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Infrastructure for Infrastructure

Governments around the world have been committing to spending their way out of the current economic down turn.  Many countries (such as China, the United States, and the United Kingdom) have already announced, or are planning to announce, economic stimulus packages that are based at least in part on major infrastructure projects.  This approach was applied by Japan in the 1990's to try to lift it from prolonged recession, and many think this could be effective now in the first decade of the 21st century.   If these packages go forward as expected, we can anticipate expenditures in the many hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide to revamp and extend our physical infrastructure, from improvements in building energy management, to the development of rapid transit and alternative energy facilities.

The commitments are huge, and at a time when capital is scarce, and when the resources to design, manage, and execute such projects are also more limited than one might like.  The whole AEC industry in the West has been aging, and the next several years will see a considerable decline in the available pool of skilled engineers, architects, and construction workers.  This means that to be able to execute these infrastructure programs, we are going to need to be much smarter than we have been in the recent past.  We are going to need to invest in the means to make the process of planning, design, and construction more efficient and more effective.  We are going to need to invest in infrastructure (information infrastructure) for infrastructure!

We are thus faced with a major challenge, but also a major opportunity.  Information infrastructure investment can not only make the spending on physical infrastructure more effective, it can also ensure that this investment helps us to meet the equally important goals of reducing green house gas emissions and energy consumption, and improving the overall sustainability of our economy.   It is, therefore, an investment with a double payback – better management of the money spent on physical infrastructure through increased efficiency, and a greater contribution to meeting environmental goals.

How should this go forward?  What should governments and the private sector do? 

To make such investment effective, governments, especially at the state/provincial and local levels, will need to take a fresh look at how they support information technology.  They will need to take a much more strategic view of these investments than is typically the case today.  This means "thinking outside the box" and truly embracing new technologies and approaches that support direct information sharing and collaboration amongst infrastructure planners, architects, engineers, regulators, and private citizens.  They need to get beyond the idea of investment in "wires and boxes" and see the next levels of information infrastructures as being just as real and concrete as the things they can touch and see.  It will require new vision and resolve, but it is not impossible.

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