In his State of the Union address, President Obama cited rebuilding America’s infrastructure as one of the key steps to “win the future.” He’s right, and this is a step we can take with confidence. We have the talent, the engineering capacity, the construction know-how, and the materials, processes and experience to complete major infrastructure projects of all sorts.
Contrary to popular impressions, we also have the money, even in financial straightened times, because new financing methods can tap vast amounts of private capital, if we’re wise enough to deploy them.
So what, then, is the problem? Why has our infrastructure decayed so grievously in recent years, and why do we now seem unable to act in an area at which America has always excelled?
What’s lacking is an integrating calculus and governance mechanism to align the disparate actors involved in infrastructure to achieve the ends we desire. Our old ways of doing infrastructure no longer work for three reasons: the key coordinating function of government at various levels has become muddled; the stakeholder landscape has shifted with globalization and deregulation; and technology, once relatively stable, has changed so fast that various infrastructure elements have become commingled in ways that legacy government routines cannot handle. The result is that our business models for infrastructure embed perverse incentives among those who use, finance and build infrastructure systems. This leaves us able to (under)invest only in incremental improvements that do not meet the challenges we face.
We need to re-imagine America’s infrastructure based on an understanding that 21st-century infrastructures are complex, intertwined systems that involve many stakeholders across government, industry and society. Integrated leadership is central to renewing them, but that leadership must work across our federal system to recreate government’s integrator role without creating either new monopolies or a larger, more centralized government.
Four key steps can lead us there. First, we must be as adept at re-imagining our infrastructures as we were at imagining them for the first time. We need to see infrastructure as a network of complex systems comprised of different assets, jurisdictional authorities and stakeholders.
It helps to view this complex network as having multiple, interdependent dimensions including its mission, business model, technologies and physical assets. Surrounding each dimension are communities of stakeholders, each with their own interests and motives. When we re-imagine, all dimensions must be considered so that stakeholder communities can be effectively engaged.
Second, we need modular design principles that make future infrastructures smart, robust and adaptable as technology advances, funding changes and as the needs of our citizens evolve. Infrastructure systems must be easily upgradable when new technologies come to fruition. They must also be sustainable and environmentally friendly not only to pass political muster but to meet the needs of future generations. And they must be resilient enough to recover from disruption—both natural and deliberate. These qualities won’t emerge by luck or happenstance; they must be designed in.
Third, we need leadership that succeeds by convening, integrating and aligning the interests and actions of disparate stakeholders who are often wired to pursue their own self-interests. It is leadership’s job to broker and enforce a functional common ground by which stakeholders can align their interests with the common good. To do this, stakeholders must be persuaded that optimizing their interests over the long run is wiser than seeking to maximize short-term gains. Again, no invisible hand will make this happen all by itself.
Finally, we must articulate a national vision for America’s infrastructure that defines the function and performance of the whole system over its entire lifecycle. Only with such a vision can we devise an integrated policy that spans government bureaucracy silos and enables key stakeholders (business, government, civil society) to operate in alignment. Only with such a vision can we ensure long-term, stable funding that benefits from private capital and appropriate levels of government investment. Every successful large infrastructure program requires stability in all of these areas.
The magnitude of the challenge we face requires bold thinking and the mobilization of our national political will. President Obama and several congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have proposed creation of a National Infrastructure Bank, initially capitalized at $50 billion. Other proposals would fund, separately, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense (the largest consumer of energy).
This won’t solve the problem. We are a cumulative $2 trillion short in infrastructure investment, and a piecemeal approach can never substitute for the integrated design function that only integrative and transformational leadership can provide.
Accordingly, we recommend launching a presidential commission (comprised of members of the Executive Branch, Congress, state and local governments, the private sector, universities, nonprofit organizations and associations) to formulate major recommendations for action. This commission should convene several national forums to elicit broad stakeholder involvement and build momentum for the long-term campaign ahead. One key aim of such a commission would be to create a new venue for an integrated decision and implementation process to ensure sustainable infrastructure investment in our future. We have no such venue today.
The monumental achievements of our past were made possible by a clear vision and focused effort on a national scale. We need to renew that vision now to stimulate our national will. Our problems with infrastructure are neither physical nor monetary; they are conceptual and political. Solving them is a critical first step in creating the stable foundation for a 21st century America–one that is secure and resilient, globally competitive, and provides us with the quality of life we have come to expect.
Mark Gerencser is an executive vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton and co-author of the best-selling book, Megacommunities (Palgrave MacMillan). This article is adapted from an essay forthcoming in the spring 2011 issue of The American Interest.