Our Infrastructure Report Card and Innovation

The U.S. levees are on average 50-years-old and aren’t up to par. Enter the IoT (Internet of Things). Case in point: Mississippi State University researchers used an instrument called UAVSAR (Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar) with satellite-based SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) to detect the variations in the soil properties along the Mississippi River.

The technology was able to analyze areas that will suffer from slump slide, which is an indicator of future levee failure in a high-water event. With limited resources, this technology could be implemented in other areas prone to levee damage.

This is simply one example of how the IoT can help fix our failing infrastructure. Here are a few more: The Hawaii DOT is using heat-resistant panels to protect highways from lava, while a small Colorado town is using innovative water filtration design to save money. Meanwhile, PennDOT is saving millions with demand-response transit.

We desperately need this innovation for our infrastructure. Here’s why. Last week, the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) released its 2021 Infrastructure Report Card. It has been four years in the making—and I have some thoughts on what needs to happen next.

First, a little bit of background. Every four years, the ASCE estimates the investment needed in each of the 17 infrastructure categories to maintain a state of good repair. Then each category earns a grade and all the grades are combined for a cumulative GPA. Yes, just like when you were in school.

So, what does the most recent report card show? Let’s start by addressing the good news. For the first time in 20 years, our infrastructure is out of the D range. We have made some incremental progress to restore our nation’s infrastructure and that has resulted in our GPA being a C-. Not high enough, if you ask me, but we are headed in the right direction.

Five categories went up—aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways, and ports—and one category went down—bridges. Several categories are still stuck in that D range. Meanwhile, the category that scored the highest was rail, earning a B.

The bad news is while we have made some gains, our long-term investment gap still continues to grow. That gap has risen from $2.2 trillion over 10 years in the last report to $2.59 trillion in the latest study, meaning a funding gap of nearly $260 billion per year. Bottomline, we are still falling behind.

So, what needs to happen next? ASCE has three key recommendations to raise the grade, with the first two being strong leadership and, quite simply, consistent, long-term investment. I have spent a lot of time looking at the third recommendation: We need to be resilient with new approaches, materials, and technologies to ensure our infrastructure can withstand or recover quickly from disaster.

This can include things like making advancements in resilience across all infrastructure sectors by enabling communities to develop and institute their own resilience pathway for all their infrastructure portfolios. We can also enhance the resilience of various infrastructure sectors by including or enhancing natural or green infrastructure. This is precisely why I wrote the book Sustainable in a Circular World to start the conversation about sustainability in all vertical markets.

Now we need to keep it going. We need to share ideas for how to build and maintain our infrastructure in more innovative ways. We need to identify where opportunities exist for innovation to pick up the slack and replicate engineering innovations.

Imagine what we could do if we could replicate these innovations at scale. What might happen if our entire country followed the examples of other towns and state departments of transportation? I think that is something we need to not only imagine but do—today.

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