Unlike large infrastructure initiatives, including the New Deal, which helped raise the US out of the Great Depression, the 2021 legislation comes at a time when the lines between the physical and digital worlds are becoming increasingly blurred.
This notion that we can more broadly define what infrastructure means today, compared to the natural understanding by millions that infrastructure only refers to roads, bridges, tunnels, transportation hubs, and other “built” projects, drove a lot of debate as part of the negotiations that finally lead to the passage of the bill.
On the one hand, highly progressive factions declared that “human infrastructure” is at least as important as the bricks, mortar, and steel-based projects and wrote into the bill recommendations for human services, including childcare, subsidized education, better healthcare, and more as part of modern jobs being created as part of this massive federal investment plan.
On the other hand, more conservative factions positioned such recommendations as attempts to drive up and hijack the funding for the progressive agenda, saying every penny should go towards the safety and improvements of crumbling highways, outdated, inefficient airports, and other “things” traditionally perceived as infrastructure.
Both positions are understandable, as both sides are poised to benefit from the bill, which escaped Washington DC gridlock and is now open for the procurement of goods and services from American manufacturers and providers, which will surely help bring the economy back even as the world continues to struggle to tamp down the global pandemic which triggered historic, bold measures.
We caught up with Bita Milanian, who has written and spoken about the role digital innovation plays in the improvement of society as part of her role as Senior Vice President of Global Marketing for Ribbon Communications, a large enterprise bringing fiber optic, real-time communications software, network security and collaboration applications to market – serving the Federal Government, smart cities including Los Angeles, where she lives, and thousands of educational and healthcare institutions.
She frequently writes about the opportunity for rural America to transform everything from farms and factories to schools and hospitals, leveraging high-speed broadband and mobile broadband, which is getting a major boost from the Infrastructure Bill.
“This is a transformative moment unlike any we’ve seen in my lifetime,” Milanian said, “and a great example of what we can do when cooperation across the aisle happens, especially after such a tragic and complex time fighting a virus that nearly completely shut our country and others down. When we look back to the time when the mandates started to roll out – forcing people to stay home – and forcing companies to support remote working – forcing educators to teach online – we should be extremely proud of how the public and private sector responded. Ribbon, for example, rallied in a matter of hours and days to bring our cloud communications and collaboration solutions to the market to keep operations going and to support the extremely important telemedicine, education, and other mission-critical industries going. We learned a lot from that experience, and it changed the perception of millions – even billions – of people who may never have thought, for example, to visit their doctor online.”
Milanian has been advocating for bridging the digital divide for decades, even as she began her career in telecom in the late 1990s after immigrating to the U.S. from Iran. “I am deeply appreciative of my challenges as a refugee as a young girl, as they illuminated for me the value of freedom, democracy, and equal access to education and career opportunities for all. The Internet, combined with the massive growth of mobile devices and applications and cloud technologies, has already made so much possible, including helping us navigate COVID-19 challenges. Still, the disparity in rural America and some underserved urban areas persists, and we now have an immediate opportunity to solve for that once-and-for-all, which will help us build the physical things we need to remain competitive and healthy.”
Milanian pointed to stunning figures regarding the lack of skilled IT engineers and developers, combined with the lack of workers required to build modern roads, bridges, tunnels, water systems, transportation systems, sustainable energy solutions, and more. “We’ve seen this coming for years, and the 2020 Global Engineering Capability review confirmed that there is a skills shortage in engineering. There simply are not enough engineers required to complete large-scale investments in infrastructure projects from new airports, schools, hospitals to power and water systems, including replacing the deadly toxic water pipes in so many cities. Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, and Aeronautical engineers are among the traditional communities we must build, but there is also a growing need for multidisciplinary engineers working in renewable technology, robotics, the building of 5G and 6G networks, and of course, Industry 4.0. I am passionate about the need to fund educational programs, especially given that for as long as we can remember, girls and women have been disproportionately left out of the overall engineering world.”
Milanian says that the distinction between physical, digital, and human infrastructure is a non-starter, given that “there will be few or even no new projects, whether light rail systems, smart city traffic management, and safety systems, new or improved airports, even roads and bridges that won’t include digital instrumentation. How we extend the life of the investments we make in physical infrastructure can be greatly enhanced when we have data coming from these systems, which help us understand everything from the need for routine maintenance to predictive analytics, letting those who operate the infrastructure understand in advance what could be a cataclysmic failure.”
The 2020 Global Engineering Capability Review, commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation based in the UK, noted that while engineering offered an essential lever by which countries could achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, this could not be done unless there was a proper pool of talent coming through with the right level of skills.
In the US, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that 140,000 new engineering jobs will be created by 2026 in the US alone, underscoring the need to provide quality education in technical fields; at the same time, a Korn-Ferry study published earlier this year concluded that while the United States is the undisputed leader in tech, the present talent shortage could erode that lead fast. In tech alone, the study says the US could lose out on $162 billion worth of revenues annually unless it finds more high-tech workers. “As with many economies, the onus falls on companies to train workers, and also to encourage governments to rethink education programs to generate the talent pipelines the industry will require,” says Werner Penk, president of Korn Ferry’s Global Technology Market practice.
“We are at an important and even urgent crossroads in the US, but this opportunity to solve social challenges, including inequality and lack of education, inadequate healthcare, and food security issues applies globally,” Milanian said. “By taking a holistic view and applying common sense planning measures for each community that stands to benefit from the Infrastructure Bill, we can generate a greater return on the investment, including lasting programs that start with education and access for all. By thinking big and acting wisely, we can not only turn around the economy in the short term but pave the way for a much more stable and sustainable economy that includes everybody for the long term.”
You can learn more about Milanian’s writings about the digital divide here.