Our Infrastructure Should Go Back to the Future
America’s infrastructure is taking a beating — and not just from wear and tear. It’s hard to find an article about U.S. roads, bridges, or transmission lines that doesn’t describe them as “crumbling.”
It’s not that the original projects were poorly built. On the contrary, twentieth century U.S. infrastructure includes a long list of iconic marvels. These projects were imaginative, technologically bold, and transformative.
But concrete and steel wear out. While “crumbling” is perhaps rhetorical overkill, much of our twentieth century infrastructure is aging and struggling to meet current needs.
To that end, the president has challenged Americans to “build back better.” But what does “better” mean in the context of our bridges, roads, ports, and other infrastructure elements?
Today’s political momentum behind infrastructure has been absent for decades. It would be unfortunate if we lost this opportunity by reverting to the traditional thinking on what constitutes infrastructure. A transformative strategy must include an aggressive use of technology in the design, construction, and operation of new projects.
By integrating the digital and physical worlds, it’s possible to develop solutions that have no historical precedent. Digital construction, in the form of smart machines and site management tools, has already demonstrated potential. It can achieve project cost reductions of up to 25 percent, by improving productivity and reducing waste.
Meanwhile, the availability of cost-effective sensors coupled with reliable wireless connectivity, cloud-enabled access to data bases, and AI capabilities provide a platform for improvements in operating costs, project life, and user benefits.
While much of these technologies are still nascent, early developments are already in play across the country. Santa Clara County uses sensors and cloud-based calculations to adjust traffic lights on major roads, accounting for car volume as well as bicycles and pedestrians.
Early tests of a similar system in Pittsburgh found that it cut travel times by a quarter and idling by almost a third.
Smart water systems, such as the one being implemented in Louisville, Kentucky, detect leaks and hasten repairs. Real-time monitoring of dams and bridges provides status updates that allow the prioritization of maintenance and the avoidance of catastrophic failure.
Examples such as these are proliferating. So, any infrastructure legislation that doesn’t anticipate a continuing flow of innovation and provide appropriate incentives will fail.
Properly anticipating the trends that will challenge our future infrastructure is equally crucial. As a recent report from the Brookings Institution stated, our country “cannot simply react as the pace of digitalization accelerates.”
Constructing new versions of old infrastructure, however sensational it was for its era, will be insufficient to meet these challenges. Technology will future-proof our systems by enabling them to better adapt to changing conditions, and thereby extending their effective life.
The challenge of future-proofing our infrastructure will require imagination and vision from Republicans and Democrats. Some aspirational elements should be easy to agree on — namely, the need to build smart infrastructure.
By getting that strategy right, Congress will be making a wise investment — whatever the monetary amount. And the infrastructure we build today will sustain us long into the future.
Steve Berglund is the executive chairman of the Board of Directors at Sunnyvale-based Trimble Inc.