United for Infrastructure's week of activities kicked off Monday, May 12, in Washington, DC, with virtual events that included an address from US President Joseph Biden. This year's #LeadWithInfrastructure event featured discussions about investments, policies, and reforms needed to: keep people safe, make families healthier, communities more resilient and equitable, as well as drive economic growth and prosperity.
Among the virtual events, Hank Torbert, Founder of The Frontier, convened a panel of experts to discuss the future of infrastructure and how technology can enable the next generation. The panelists comprised: Max Wolff, CEO at Systematic Ventures, Chris Bonanti, Senior Partner at RWV Consulting, and Chris Rezendes, Chief Business Officer at Spherical Analytics.
Torbert asked these thought leaders to share their insights on what some of the long-term and meaningful impacts on our economy from upgrading the infrastructure would be.
"If you look forward, there are great challenges, and all of them require public-private investment partnerships and infrastructure," said Wolff. "One of those challenges is climate change. I realize maybe not everyone agrees, but I think it's beyond a minimum consensus at this point. The other challenge is social inequality and access to opportunity, with infrastructure playing a part in equalizing opportunity in many cases."
Bonanti discussed the advantages upgrading infrastructure could have on transportation.
"They're looking at high-speed rail in a number of different areas," said Bonanti. "If you look at other foreign countries, the highway systems are not as robust as ours, but the high-speed rail systems are, and they can transport a number of more passengers and much faster. We can and should learn from our counterparts overseas when it comes to infrastructure for the future."
Bonanti goes on to talk about the critical importance of national security and the need for us to upgrade our infrastructure.
"We rely on systems that are relevant to our daily lives in the United States, but the national security and cybersecurity issues are affecting these systems to the point where they can be shut down," said Bonanti. "All of those systems need to have cybersecurity-related functions and the necessary infrastructure, and human capital in order to reliably ensure that our systems are secure, and our way of life is kept comfortable and untouched."
Torbert asked the panelists to give their perspective on what the future of public-private partnerships looks like and how these partnerships can lead to large-scale projects that impact jobs and reduce the overall cost of the modern, physical and digital infrastructure. Rezendes weighs in by sharing how to make infrastructure partnerships more enticing from an investment perspective.
"We've got to find a way to make it friendly for the investor," said Rezendes. "I'm going to argue through data as an asset, or the idea that if the future is cyber-physical and data becomes that important, then data becomes the enabler to extend trust into those new markets from those new places, and those new people for infrastructure."
Adding to the discussion, Bonanti brought up a few current examples of public-private partnerships in the infrastructure industry and how they can be a blueprint for infrastructure partnerships moving forward.
"Brightline is a public-private partnership who invested $2.4 billion for a high-speed rail from Miami to Orlando and now on to Tampa," said Bonanti. "The funding and work for this project is based on private money and has a partnership with the government to have federally backed bonds. It's one avenue that can actually take place whereby the government will help facilitate something for the private sector and private investment."
Torbert then pivoted the discussion to focus on infrastructure education and what educational institutions can do to ensure the right education, training, and skills for a future that will address some of these issues, whether digital or hard infrastructure. As a professor of economics by training, Wolff took the lead with this question.
"I understand this is tough with COVID, but the younger students coming into schools need tactile human interaction," said Wolff. "We need to spend more time in smaller classes, in human interaction with these students, because I don't think you succeed in the digital future if you don't have a good analog grounding and basic personal responsibility."
While he fully agreed with Wolff, Bonanti took a different approach to the topic and added that he would also like to see the schools and universities step up and take more responsibility for their students' futures.
"There's not a lot of guidance with regard to either the high schools or even a lot of, unfortunately, parents trying to guide their children into majors at the universities that are going to affect infrastructure," said Bonanti. "The universities and secondary education, the high schools and even elementary schools are not exposing our children to the broadest of potential opportunities for them, and they could be doing better."
Once the panel discussion ended, the attendees contributed to a lively Q&A segment. The first question from the audience asked the panelists to share their thoughts regarding people who only focus on either the immediate job creation or the deficit impact regarding the pending infrastructure modernization bill.
After the panelists' responded, Chris Rezendes asked the moderator, Hank Torbert, to also give his opinion on the topic.
"I'm saying that from an infrastructure investment and support standpoint, I believe we have to take a long-term view, not a short-term investment view," said Torbert. "I think it's a 10 to 20-year plan, not just the next five years, not just with this bill, that's coming out."
The panel's final audience question pertained to the lack of research and development of new technologies in the field of construction. However, Max discussed how the construction industry, in his opinion, is one of the industries to soon be on the technological rise.
"We've done some recent work here, and I think that the construction industry is actually moving pretty fast," said Wolff, "I think there's going to be new techniques and that there are some applications of 3D printing and pre-molding and very iterative buildings with exoskeletons that are pretty moveable, so I think the long drought has actually started to abate in that industry."
To view the full session on-demand, click here.
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