Special Publications The CIP Report

Infrastructure Educational Strategies: Understanding the Scope and Scale of It

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Robert McCreight,  GMU—CIP Fellow 

The task of determining the scope and scale of our national infrastructure pulls us toward a frank and thorough assessment of essential infrastructure elements—gaps, vulnerabilities, and requirements.  These discussions demand a formal educational setting with sober reckoning about which systems are in the greatest and most immediate jeopardy and those for which it makes sense to wait a bit longer to address these issues.  In many states where infrastructural collapse and discontinuity pose a significant risk, efforts to create this climate for serious assessment by public and private sector experts under university sponsorship are long overdue.  Universities must deliberately construct a cross-cutting and comprehensive educational avenue to shed light on infrastructural elements that are wholly interdependent and subject to catastrophic cascading failure.  Further, the educational venture proposed must outline concrete priorities and targeted areas for urgent action within the next few years.

Each state, and most major cities, present markedly different aspects of infrastructural risk and jeopardy. There is little question that despite recent investments and upgrades the array of infrastructural challenges and problems nationwide is daunting.  Universities can play an instrumental role in identifying, isolating, and prioritizing infrastructural weaknesses and gaps to be remedied by hosting seminars that bring private and public sector leaders together.  Through these discussions, leaders can establish goals, determine metrics, and set activities in motion to trigger the requisite political and economic leverage that will begin to fix those areas that need help most.   These issues can then be tackled and analyzed in a Chatham House ‘no-fault’ environment from which white papers can be published to draw attention to problems deserving urgent attention.  The university classroom and conference center affords a place where engineers, scientists, health care students, national security students, civic leaders, NGOs, and those involved in careers in emergency management and homeland security can examine such matters in an interdisciplinary and unstructured manner.  The quest to identify risks and catalog disruptive events that threaten to erode, disable, or cripple infrastructure must start in the classroom and emerge as a ‘to-do’ list in communities all over our country.

Educational programs can delve into the intricacies and challenges of defining what real mitigation looks like in energy systems, water systems, public health, telecommunications and other key areas.  Lists can be produced to outline fundamental priorities among those issues and ideas related to risk mitigation, enhancing resilience, and augmenting recovery across these infrastructure categories.  From such efforts, strategies can be fleshed out as action items and grist for public policy action.  As a side-benefit, this exercise would highlight the subtle value of educational institutions themselves, from kindergarten to baccalaureate programs, signifying a real but often neglected domain of infrastructure that resides in their societal leverage and power.

We understand that over the last 10 years the federal investment in just one infrastructural aspect, roads and public transit systems, has declined to a 25 percent share wherein states and localities must bear the burden of the remaining 75 percent between them.  The grim realities of limited revenues, fiscal austerity, political gridlock, and shortcomings in building genuine public-private partnerships during that decade have only worsened.  Finding innovative and creative mechanisms for sustaining and reinforcing fragile infrastructure is sorely needed.

More than anything, a firm resurrection of public debate and exhaustive examination of our national infrastructural strengths and weaknesses with an uncompromising agenda of priorities would enable the 40 largest cities and many states to move forward over the next decade towards 2025 with evidence of effort to reduce infrastructural problems and buttress the most sensitive and vulnerable systems against unforeseen catastrophic failure and collapse.  Universities have a pivotal role to play inside each state to pinpoint areas for action and leverage the educational enterprise to remain focused on milestones that reflect real improvements and the alleviation of systems breakdowns.

Finally, educational institutions can help us focus on better defining infrastructural risk and resilience, a critical endeavor as we seek legitimate and comprehensive understanding of the scope and scale of our nation’s infrastructure landscape for the decade ahead.  A haphazard and piecemeal approach to resolving our national infrastructure problems cannot be offered as a silver bullet in this instance. If we lapse into pseudo-strategies that advocate chopping the task into small-scale gestures and half-hearted measures we will miss a critical opportunity and forsake the benefits that a serious review of issues by our best educational institutions can attain.