On November 6th, 2021, Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), a once-in-a-generation investment in the U.S.’ infrastructure and competitiveness. We analyse what Government infrastructure means in times of digital transformation and exponential technologies.
Infrastructure has reemerged as a buzzword in Government at every level. Often, when we hear the word “infrastructure”, images of bridges, potholes, sewer mains, and a myriad of other public works projects come to mind. That’s not wrong, but in today’s context, it is not completely accurate. It is crucial now to think broadly about what infrastructure is, what it entails, and the role of the federal, state, and local Governments in building, supporting, and sustaining infrastructure for the years to come.
In 2021, not one single public official was immune to conversations, debates, and decisions related to infrastructure. At the federal level, representatives, their staff, lobbyists, and advocates fought fiercely to craft and pass a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill.1 At the state level, representatives, their staff, lobbyists, and advocates worked tirelessly to secure, and spend funds to modernize regional infrastructure. At the local level, representatives, their staff, lobbyists, and advocates rapidly responding to natural disasters and time-bound funds, worked to spend limited resources to stabilize their communities.
But this only tells a fraction of the story. In today’s vernacular, the definition of the word infrastructure is far broader and more vital than most recognize. Let’s take some time to get crystal clear about what Government infrastructure is, and how recent funding decisions are reshaping our communities and culture in ways that we never thought possible.
What Is Government Infrastructure?
“Infrastructure” is one of those words like, “leadership” or “communication” that can be defined and interpreted one thousand different ways, so before we get to discussing how to improve Government infrastructure, let’s first set on a definition. At the broadest level, “infrastructure” refers to foundational facilities and systems that enable communities to operate. At the Government level, infrastructure is central to its ability to create the conditions whereby the country, states, cities, and other jurisdictions can have a functional economy.
As our economy rapidly changes, the “foundational facilities and systems” needed to support, manage, mitigate, regulate, and connect the various elements that make our economies run, also change. If the U.S. is to continue leading and competing globally as it has historically, we need to invest heavily in our infrastructure. And as our economy and day-to-day lives become more and more dependent upon virtual settings, the need for our definition of infrastructure to include the digital landscape (e.g. hardware, software, cyber security) becomes ever more obvious.
While the more commonly understood “infrastructure” projects like dams, bridges, roads, and the buildings that house the public workers who ensure the built environment is adequately managed and maintained, have long been understood to be vital public infrastructure, today’s reality requires us to consider less tangible assets. Consider all the tools that the public workers need to accomplish their work, such as computers, sensors, software, network systems, cyber-security hardware, and SaaS that create exponential efficiencies. In the post-COVID era, we can expect “infrastructure” to even include additional biometric and population health monitoring systems that are only beginning to be experimented with now (such as the EU’s “Green Pass”).
Given the physical and digital nature of our infrastructure needs, there is a growing need to invest, revitalize, and rethink our global, national and local infrastructural needs. And while much of the recent infrastructure bill aims at physical infrastructure needs, it does take a first step towards leaning into bolstering our digital environments.
Our Infrastructure Needs
In late Q3 of 2021, the U.S. Congress passed a long-awaited infrastructure bill. Through this policy, $550 billion will be invested in significant physical and digital infrastructure projects - from broadband to bridges, water pipes to fiber optic cables.
The slew of projects that will be coming to a community near you is meant to ensure the safe transit of goods and services. Delving into the details of the bill, we see $110 billion earmarked for roads, bridges, and major physical infrastructure repairs, replacements, rehabilitation, and development. This investment in physical infrastructure is vital, given that the American Civil Engineers graded the nation’s existing infrastructure a “C-”.2 This grade is backed up by White House reports, which claim that ~20% (a.k.a 173,000 miles) of U.S. highways and 45,000 of our nation’s bridges are in poor condition. Repairing, replacing, and rehabilitating national physical infrastructure is important, as is the development of climate change mitigation and hardening initiatives. Thankfully, this bill has funding set aside for climate-specific infrastructure uses, including expanding cyclists and pedestrian access, mobility, and safety.
Expanding access is an important lens through which to understand the vital role infrastructure has played (physical and digital) in the Government's ability to support our nation’s physical and behavioral health. By better connecting communities, via public transit, parks, demolishing geographic barriers (e.g. highways), this bill addresses climate, economic, and social needs. A significant portion of the bill is going to repair and upgrade existing transit systems (e.g. subways, railroads, bus lines, ferry terminals), improve station accessibility (e.g. ADA compliance and new transit centers), add service to previously neglected communities, and modernize fleets (e.g. buses, boats, rail cars, vehicles). This bill represents the largest federal investment in public transit in history.
Where this bill gets exciting is the focus it has on digital infrastructure - the place where so many governmental efficiencies await, and where modernization efforts are long overdue. There is much written about the digital divide, and many memes about the Government's antiquated practices (e.g. filing permits via paper, labor-intensive procurement processes vs. an Amazon shopping-like experience). All this to say, the need for a major digital redux is needed, and the recent infrastructure bill is an exciting step in the right direction.
Specifically, this bill will provide $65 billion to improve broadband access, speed, and other associated costs, with an additional $65 billion going to rebuild the electric grid. Improvements to the grid will include undergrounding of above-ground wires, adding thousands of miles of new power lines, and expanding renewable energy capacity. By bolstering and modernizing our electrical and digital infrastructure, the Government is supporting the modern workforce in delivering goods and services at the speeds we have come to expect in the 21st Century.
The digital infrastructure the Government is investing in through this bill includes over $40 billion for states, that can be allocated for broadband deployment, in urban and rural settings, and data collection. Additionally, there are funds to provide discounts to low-income Americans for internet service (a.k.a. the Emergency Broadband Benefit program). Furthermore, this bill provides nearly $3 billion for digital literacy programs.3
Additional investments in the digital environment are found deep in the bill and tucked into many subsections. These subsections show a large investment in cyber-security tools and systems that will soon be integrated into a myriad of physical infrastructure projects, much of which will be at the discretion of state, local, and tribal officials to allocate.4 By tying physical infrastructure improvements with cyber-security software, hardware, and sensors, this bill hopes to equip Government workers with the tools needed to gather the data required to better understand, secure, and manage the nation's critical infrastructure. In addition to digitizing our physical infrastructure, the bill also creates a Cyber Response and Recovery Fund to protect against cyber-attacks and related threats.5
There is much in this bill that aims to strengthen our physical infrastructure through the use of digital tools, yet not much about funding digital tools to empower public workers to perform their jobs with the groundbreaking hardware and software platforms that so many of the nation’s leading corporations and organizations use daily.
How Far We’ve Come. How Far We Have To Go.
Since the nascent days of the Government, we’ve had infrastructure, and as our society has evolved, so has the definition of “Government infrastructure.” As we race into the future, there will be additional elements added to this ever-expanding concept, as the foundational systems that drive modern work and life transform.
We have been in exponential times since the dawn of the information age, and as life and work become more virtual, we can expect a growing amount of federal, state, and local funds to be spent on digital infrastructure advancement and transformation. In the next chapter of this blog series, we will discuss the challenges and opportunities that await the Government as it begins to develop the digital infrastructure it requires to manage, sustainably and justly, for the upcoming decades.
What parts of this bill excite you? What parts worry you? Where do you want to see more Government investment in physical and digital infrastructure? Share your insights, reactions, and ideas below!