President Biden’s $ 2.3 trillion infrastructure plan is large and extensive. It contains elements – childcare, climate change measures, and racial justice goals – that make critics sit up and take notice. The critics are wrong.
Infrastructure is primarily a human problem. It consists of publicly accessible facilities that improve the quality of life by reducing pollution, saving time, connecting people and places, and improving well-being, including the health of the environment. If the infrastructure works, it goes without saying that clean running water is available at the push of a button. When it doesn’t work – like the poisoned water and aging lead pipes that made the largely black population of Flint, Michigan sick – it has detrimental effects on other aspects of life.
The roads, bridges, rails and airports are the public building platform for the services running on them, which can be provided by private companies and paid for by users. However, there is no hard and fast rule about what the government provides or what private companies do and which sector creates the innovation or bears the capital costs of building the basic structures at all. Without these basic structures connected and in good working order – the electrical grid, the fuel supply systems – life is harder to live, as seen in the deadly Texas winter storms where an inadequate system was found to keep the heat in can bring people’s homes. American infrastructure has been in disrepair for decades because of its reluctance to invest in maintenance and repairs.
The definition of infrastructure has always changed over time. Information and communication technology is an important aspect of infrastructure today, and the internet and good Wi-Fi connections became essential for work, education, health care, and more during the coronavirus pandemic. However, large broadband gaps in low-income urban and rural areas need to be bridged.
Too often, the infrastructure is viewed in terms of silos, each with a problem and a means of transport. The Biden Plan, on the other hand, is holistic and integrative. It offers many lenses to study the impact of infrastructure adequacy on people’s lives. Through a lens of climate change, we could see that actions that favor road construction lead to more CO2 emissions than actions that favor newer greener rail. Through a racist justice lens, we might find that the black and brown populations in many cities tend to cluster in places with crumbling buildings, polluted air, and less access to mobility. Through a gender equality lens, we could see that women cannot get to work without childcare, especially when inadequate public transport cannot easily reach them.
Infrastructure spending can also lower unemployment. First, the direct jobs created by investing in maintenance and repair as well as adding new infrastructures such as charging stations for electric vehicles or new bike lanes are created. Second, indirect jobs are created when companies reach new customers, for example due to better WLANs or faster deliveries, and thus expand their markets and hire more employees. Third, it is about how better infrastructure helps people find a job and get there. It doesn’t help when suburban office parks beg for service staff while unemployed youth in city centers cannot be informed about these jobs, let alone the means of transport to get there.
Even if technology appears to be replacing some workers, new jobs will be created in the new IT infrastructure that will keep autonomous buses running or manage traffic patterns on smart roads or remotely track household utility usage. The infrastructure is increasingly technology-capable and full of innovation opportunities.
Biden’s infrastructure plan resembles the kind of grand leadership vision that has opened up new opportunities for America in the past. The Transcontinental Railroad was a post-Civil War development that helped bring the country together and connect farmers to markets. Rural electrification modernized life and put rural and urban areas on an equal footing. The Interstate Highway System was a step towards a connected post-war America.
Some of these investments have had unintended consequences that we are grappling with today. The climate crisis was accelerated by measures in favor of roads and automobiles. Racial inequalities worsened as highways divided neighborhoods. Gender differences were underlined when suburban development kept many women isolated after World War II. By including issues of climate, race and gender in the plan, the Biden government hopes to move the country forward in a way that will do more than fix physical structures – it will also fix some of our pressing societal problems.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of “MOVE: Bringing America’s Infrastructure Back to Top” and “Thinking Outside the Building: How Advanced Leaders Can Change the World – One Intelligent Innovation at a Time.” She was a volunteer Member of the Infrastructure and Innovation Policy Committees for the Biden Campaign.
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