The interstate highway programs, the electrification of cities and the construction of a series of dams are all historic infrastructure initiatives that have physically and economically transformed the United States.

Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes our society, a modern infrastructure program – intelligent, efficient and connected – can transform systems to address current and future natural and man-made stresses and shocks. Done right, this investment could lead to a more resilient and sustainable system, with equitable economic recovery for all.

Coordinated planning, employing digital innovation on a regional or statewide scale, will create higher-performing infrastructure while meeting financial and operating realities. Take our electric grid as an example. Developed more than 130 years ago as a one-way system to meet increasing demand for power, the grid worked well for us for many years. But it has not kept pace with current needs. The electric grid we need now must be distributed, with networked, intelligent and advanced controls to meet our decarbonization goals while improving reliability and eliminating redundancy.

An economic recovery plan that accelerates grid modernization will build community and economic resilience while also serving environmental and social goals. This policy and investment are particularly relevant to regions where power systems are at risk, such as California, where cities and towns face days-long outages due to natural disasters and with significant impacts to critical services for vulnerable residents.

One such opportunity is the recent California Resilience Challenge. Spearheaded by the Bay Area Council, multiple applications were received from communities seeking to increase resilience to drought, floods, heatwaves and wildfires. Many of these entries were smart and creative, but too localized in scope to garner enough momentum to deliver the change they sought.

Defining current system conditions and developing a roadmap forward will enable us to think bigger and bundle these smart ideas into scalable solutions. Incorporating technologies to track conditions, and creating frameworks to measure success, will ensure that infrastructure systems are resilient now and into the future. AECOM has developed similar metrics for the San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s water system improvement program and for Chicago’s Bronzeville Community Microgrid. In each case, in addition to financial and environmental factors, the model includes defined social benefits in the decision-making process. To speed up infrastructure investment on a local level, it’s imperative to create frameworks that can be scaled regionally and gain community support.

These new behaviors and perspectives on infrastructure modernization will serve our communities on many levels, including providing resilience, advancing sustainability and improving social and environmental equity. Now is the time to invest in bold, cohesive infrastructure modernization initiatives to sustain economic advancement for our communities – now and into the future.

Originally published 07.20.2020

Author: Annika Moman