The $100T opportunity.

“Most managers spend 80% of their time on problems, and 20% of their time on opportunities. They ought to reverse that ratio.” – Peter Drucker(?)[1]

Tonight’s news reports, spanning all media, will be headlining the new administration’s unwinding of the previous administration’s legacy on coping with climate change. Readers and viewers will be treated to the sight of several presidential directives signed with pomp and flourish, addressing federal requirements for factoring carbon costs in decisions; restrictions on coal mining on public lands, rules to reduce power plant emissions and more. The on-line buzz, pro and con, is already building. What the reports may not emphasize, or relegate to an afterthought, is that the same inertia that slowed the prior administration’s formulation of the former policies, and delayed and attenuated their intended impact, will face today’s attempts to unwind. Partisan reaction of either stripe – whether tending to joy or dismay – is premature. (Extreme reactions – ecstasy or fear – are totally unwarranted.)

In the midst of the sturm und drang, those in the science and business of natural resources, building societal resilience to natural hazards, and protecting and maintaining vital ecosystem services should maintain focus on the 21st century’s singular opportunity and challenge – bringing on line $100T of critical infrastructure to meet the needs of 7 billion-going-on-9-billion people for food, water, and energy. Bear in mind that the goal is: to meet the needs of all people, country by country and also person by person, continuously, without even momentary interruption, and for generations. Nothing less will do. It won’t suffice to meet these needs on average, or occasionally, or (worst of all) briefly.

Who is working on this problem? Cast a quick glance worldwide. The Middle East is ravaged by conflict. Europe is preoccupied with maintaining its fragile Union and shoring up the Euro, while coping with an influx of refugees from conflicts and desperate poverty to its east and south. The United States has turned inward. Only one nation appears to be moving ahead with vigor.

China.

From the Americas to Africa to Asia, the Chinese government and its state-owned enterprises (SOE’s) are working abroad to build highways, railroads, electrical grids, dams, and more. Their aim is simple – to supply China with natural resources, build China’s trade, extend Chinese hegemony, and provide jobs for Chinese. Governance in the host country (i.e., ensuring that the investments benefit the people as a whole versus a few corrupt leaders at the top)? Meeting the needs of those same peoples for vital goods and services? Maintaining new construction and facilities any longer than it takes to extract the resources? Building in-country capacity to maintain and operate the new critical infrastructure? Protecting their environment? None of this is a priority for China. If these trends continue, twenty years down the line chances are good these countries will look more like China, think more like China, be more like China.

A simple fix can improve upon this future. The United States can choose to engage.

That engagement matters to us and to the world for several reasons. Start with the U.S. need to replace and renew domestic critical infrastructure, at a cost which has been put at about $4T, or 4% of the world total. Mending our own fences here at home almost certainly more than pays for itself over the lifetime of the investment. Even so, Congress, looking at the figures, can be forgiven for experiencing a bit of sticker shock, and concern about balancing the federal budget – thus dragging its feet. We should instead view our own national repair as the means and opportunity for R&D, for innovating, for building and gaining experience with government-private-sector partnerships, which we can then turn around and use as a competitive edge in marketing our infrastructure products and services abroad. The cost-benefit picture then improves markedly.

U.S. public-private-sector collaboration in international critical infrastructure projects is likely to look substantially different from its Chinese counterpart. We would most probably be reluctant to work with a failed state or corrupt government without insisting that its leaders clean up their act. We might be inclined merely to lend financial aid for international projects rather than make outright gifts. That would raise the initial cost to them. But at the same time, partnering countries would be correspondingly free to sell their resources to other countries as they chose – rather than deal with a single customer as in the China alternative. We might argue for more costly infrastructure and means of construction that would over the long haul be more resilient to hazards and/or reduce environmental impacts. We might offer accompanying aid for STEM education and for building workforce capacity. Underlying all of this would be the idea that the end outcome would be a world that might look a little more like America than China.

Some, perhaps many other countries of the world might well welcome this U.S. alternative. Others might instead see the U.S. infrastructure add-ons oppositely, as unwanted interference in their domestic affairs. They might prefer the Chinese option. But at least all countries would have a choice. And we know from our own market-based economy that to have competition and choices is to improve quality and lower costs. This wouldn’t just be good for client countries. It would be good for China and the Chinese as well.

It’s hard to imagine such a competitive scenario leading anywhere other than to a freer, richer, generally better world.

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(A postscript. The WordPress administrative software suggests that LOTRW has just passed 800 posts. Quite a bit of variability here, but over a 6-year, 8-month period, that averages to a post every three days. My thanks to the three or four of you who’ve submitted a handful of guest posts over that period; to those of you who’ve taken the trouble to comment and add your insights; to all of you who’ve taken the trouble to come up to me and provide a kind word; and to the much larger group that has stopped by electronically to sample a post or two. Your encouragement has meant more than I can say. Thank you.)

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[1] I swear I read this exact statement in a book by the great management guru Peter Drucker, but I can’t find it online and his books are too voluminous to search by hand. Economists and others may recognize this as one form of, or adaptation of, the Pareto principle.

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6 Responses to The $100T opportunity.

  1. Donna Charlevoix says:

    Spot on – we can be forward thinking and engage or be left behind. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Bill:-

    Great column! Let me provide a quiet echo.

    The ASCE has done a great job in pointing out the crisis our country is facing with its infrastructure. This is a critical problem compounded by our federal deficit, and the very real financial crunch being faced by many of our cities, counties and states.

    However, as you point out, the national dialogue we need about our infrastructure should not be entirely doom and gloom. The Chinese ideogram for “crisis” is made up of two characters – “danger” and “opportunity.” When we talk about the state of our infrastructure we tend to stress the dangers – especially when talking to politicians. But it is clear – we will eventually repair and rebuild our aging infrastructure. We may do it in a deliberate and planned manner, or in response to more incidents like the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. In other words, on either a “pay me now,” or a “pay me [more] later” basis.

    But if we proceed wisely in repairing and rebuilding our infrastructure, there are important economic development opportunities that are too often overlooked. Here in the US, by using better materials, building in better locations, using sensors to allow us to know the conditional status of our infrastructure at almost any point in time, we can again make our infrastructure a competitive advantage for American business. Investments like these will reduce maintenance costs, provide greater safety, and result in an extended life for what we rebuild.

    The use of these same new technologies can also spark real economic growth – selling both the technologies and our know-how to foreign buyers. The infrastructure in much of the newer developed world (esp. what Thomas Barnett calls the “new core” – Brazil, India…) though younger than ours – is built on the American model, with American ideas. If we can push to make good investments and solve our own problems soon, the solutions we develop will provide economic opportunities for us, when countries in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere begin to face the same challenges we are now. American firms can once more be in the forefront of rebuilding the infrastructure of the world.

    Certainly we should stress the dangers when talking about our infrastructure crisis. However, we should also stress the opportunities inherent in dealing with those dangers. We should not allow our current fiscal mess to prevent us from investing in ourselves in ways that can provide a huge return on that investment. This is one of the few areas where real economic growth is possible. Whatever our political views this is one area where all of us should hope for the new Administration’s success.

  3. Mona says:

    “Read, not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, not to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.” — Sir Francis Bacon

    LOTWR continues to serve as a guide and broaden my view of the world. Bill, thank you for all your thought-provoking, engaging, and motivating writings thus far.

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