Most Americans seem excited and hopeful about the prospects for the Biden Administration’s infrastructure plan. Local politicians as well as their construction buddies are salivating at the possible promise of getting their share of this multi-trillion-dollar prize. But looking beyond the pork barrel, we might want to consider how innovation and technology could help America regain its first-class status in infrastructure.
As of 2019, the United States is ranked 13th in the quality of its infrastructure, after countries like Singapore, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom among others. Of course, it may not be a fair comparison since the U.S. has to rebuild and maintain 4 million miles of roads, streets, tunnels, bridges and other structures, while a nation like Singapore is smaller than New York City.
The sheer size of our infrastructure is made even more difficult by how many fingers are in the nation’s pie. All of this infrastructure is essentially owned, operated, and maintained by state and local highway agencies. At the local level, about 40,000 individual governmental units of varying sizes and populations are responsible for 75% of the nation’s highway milage.
In turn, these agencies contract with thousands of private companies that furnish products, services, and equipment to build, maintain, and operate the system. This private sector portion is comprised of highway contractors and consultants, material and equipment manufacturers and suppliers, plus all the professional, trade, and industry assortations that proliferate at the national, state, and local levels. We are talking about many thousands of individual businesses from the largest multinational corporations to single-person operations.
Over and above this vast public and private sector army sits the federal government, which provides funding in the form of financial assistance to the states, as well as certain regulations, policies and guidelines.
As one can imagine, like in every army, there are traditional ways of thinking and doing and when it comes to infrastructure, even more so. When thinking about infrastructure, more often than not, familiar terms like “shovel ready,” “pothole repair,” and “black topping,” accompanied by long traffic delays and detours comes to mind.
But while we have largely delayed or ignored our infrastructure, other countries have been achieving technological breakthroughs and new innovations for years. My hope is that the U.S. will be able to take advantage of some of these advances in our own infrastructure plan in the coming decade.
Software programs, for example, are changing the way infrastructure projects are being designed. New building information modeling programs enable three-dimensional, computer-generated designs that allow professionals at all stages, from architects to engineers to building managers, to collaborate on a project. Among other things, using these state-of-the-art programs decreases errors, gives much greater predictability when it comes to costs, and would help to deliver projects that are on time and on budget.
Another innovation is the application of 3D printing to construction and design. 3D printing is poised to totally disrupt the construction site, according to many construction experts. A Dutch company, for example, designed and built the world’s first 3D printed steel bridge recently. The use of 3D technology not only can reduce costs, but aid in constructing safer, more durable projects.
Plastic roads is another concept that promises to replace traditional asphalt as a primary material in road construction. Advantages over asphalt include quicker installation time, triple the service life, and an effective way to recycle the plastic that is filling up our oceans and landfills.
Blockchain technology can also be applied to infrastructure long before the first 3D blueprint is drawn up. Remember that army of private and public sector entities? Imagine how long it usually takes the government to actually contract out and procure all the processes involved in even one project. That’s where blockchain comes in. The technology would be ideal in its ability to eliminate the layers and layers of contracts and middlemen that sit between the conception and delivery of just about any infrastructure project.
These are just some of the advances that are available to the U.S. The challenge will be to overcome the skepticism and resistance to change that confronts all of us. I’m hoping that, with the correct approach, our effort to rebuild America could be the envy of the world.