Redefine infrastructure for a resilient future

Redefine infrastructure for a resilient future
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In February of this year, Texans faced a triple threat. There was the ongoing pandemic, with its devastating toll on lives and jobs. Then came the winter storms that crippled the state’s poorly prepared electrical grid. When the grid went down, families across the state were left without water, food or heat.

We live in a time of cascading crises. Millions of American families lack the underlying physical and economic support systems that could help them contend with the economic, environmental, health and social strains presented by these increasingly common challenges. That is why we must invest in infrastructure to enhance our resilience to the threats of today, and the uncertainty of tomorrow. 

President BidenJoe BidenGOP report on COVID-19 origins homes in on lab leak theory READ: The .2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session MORE's approach to infrastructure investment reflects these new realities. About half of the administration’s initially proposed infrastructure investments were directed towards buttressing traditional infrastructure such as roads, bridges, water systems, shipping ports and power grids. Federal investments in these forms of traditional infrastructure have also been incorporated into the recently negotiated bipartisan infrastructure framework. 

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But stopping here would be shortsighted. We’ve all witnessed first-hand over the past year that the hazards, vulnerabilities and productivity requirements of this century are dramatically different from those of the decades — let alone centuries ­— before. Historically, infrastructure investments have addressed each era’s unique challenges, which can, broadly speaking, be broken down into two categories: protective and economic. 

Early protective infrastructure such as levees and seawalls enabled the establishment of our coastal port cities, facilitating trade and undergirding our manufacturing economy. Each generation of protective infrastructure reflected the very different hazards of the time. Beginning in the late 19ththcentury we built sewer and wastewater treatment systems to eliminate the risk of a mass health crisis. Military infrastructure, such as the shoreline bunkers of World War II, provided defense from Nazi invasion. Economic infrastructure includes investments in road, rail and water networks that increase the efficiency of markets and drive the nation’s potential to support a high quality of life. 

While these two kinds of infrastructure have continuously evolved to take on new forms, their functions have remained largely the same. The past year has demonstrated vividly the need for additional investments in both protective and economic infrastructure that addresses the unique conditions of our time. 

For instance, the intersecting health impacts of the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, coupled with increasingly severe and frequent climate events, clearly threaten the United States’ ability to maintain its historic economic productivity — while pushing the American dream further out of reach for millions. Addressing these challenges requires significant investment in modernizing the country’s electrical grid, expanding broadband networks, building our public health system, and mitigating crisis-level business and household economic losses in the face of catastrophic events. 

The most catalytic investments in infrastructure accomplish both protective and economic goals simultaneously, and that approach is at the heart of the original Biden plan. 

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For instance, Biden’s proposed investment of $400 billion in-home care services for older and disabled Americans is the kind of forward-looking infrastructure designed for this increasingly complex era. With an aging population, more and more Americans will require these services, and families overwhelmingly prefer to care for their loved ones at home and in their communities, as opposed to in a long-term care facility. More and more families face an agonizing choice between expensive care services and leaving the workforce to care for a loved one. 

Biden’s approach transforms this systemic challenge into an opportunity. The proposal would make home-based care more affordable for the growing number of Americans who will need these services, keeping them out of distant facilities and closer to their families. At the same time, it would lay the groundwork for economic growth, enabling more family members to stay in the workforce while also catalyzing the growth of an automation-resistant home health care sector of our economy.

The bipartisan infrastructure framework is encouraging after years of gridlock. But it is only a promising start: Additional investments beyond traditional infrastructure will be needed to grapple comprehensively with the unique physical, economic, technological and social challenges that we have been witnessing daily.

Much of the attention on the Biden plan has been on the climate crisis — and justifiably so. But the genius in this approach is the expanded viewpoint on how infrastructure investments can reach individual lives. 

This is a hopeful moment for our country. With the end of the pandemic in sight, we are poised to enter a new era with new possibilities. However, we cannot forget about the underlying fragility that the intersecting crises of the past year exposed — the fragility not only of our roads and systems but of families pushed to the brink both economically and socially, after decades of underinvestment.

Now, more than ever is the time to redefine — and fortify — the critical systems we call “infrastructure.” By making smart investments in both protective and economic infrastructure designed for our current challenges, we will be better prepared to weather future crises — whatever they might be. 

Anna Friedman is an associate director and Jeb Brugmann is a founding principal with Resilient Cities Catalyst, a nonprofit comprised of urban practitioners and resilience experts with deep experience working in cities and regions around the world.