The emergence of hybrid infrastructure—infrastructure that integrates digital technology with physical infrastructure—will be more efficient and sustainable than the concrete roads and bridges of yesteryear. Indeed, these solutions are very much needed, as the United States recently earned a D+ grade on an infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, with $4.6 trillion in necessary repairs. But new technologies raise the question of whether to prioritize maintaining existing infrastructure or deploying innovative new infrastructure. So, how do we move forward?
On November 9, 2017, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) hosted an expert panel discussion on how to best strike a balance between maintenance and innovation in future U.S. infrastructure investments.
ITIF Vice President of Global Innovation Policy Stephen Ezell moderated the discussion. To begin, he emphasized the need to revamp American infrastructure policy. He shared ITIF’s three suggested priorities for improving infrastructure: expansion, maintenance, and innovation. According to Ezell, the United States needs to expand its infrastructure since the government has vastly underinvested in it over the past 30 years. In addition, he emphasized that there is complementarity between innovation and maintenance. He believes that information technology communications and intelligent transportation systems will help achieve both goals and will ultimately give rise to vehicles and infrastructure that are smarter, safer, and more efficient.
Following Ezell, Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, spoke. He expressed appreciation over the fact that there is a big emphasis on infrastructure in the country right now, even noting that both 2016 presidential nominees talked about it in their campaigns. However, while there may be public support for improving infrastructure, many firms and governments are running into a major problem: acquiring enough funding. In fact, he noted that some public agencies are not even aware of their reinvestment needs, and as such, infrastructure upkeep lags. In addition, he emphasized the need to integrate technology into infrastructure. He advised that the government consider high-return investments over getting the job done as cheaply as possible. Lastly, he encouraged the federal government to do more, though he is unsure how much it will be willing to take on.
Andrew Russell, professor of history and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, spoke next about the importance of maintaining infrastructure. First, he emphasized that “innovation speak”—that is, talking about innovation incessantly—and actual innovation are different things, though it is easy to conflate the two. In fact, he believes that “innovation speak” can often overshadow innovation, in addition to older—but potentially functional—technologies.
Russell believes that the maintenance of older technologies is more important to our daily lives than cutting-edge innovations. As such, he suggested that the government factor in maintenance with every piece of infrastructure built. In addition, he emphasized that creativity and maintenance are not mutually exclusive, calling back to what Ezell said earlier. Lastly, he claimed that fostering a “maintenance mindset” is supported by members of both political parties and is an inherently bipartisan issue. However, it will take a cultural shift to get to that mindset.
John Casana, director of the American Society of Civil Engineers and senior lead engineer at Booz Allen Hamilton, also emphasized the need for a greater focus on infrastructure. He stated that there is a $2 trillion infrastructure gap between now and 2025; this gap will lead to worsening infrastructure and will ultimately hurt American businesses and job rates. According to him, the grand challenge is to drive down the total required costs and push to increase the available funding to close the spending gap. He also emphasized the importance performance standards can play in infrastructure innovation. Ultimately, he emphasized the need for bipartisan efforts to fix infrastructure for the good of the American people.
Following Casana, Lee Vinsel, assistant professor of science, technology, and society at Virginia Tech, spoke. He believes that focusing too much on innovation causes many to underestimate the amount of change and improvement that has happened in the past. He suggested that the government spend more federal money on maintenance and less on brand new projects. He also thinks policymakers should find ways to incentivize politicians to care about existing structures. Like Russell, he believes that infrastructure maintenance is a bipartisan issue.
Overall, it is clear that the United States is underinvesting in infrastructure. Focusing more on improving infrastructure through maintenance and innovation will both boost the economy and lead to a greater quality of life for American citizens.
Follow the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #ITIFinfrastructure.