Never mind the fact that "Infrastructure Week" became a cynical running joke during the last U.S. presidential administration. Never mind that it might as well have been dubbed "Infrastructure Weak," a fitting recognition of the teetering state of so much of the world’s — and notably, America’s — underlying foundation.
Fact is, there has never been a more critical time to reimagine, rebuild and restore our infrastructure — here in the United States and in most other parts of the world — in a way that strengthens economies while increasing resilience in an ever-unpredictable world.
(And, all joking aside, it truly is Infrastructure Week at GreenBiz Group. Each of our seven newsletters this week will be devoted to an infrastructure topic as it relates to such things as transportation and mobility, clean energy systems, sustainable finance, the circular economy and sustainable food systems.)
Budget battles notwithstanding, there’s a compelling economic argument for infrastructure investments.
Most articles and websites focusing on infrastructure are quick to refer to "roads and bridges." Of course, it’s much bigger than that. Infrastructure also can refer to ports, airports, railways, mass transit, municipal water systems, waste management and recycling systems, the electricity grid, dams, levees, pipelines and broadband internet, among other things. (Some would add education, housing and health care — the "social infrastructure" — particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Clearly, there’s more than enough here to bite off for any one conference. For this year, we’ll be focusing on five tracks:
- The grid — the electric one, providing clean, affordable, smart, responsive and resilient energy for all.
- Transportation systems — EV charging, smart roads and highways, public transit, ports and airports.
- Waste management — recycling and materials recovery systems.
- Water systems — drinking and wastewater systems, decentralized solutions.
- Green infrastructure — nature-based solutions to mitigate storm surges, flood plains and coastal erosion.
That last item is particularly interesting to me. Next-gen infrastructure is not just about steel, concrete and asphalt. Solutions can be found in a growing range of solutions designed to mimic or harness nature’s services, such as planting trees and restoring wetlands rather than building a costly new wastewater treatment plant; building bioswales to concentrate and convey urban stormwater runoff while removing debris and pollution; or using plants, reefs and natural barriers to reduce coastal erosion and flooding.
The price is right
Budget battles notwithstanding, there’s a compelling economic argument for infrastructure investments. As engineer Henry Petroski pointed out in his book "The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure," inadequately maintained roads, trains and waterways cost billions of dollars in lost economic productivity. Economists generally see infrastructure spending as having a significant multiplier effect: One study found that every $1 invested in infrastructure yielded as much as $3 in GDP growth. The global consultancy McKinsey estimates that increasing U.S. infrastructure spending by 1 percent of GDP would add 1.5 million jobs to the economy.
Given our focus on sustainability and technology, VERGE Infrastructure will home in on the growing opportunities to make our physical and digital structures more sustainable, resilient and equitable. That is, how to build infrastructure that can adapt to the ravages of a changing climate, and whose design, construction and maintenance do not further contribute to the climate crisis or ecosystem destruction. All while ensuring that it serves the needs and promotes the prosperity, security and sustainability of the most vulnerable communities and families.
We’re seeing a growing ecosystem of companies both large and small leaning into the sustainable infrastructure opportunity, including startups around the world, which we’ll be bringing to VERGE, alongside large engineering and design firms, policy experts and those with success stories worthy of sharing. There’s an impressive well of digital tools to leverage in designing and building tomorrow’s infrastructure, from artificial intelligence to 3D modeling to geospatial technology, which we plan to showcase.
As I said, this is an extraordinary moment to be launching VERGE Infrastructure. Here in the United States, for example, it is widely acknowledged that our weakened infrastructure is at risk to any number of catastrophic events. We saw one recently in Texas, where the electric grid buckled and nearly collapsed due to extreme weather, with millions in the state losing power and water. Wildfires in the western U.S., flooding along the Gulf Coast, drinking water problems in the Northeast and Midwest, and deteriorating roads and bridges everywhere — there’s no shortage of need.
This may well become Infrastructure Decade.
Any day now, the Biden administration is expected to lay out its vision for rebuilding and revitalizing America’s infrastructure — part of the president’s "build back better" meme. European, African and Asian nations are similarly seeking to ramp up long-neglected infrastructure investments to ensure their economic and social well-being. Their leaders recognize that coming out of the recession and pandemic represents an opportunity to stimulate growth and create jobs for years to come.
Indeed, this may well become Infrastructure Decade.
It won’t be easy. President Joe Biden’s proposal likely will lead to a national conversation about the need to ramp up U.S. infrastructure investments. And while improving America’s infrastructure should be a political no-brainer — a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll found that 87 percent of Americans supported "increasing federal spending for roads, bridges, mass transit and other infrastructure" — the administration’s plan is 100 percent guaranteed to become a partisan squabble.
What, if anything, comes out of that squabble will help determine the competitiveness of America and other nations in the global economy. At VERGE Infrastructure, our goal will be to convene the various players to find the most sustainable and impactful paths forward.