Infrastructure Influences Everything
The history of mankind is the history of infrastructure.
It serves as the connections that bind us and lift us up, from the aqueducts of Rome to Thomas Edison’s telegraph lines to the 5G networks of today. It’s cellular networks and satellite arrays. It’s also access to the internet, digital commerce, and tools for social interaction. When designed and governed properly, infrastructure is seamless—empowering people, companies, and governments to prosper. But when it’s designed poorly, it can literally divide us.
Ultimately, the way we build and maintain our infrastructure will shape our future—and now is a pivotal moment for doing so. To solve issues as urgent as racial injustice, income and wealth inequality, and climate change, we must begin by rethinking our infrastructure.
To do this, we must first recognize that our infrastructure is multidimensional—that our physical, digital, and social realms are equally important for ensuring opportunity for all.
How Innovations Become Infrastructure
Novel technologies often become essential to everyday life—and influence the outcomes of everyone in a society. Here are just three examples.
The Roman Empire, using tax dollars, constructed hundreds of aqueducts to bring water into its cities, where the water supplied free public baths, fountains, and even some private residences. Mining, milling, and farming operations also used this water, which helped to create a thriving economy.
In the 19th century, most trains were privately owned and operated on gauges (the width of the tracks) that were unique to each company. This meant that one train couldn’t run on another company’s track. Corporations and the government worked to resolve this incompatibility by standardizing gauges, helping to unleash the full potential of the new technology.
At first, telephones (and electricity) were a luxury. But the technology soon became critical infrastructure, as more and more people relied on it for their basic method of communication, and the government incentivized companies to expand service across the U.S. by offering low-interest bonds, among other things.
It’s Time for a New Definition of Infrastructure
There’s a better way of viewing and assessing the underlying structures of society.
Today, the challenges facing infrastructure are vast. According to the nonprofit Volcker Alliance, the United States has a trillion-dollar backlog in deferred maintenance costs, and spending on infrastructure has declined by nearly $10 billion from 2007 to 2017. Failing to update the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure hinders both businesses and struggling citizens. According to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the economy could lose $4 trillion in GDP by 2025 if these funding gaps are not addressed. Two and a half millions jobs could be lost.
But with these challenges also comes opportunity. If infrastructure is going to succeed, we must consider it in a new way—one that reflects the constantly changing nature of our world and more broadly encompasses the key drivers of society: physical, social, and digital systems. For decades, the physical, digital, and social dimensions of infrastructure have typically been treated as separate issues, leading to siloed thinking and short-term solutions. But infrastructure doesn’t act that way in the real world. For instance, a library is not just a storage facility for books. It’s a physical place that forges community bonds and offers digital access. Similarly, a road is not just a paved surface for vehicle traffic. It’s a vital artery for commerce and social connections, one that is now governed as much by digital systems like Google Maps and Waze as individual drivers. Or consider this: When you post a photo to Instagram or comment on Twitter, you’re relying on a vast network of physical structures like cell towers, transatlantic cables, and server farms, as well as invisible structures like radio signals, network protocols, and machine coding.
The reality is that the infrastructure reinforcing today’s society is multifaceted and interdependent. Think of this as a three-legged stool: Should any leg falter or be cut off, it will topple the person sitting on it. By recognizing the interconnection of all three dimensions, we can use this new framework to better design infrastructure systems for the future, strengthen communities, and power economic activity in the process.
The Decline of Infrastructure Investing
Public investment in infrastructure is at the lowest it’s been in decades, creating a backlog of maintenance, crumbling structures—and a limited appetite for tackling necessary projects for the future.
Click labels to see more details
The built world, or the basic structures and networks necessary for a modern society to function effectively. This consists of fixed public assets like roads, bridges, tunnels, and parks, as well as public utilities like subway and train lines, sewage systems, and electrical grids.
A new understanding of physical, social, and digital infrastructure that recognizes the unity and interdependence of these three dimensions. Any decision or change in one dimension of infrastructure must consider the other two dimensions in equal measure. By doing this, we can design and maintain infrastructure that’s responsive, resilient, and cost-effective and creates further opportunities for society.
Multidimensional Infrastructure in Action
Three case studies that demonstrate the power of a holistic approach.
Creating a new vision for infrastructure is difficult, but we’ve been here before.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the government’s massive New Deal program sparked one of the largest waves of investments in infrastructure in U.S. history: the Hoover Dam in Nevada, New York’s Lincoln Tunnel, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the sprawling Tennessee Valley Authority, to name a few. But the New Deal was designed to do more than create new transportation routes and produce cheap energy. It was designed to create jobs, uplift individuals and communities, and transform society as a whole by providing economic development to areas that needed it. “The New Deal integrated physical infrastructure with artistry and a sense of place,” says Michael Murphy, the CEO and founding architect of the firm MASS Design Group (an acronym for Model of Architecture Serving Society). “Today we should be doing the same thing. Instead of building fixed infrastructure systems, we should be constructing living systems—ones that adjust and calibrate to their physical and social environments.”
Multidimensional infrastructure, in other words, is designed with an ecosystem approach—one that elevates its environment and the people dependent on it, creating more resilient and equitable results for everyone. Going forward, we have the opportunity to reimagine infrastructure, ensuring that physical, digital, and social systems create more thriving communities.
Here are three case studies for how to do so.
Building Prosperity: The 21st-Century Library
How a public institution transformed from a repository of knowledge to the backbone of community—and economic—growth
Widely thought of as repositories of collective knowledge, libraries are now also hubs of civic engagement, providing free access to the internet, job training, art space, and even coffee shop culture. They are first and foremost physical places. But digital and social systems are embedded within them, giving locals free access to the online world to learn new skills. In Austin, for example, library staff members created a vocational class to teach welding so that out-of-work residents could retrain for high-paying jobs. In Houston, where 66 percent of adults and 34 percent of youth are overweight, library employees offered events to promote healthy eating and exercise and also distributed 50,000 pounds of fresh food to more than 3,100 families. In Omaha, Nebraska, library staff members even established a series of partnerships with regional software and technology companies to train residents in digital skills, helping to spark a local boom in tech workers. Libraries, in other words, are a prime example of the power of new, more holistic infrastructure.
The Power of Modern Libraries
How an ancient institution helps individuals and communities thrive through innovative programs anchored in a multidimensional approach
Click illustration to see more details
Multipurpose Reading Rooms
The buildings themselves, once just repositories for books, now provide spaces that can be used for multiple purposes. Traditional reading rooms also double as spaces for local gatherings and events, which help create a deeper sense of community and offer learning opportunities that enhance social connections. In many cases, libraries come to serve as both physical meeting places and sources of local information, especially as local newspapers disappear.
Libraries are often the main way some community members get online, so many local branches have expanded their digital labs to offer easier access. The libraries have also instituted robust digital literacy programs, where classes are taught on a range of subjects, from computer basics to skills on coding and social media marketing for businesses.
As more and more people work remotely or have freelance jobs, libraries have created co-working spaces with free high-speed internet to meet a new demand. Some even include coffee shops or cafeterias.
In order to appeal to community members of all ages and backgrounds, many libraries have included dedicated rooms that can be used to teach new skills like gardening, art, and healthier cooking. One library even taught a pop-up welding course.
The Unexpected Areas Fueling a Surge in High-Tech Jobs
How tech infrastructure can revitalize rural America
Despite strides to improve online access, rural areas across the United States continue to struggle in the digital age. Just 25 American cities—high-growth hubs like New York, San Francisco, and Austin—have accounted for more than two thirds of job growth in the past decade. But some rural areas are bucking that trend, leveraging digital infrastructure to help to spur a revitalization. But it isn’t just the high-speed internet that is jump-starting economies. It’s also the social infrastructure built around it—the spaces for tech or software businesses to thrive, for programs to help train locals on coding and software development, and for the coffee shops, breweries, and small music venues to make those workers want to stay. In this way, the digital, social, and physical infrastructures are uniting to boost communities as a whole. “We have this joke,” says Matt Dunne, the executive director of the nonprofit Center on Rural Innovation, “that the real causes of rural economic development are the three Bs: broadband, blues music, and beer. Put all those good things together, and you can create the energy that will reverse the exodus of rural people from these places.”
Elevating Rural America
Small towns across the country are boosting their economies by pairing digital investments with social and physical infrastructure. Here are a few of the communities that the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) is working with
Click illustration to see more details
Rise of the Rural Digital Economy
As venture capital funding has flowed into startups in Silicon Valley and cities across the country, wages in many rural areas have stagnated. But the nonprofit Center on Rural Innovation is helping those communities address economic challenges through digital jobs, technical training, and entrepreneurship. “In the age of the internet, there should be no limit to where digital-economy jobs and innovation can take place,” says founder and executive director Matt Dunne. Here are just a few of the success stories.
With central Maine’s economy split between heavy industry and, more recently, higher education, Central Maine Growth Council has long been working on retaining graduating students and creating more diverse job opportunities by offering consultation services for start-ups and co-working spaces. Ongoing educational opportunities like Tech Night, an evening for local entrepreneurs to share their stories and advice on building a successful business, bolster the local economy and help secure federal grants for more innovation hubs.
With jobs dwindling in blue-collar fields like mining, the nonprofit Shaping Our Appalachian Region convened a series of summits to envision a new future for eastern Kentucky, which included boosting the presence of digital jobs through broadband investment and workforce training. An adult education center and business incubator was created, and the early result is more jobs in advanced manufacturing, remote tech work, and local food production.
For more than two decades, the Ada Jobs Foundation (AJF) has served this small town by supporting entrepreneurial opportunities through business seminars and public pitch sessions for budding businesses. To stem the outflow of high-tech workers and jobs to nearby Oklahoma City, the nonprofit has focused more of its workforce training and seminars in the digital realm, which has helped to diversify the local economy through tech-focused start-ups and remote work opportunities.
Taos, New Mexico
Serving a community with a large population of adults without high school or college degrees, the nonprofit Taos HIVE opened a co-working space so locals could access the internet for free and take classes on basic reading and math skills. Taos HIVE also provides hands-on tutorials for digital technology and business development skills. Now a community that has often been left behind by traditional education models can access a lifelong educational resource that offers pathways out of poverty.
Red Wing, Minnesota
In 2012, this manufacturing hub on the Mississippi River received high-speed fiber-optic internet through a public-private partnership. Piggybacking on that, the nonprofit Red Wing Ignite opened a co-working space that offered free internet access, provided business classes and mentors for budding entrepreneurs, and even connected business owners to potential investors. It has spurred a local economy that’s diversifying, with more high-paying digital jobs.
Installing high-speed broadband is the first step in making the most of an underutilized workforce. When high-speed broadband is paired with dedicated space for job training and supportive social infrastructure, residents can create new careers in the tech economy; co-working spaces can appeal to freelancers and entrepreneurs; and communities can develop stronger connections through their digital hubs. Also, these rural areas can create a more diversified regional economy than one based on a single employer, allowing them to weather economic downturns and shifts in industries.
The Future of Power
How a boundary-pushing start-up is rethinking energy
What if streets, roads, and sidewalks were more than just conveyor belts for cars and pedestrians? What if they became the building blocks for a futuristic city, embedded with technologies like power delivery systems, data-collecting devices, and information and communications technology (ICT)? These may seem like wild notions, but they’re the focus of Uncharted Power, a New York–based company leveraging an underutilized public asset—the ground we walk and drive on—to combine civil infrastructure with power grids and digital technologies.
The primary component of the Uncharted System, as the technology is called, are “pavers.” They’re essentially road and sidewalk panels designed to accommodate power lines and tech capabilities like ICT. Once deployed, the Uncharted System converts the ground beneath our feet (and our tires) into a multiuse space for electricity delivery, data technologies, and smart-city applications. The system can then be used for things like monitoring citizen safety, creating resilient electrical grids, and offering affordable broadband. It’s also easily upgraded as new technologies emerge. The Uncharted System, which the company is hoping to launch with a pilot program in Poughkeepsie in 2021, is a vision for how governments and private industries can solve energy and social problems in sustainable, equitable ways, ensuring the best interests of people and their data are at the center of it all.
Reimagining Electricity for a More Equitable Society
How the start-up Uncharted Power is disrupting the energy grid—and democratizing the future of electricity through a new infrastructure approach
Click illustration to see more details
Information and Communication Technologies
Cities determine what they need beneath their streets, such as broadband, electrical wires, or both. The cables and hardware installed within the panels withstand extreme weather and other vulnerabilities better than overhead systems.
Networked together, the panels are equipped to monitor the health of the power grid and to learn about patterns in the community. These insights help local officials make data-driven decisions.
Power traveling through the panels can be used to run a range of devices, such as a car-recharging stations.
Panels notify maintenance teams when repairs are necessary, enabling workers to deploy to the exact location of the problem. Their modularity allows for targeted replacement and upgrades, saving time and money, and preventing road closures.
The technology embedded in the panels can be tailored to community needs. For example, equipped with sensors, the panels can use movement to initiate a crosswalk signal or to gauge when a pedestrian needs extra time crossing the street.
The Power of multidimensional Infrastructure
Overall, each of these three examples—modern libraries, rural tech hubs, and Uncharted Power—have one thing in common: They’ve taken an ecosystem approach to creating smarter, more equitable infrastructure that accounts for physical, social, and digital dimensions. Once the problems are examined through a multidimensional lens, the solutions that come to the foreground are often naturally synergistic and create value across every dimension—whether that’s leveraging a relatively new technology, like the internet, to help revitalize communities or reimagining an old system, like the power grid, to create a more equitable and just society. Using a multidimensional framework to assess infrastructure challenges, in other words, is the most practical and effective way of arriving at the forward-looking solutions the United States needs.