One of our nation's many challenges, the state of our infrastructure, has emerged as a major topic of conversation.
In order to set ourselves back on track, we need to understand not only what it encompasses and how it benefits us, but also what we’ve done with it in the last few decades and how to best move forward.
How are we doing?
Not well. Last month, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5” —a report requested by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine—revealed that U.S. competitiveness has been continuing to decline. Focused on the last five years, the report shows our worsening standing in the world: “ China has replaced the U.S. as the world’s number one high-technology exporter and is now second in the world in publication of biomedical research articles.”
On October 5, Charles Vest confirmed our diminishing effectiveness in his address to the National Academy of Engineering Inductees, “Technology and the Future of U.S. Competitiveness: Nightmares and Dreams.” He noted, “Across Asia today, 21 percent of university graduates are engineers. Across Europe, 12.5 percent of university graduates are engineers. In the United States the number is 4.5 percent.” Vest went on to say that the U.S. ranks sixth in global innovation-based competitiveness, but only fortieth in rate of change over the past ten years.
A nation’ s built infrastructure is the outward manifestation of that nation’ s investment in its education, training, research and development—four fundamental components of a society that the U.S. has increasingly neglected over the last thirty years. As the “Gathering Storm, Revisited” report notes, federal funding in engineering has fallen by 51 percent since 1970.
Meanwhile, China, for example, has been increasing its investments in these areas over the last few decades, which has allowed them to not only patch up weaker areas, but to innovate.
What’s at stake?
The state of a nation’s built infrastructure is what determines its potential for dealing with the challenges of the future—economic, technological, and environmental.
What needs to be done?
We must innovate faster, better, and more creatively by strengthening the partnership between government and the private sector, and by strengthening our ties with the best and brightest in other countries.
How do we begin?
First, we need to have a vision of a thriving, prosperous, sustainable nation that will inspire us to create a new era of education, training, research, and development that is funded by both dollars and a long-term commitment toward achieving that vision. Let’ s empower our youth (Get out the vote! Run for office!) and urge our elected leaders to take the lead on this.
Education, training, research, and development have been globalized by technology and jet travel; the information and ingenuity is more accessible to us than ever before. Let’ s look to the private sector to take the lead on this.
This is also about more than just currency manipulation; we need to rise above the rhetoric that is so easy to slip into when discussing competitiveness. We can improve our global standing without resorting to criticizing other nations. It’ s just not intrinsically American to blame other countries for our own shortcomings.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has identified five solutions that will enable us to catch up, and we should keep these in mind as we move forward:
- Increase Federal Leadership in Infrastructure
- Promote Sustainability and Resilience
- Develop Federal, Regional, and State Infrastructure Plans
- Address Life-Cycle Costs and Ongoing Maintenance
- Increase and Improve Infrastructure Investment from All Stakeholders
What are the game-changers?
We need many, many game-changers. Why? Because if we rely on the same old rules, we’ll get “the same old, same old.”