One of Trump’s campaign promises was to institute a plan in his first 100 days to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. The on-going crisis with the Oroville Dam this week underscores the precarious state of our country’s infrastructure and the urgent need for solutions. However, rolling out a plan in 100 days is proving to be more complicated than anticipated, and it is now expected sometime this summer. Much of this delay, and almost all the reporting, centers on how to fund the endeavor, which could require anything from the $1 trillion Trump has mentioned to the $3.6 trillion that the Army Corps of Engineers estimated would be required, after giving the country’s infrastructure an overall D+ grade in its most recent infrastructure report card in 2013.
Anything that comes with a trillion-dollar price tag should rightfully have those costs be of predominant importance. However, as the House Energy Committee meets this week to explore options to change or “innovate” long-standing environmental protection laws to support a new infrastructure plan, it’s important to remember that just as important as planning the costs is a focus on what you’re actually building. The goal of a trillion-dollar endeavor shouldn’t be to make America’s infrastructure ‘good enough’ — it should be to propel the country ahead and prepare it for the 21st century’s demands and needs for infrastructure. Rebuilding a trillion-dollar system that will need to be replaced in another 70 years is not sustainable. Our rebuilt system must be poised to deliver innovative infrastructure solutions, framed in a resilient system able to respond to unexpected or sudden new changes.
Doing this requires a strategic approach and innovative solutions. It requires an understanding where the world is headed, knowing the role the organization intends to play in that future world, and then starting actions today to go down that path and build a resilient system for the inevitable, unexpected changes.
Strategic change for the next generation of American infrastructure requires understanding the forces that will impact the country’s infrastructure systems. Just as the most successful companies predict where customer needs are heading and then anchor around that, so must our government think long and hard about what infrastructure needs will be in the future and build towards that, rather than automatically replacing old asphalt roads with new asphalt roads.
This is difficult, but not impossible. For the future of roads, for example, a quick list of relevant trends might include: which areas are growing in population, car ownership, the rise of electrification and autonomy, and long-term environmental implications that could change the materials and location in which you choose to build. The future can seem entirely murky and unknowable, but with the right group of subject matter experts in the room, it can be surprisingly possible to agree to a perspective on the future.
The next step is to determine the role the organization will play in that world, in this case, the role the government will play in the future infrastructure system. There are numerous public-private partnerships being posed today that may impact roles in the future. However, at this point it is fair to assume that the government will remain the primary entity responsible for building and maintaining the country’s infrastructure.
The final step in strategic change is taking action. This takes the form of immediate next steps, such as setting up teams or initiating due diligence on investments, as well as building in a resilient system.
For a government-run massive infrastructure overhaul, the first steps will likely be months of contract bids and confirmations. Though necessary, it will be massively important to not allow all progress to be confined to this necessary process. Doing so would stifle the ability to propel America’s infrastructure into the future. Innovation would give way to processes, and the innovative vision would become eroded until the new solution looks essentially the same as the existing solution.
Instead, in tandem to the massive contracting processes, teams must be set up to take immediate next steps in realizing that future vision. Here, it is important to remember that innovative solutions, which by nature are about doing things differently, require doing things differently. Teams working on innovative solutions must be set up separately from the core operating team, with separate resources and metrics.
Building resiliency in the system is of tantamount importance. No one can know the future, and even the best future vision of the world will be wrong in some ways. Rather than hope for perfection, an organization must prepare for the inevitable changes, whether expected or not.
Climate change, for instance, will have a major impact on our infrastructure and, by extension, our national security. Some of these impacts will be anticipated and are already happening — rising ocean levels are threatening low coastal areas in Florida and Maryland, and storm surges like Hurricane Sandy will wash out transportation and energy infrastructure. Others, however, are less predictable, such as the impact from the rise of water-borne diseases in the Great Lakes, or of Arctic thawing in Alaska.
Despite best efforts, any perspective of the future will be wrong in some way. Our infrastructure must be ready to respond, or the trillion-dollar system will fall into obsolesce even faster than its predecessor.
The need to address America’s infrastructure is one of the few issues on which both parties agree. Just as the legislators and media are focused on conceiving of and debating funding plans, we must also devote that same amount of energy to the plan itself. We cannot assume that the correct vision for a truly innovative, unfractured system will just appear from the process.
Building an infrastructure system ready for the next century will require strategic change and innovative solutions — including a robust perspective of the future, our vision for that future, and actions taken today that push against the status quo to maintain that innovative future vision.
Sarah Barbo is a management consultant for Innosight, an innovation and growth strategy firm. She is a Defense Council member with the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are her own.
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