There are certain things in life that are hard to get excited about. Take buying a new refrigerator or washing machine. These unglamorous items are so ubiquitous that any effort expended on them seems like a chore. But when your milk becomes cottage cheese overnight and your clothes start developing mildew, you quickly sit up and take notice.
Our relationship with infrastructure is similarly vexed. How often do people think about the effort required to construct and maintain road systems, or generate power and transmit it to our homes? Generally the only time it registers is when things go wrong; a power outage that means we miss the game on TV, or a traffic jam that makes us late for work.
It really shouldn’t be that way. The story of infrastructure is the story of America’s growing maturity as a nation. It is impossible to overestimate the impact the Los Angeles Aqueduct had on California’s development into the economic powerhouse we see today. The rail and highway systems that connected coast to coast dramatically shortened journey times, allowing people and goods to move around the country with comparative ease. Power infrastructure brought light and energy to even the most remote homes, giving Americans the ability to take life-changing appliances like refrigerators for granted. Throughout US history, improvements in infrastructure have inexorably contributed to a rising quality of life and a greater level of economic success.
But the subject of infrastructure still fails to engage large swathes of the population, despite clear reminders of why it matters. The impact of Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans levees and the I-35W Bridge collapse in Minneapolis are just two examples of infrastructure getting interesting for all the wrong reasons. But it should be possible to make a case based on the benefits infra can bring, rather than the harm it might do.
The new generation of sensor-packed smart bridges not only provide early alerts to structural problems, they can also de-ice themselves in bad weather conditions and reduce the number of accidents. Intelligent road systems can dynamically manage congestion to keep traffic moving, meaning that the average person spends less time in jams each year. Increased investment in transmission infrastructure for alternative power could lower household power costs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
Just as it did in the past, infrastructure development still has the power to reshape the nation. It’s up to the industry to communicate this in terms the general public can understand.