Friday, December 2, 2016

Infrastructure Watch: It Begins

By Evan D. Robertson

Ah, post-election America: news breaks by the second, television is rapidly approaching peak pundit, and prognosticators are well, prognosticating. The central question on everyone’s mind is this: “what exactly does an America with Donald J. Trump at the helm look like?” It is anyone’s guess. Minus a few campaign positions declared during the election it is tough to know for certain where the executive branch will stand on any given issue. Take economic development for example: Trump recently reached a $7 million deal with Carrier to keep jobs in Indianapolis in which Carrier promises to keep approximately 800 jobs in Indiana. Next time you settle down to strike a deal with a prospect, you just might find the President, the Vice President, or a federal representative at the table alongside you. Like I said, no one can say for certain what America will look like over the coming years. One thing I am certain about, however, is that this nation will be talking about, and hopefully building, infrastructure. 

During the Thanksgiving Day holiday, I had the opportunity to read a recently published book by Rosabeth Moss Kanter entitled Move: How to Rebuild and Reinvent America’s Infrastructure. In the book the Harvard Business School professor, whom Mac quotes with regularity, painstakingly details the issues and opportunities embedded in America’s current infrastructure landscape. As I made my way through the book, I began to wonder whether America is going to get its future infrastructure investment right. What types of infrastructure are we going to invest in? Will it be intelligent infrastructure or more of the same concrete and steel roads, bridges, and pipes of yesteryear? Is America about to make a $1 trillion blunder? 

Take roads for instance. American cities have a deep and tenuous relationship with large federal infrastructure projects. The need for a federal highway system was often used as a guise for “urban renewal” which in most cases describe the process by which whole neighborhoods (usually poor) were destroyed in order to make way for new highways. It is no coincidence that many city centers throughout the nation have a highway either running directly through their downtown areas or somewhere nearby. It is interesting too to see numerous cities now trying to heal the old wounds wrought by the federal highway system. The most famous example is Boston’s Big Dig, a $15 billion project that relocated Interstate 93, which once ran through the heart of Boston’s downtown area, underground. Atlanta too has proposed its own solution called “The Stitch” aimed at building over the central highway artery that currently divides numerous communities throughout Atlanta’s Midtown and Downtown areas. Cities are just now mending the wounds of infrastructure built decades upon decades ago.

At the same time, entrepreneurs are rapidly developing new service delivery models and automating cars. Innovations which may obviate the need for significant road investment or, at the very least, alter the type of transportation investment required to secure America’s future competitiveness. As a regular patron of Uber, the company is making a strong case for ditching the car and exclusively using public transit and ridesharing services to get around. In the next 5 to 10 years, folks may begin to drive less and utilize ridesharing services more. In the next 15 to 25 years, car ownership might be viewed as unessential to American life, once again relegated to those privileged few who enjoy driving for recreation. Given the amount of money car companies are investing in autonomous technologies and artificial intelligence, we may not be driving at all. 

In an increasingly interconnected world, if America spends $1 trillion dollars on concrete and steel to build its infrastructure then America has wasted $1 trillion dollars. If a road doesn’t provide real time analytics on usage, self-identify potholes, respond appropriately to an accident (such guiding traffic around the accident by automatically closing lanes), or provide the baseline connectivity required for cars to operate autonomously, then our infrastructure dollars were poorly spent. If our drinking water infrastructure is unable to detect a water main break or leaks in the system, then we will have misappropriated $1 trillion dollars. If our transportation network does not provide seamless interaction between all modes of transportation (road, rail, public transit, and in some cases sea), then forgoing the investment may have proven a more effective use of our tax dollars. Tomorrow’s infrastructure should look markedly different than it does now, it should incorporate all the innovations that have been developed and are still developing in our technology-driven era. If we get this wrong, our future competitiveness on the global stage will assuredly suffer.