a “contagionist” theory of cholera – the disease passing by means of bodily contact or fluid transmission. This was opposed to the “miasmist” theory, which assumed that cholera went through the air – a position disastrously adopted in London by Edwin Chadwick and even Florence Nightingale (though corrected by the medical researcher John Snow).

Thus the scale and ambition of the Katrine solution was rooted in a scientific hunch about infection which turned out to be correct (though overall sanitation also rested on installing public sewage systems which didn’t just re-pollute the water supply).

Scots were involved in some of the grandest solutions to sanitation. James Edwards was a Scottish civil engineer who worked in Liverpool and became the UK’s first Borough Engineer, designing and installing in 1848 the world’s first integrated sewerage system for the city. Edwards’s method was to map Liverpool’s contours in exact detail and to build his waste system on the flows these contours might enable.

It’s not difficult to see the continuities between then and now – ones that might help us imagine structures that might last for the next century and a half (apart from, manifestly, the Katrine Aqueduct itself).

Immediately, and strikingly, we even face a similar contest of scientific theories. Should we regard the pandemic as just another episode in human civilisation’s long battle against microbes and viruses trying to kill us? And isn’t it the case that our ingenuity with science and systems has allowed us, on balance, to keep vanquishing them – and will again?

Or are we facing an acceleration of diseases as a consequence of our extractive, disruptive models of agri-business and globalisation? And if we want to lessen this acceleration, might we have to change our structures in a more fundamental way – deeper than just finding biomedical fixes for the latest bug or mutation?

Taking the first view, we might imagine a “new normal” that implies a vast, permanent and continuous system of biological surveillance. We would accept that we live under a rain (if not a reign) of viral threats. We would also grant that our free movement in society depends on verifying our immune or infected status.

Generating biometrics, and wearing the devices which gather that information, would become a good citizen’s duty. For “tightly formed masonry blocks”, replace with an integrated network of sensors, servers and gated spaces. AI would help our urban and suburban communities to stay healthy and productive, no matter how pustular our biosphere. And I guarantee that, 160 years hence, we’d be arguing about how much these systems empower or disempower us.

Take the second view seriously, though, and you might contemplate attacking the problem at source. Which is a globalised capitalist system that relentlessly seeks the best commercial conditions, heedless of the waste those searches generate. That implies we radically re-localise our societies, shorten food and energy supply chains and get beyond consumerism.

So what’s the Katrine-grade structure we would build to answer that? To my mind, the seed of it is in the chapter I wrote for the recent anthology Imagine A Country, edited by Val McDermid. I called it a “Makar House” – a “constitute” (rather than institute) in every significant locality, networked to each other and the wider world.

As I wrote: “I envisage [the building] to be a mixture of science and engineering lab, repair and design shop, kitchen/dining space, media studio and performance space, a ‘library of things’/tool-library and well-equipped meeting rooms of various sizes, available very cheaply or free.

“Essentially, the aim here would be to make it possible for every act of consumption to be replaced by an act of creation – making, remaking, repairing, inventing, customising, cherishing, restoring.

“The appeal would go out to communities to bring all their skills to the Makar House – the electricians and the joiners, those with several languages, the coders and the hackers, the facilitators and the managers, the childcarers and the sports trainers, the gardeners and maybe even some poets…”

YOU could call the Makar House a “transition” space. By that I mean it could be one means of moving from a toxic and self-destructive society to a healthy and generative one, in a progressive and constructive way. But rather than it being some kind of directive, target-setting, disciplinary exercise – which, to be honest, Scottish governments are developing a poor reputation for – these houses would be part of a new “commons”.

Do you want your reform or policy to leave a centuries-long legacy? Then install legal and property structures that return land and physical assets to community control, inviting a new age of productive and creative citizens (maybe call them “Makars”).

The visionary ambition of an independent Scottish nation-state would be to become a “partner state” to this small-i independence, spreading across the country. Yes, that state could support the building of infrastructures in information, transport, health and knowledge (as well as keeping spruce all those Victorian sanitations).

But its role would be to facilitate and support a multitude of horizontal connections and federations, generating a high-energy civil society in Scotland. (Universal Basic Income and a shorter working week wouldn’t hurt either.)

As I have mentioned in this space once or twice before: we don’t need “Team Scotland”. We need “Teem, Scotland”. The coming challenges of the biosphere mean that we must strengthen the capacity of communities to ride out disruptions, quarantines, lockdowns – without freaking out, diving into depression, or escaping into hedonism. That will happen from the roots up, not Holyrood down.

And who knows? If we actually make it to the late 22nd century, we might be wise and stable enough to start thinking about how we build out beyond this planet – assuming we have figured out how to live sustainably and non-destructively on this one.

Somewhere, “wha kens on whatna Bethlehems” (as Macdiarmid dreamed), we may yet “tightly join masonry blocks in an arched shape”. But meantime, this planet’s on fire. And something adequate to an aqueduct is required.