Our nation’s critical infrastructure has become an important subject of focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. As Siemens USA CEO Barbara Humpton describes it, “This is a moment when it feels like everything is changing.” She and United for Infrastructure CEO Zach Schafer recently discussed the possibilities that infrastructure offers for our recovery, a more resilient future and job and economic growth. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation.
SCHAFER: I like to say that infrastructure is the most important thing that most people shouldn't have to think about or don't think about. And I think that the pandemic and many of the other issues that we're experiencing now are forcing us to see our infrastructure for the first time, because it is failing us in some ways. It’s exposed a lot of ways that our infrastructure maybe needs to be built up and expanded both to serve the purpose that it's already intended to serve but also to help us adapt to a world that is rapidly changing.
HUMPTON: It’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot at Siemens because Siemens has been involved in building the infrastructure of the future, and we recognize that there are new capabilities today, especially the digital tools that we developed, that can now be applied to do things that simply weren't possible before.
HUMPTON: We're in a crisis; we have to respond to the now. We also have people looking forward because what we want to do is use all of the capabilities we have today to make sure that the measures we take are aligned with the long-term vision of the future we're working to create.
SCHAFER: Now is the right time to really take a deep dive on infrastructure as a nation and really see the benefits that we can reach, not just in the short run from the economic stimulus, but in the long run from having something to really show for this time – that this was a time of great stress and distress but also a time of building and opportunity.
HUMPTON: I once heard former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx say, when you want to get one of these major infrastructure projects going, it’s as if you have to hit a grand slam home run, aligning all of the stakeholders so that you can score on every front. Are you seeing any change right now in policymakers or decision-makers’ take on what it's going to take to get projects approved?
SCHAFER: I think that there is reason for optimism – that we are going to see a lot of emphasis on moving projects faster and on making sure that the projects that we are moving, especially the new ones, are solving critical problems in addition to providing economic stimulus and creating jobs.
SCHAFER: We're also seeing a real willingness and sense of action from policymakers to take the steps necessary to say, "How do we build back better? How do we build back stronger?" Exactly the timing and the shape that takes and what the federal legislative actions are is yet to be seen, but we are seeing a renewed attention on infrastructure as the tool that it is, which is a tool that can be used to solve so many social problems, economic problems, public health problems.
HUMPTON: The question I've been asking is, “If you had power and communications wherever, where would you choose to live?” And I think this pandemic is showing us that we have the ability to engage digitally in many jobs and so we have the opportunity to allow people to choose where they'll reside and still stay connected to the economy.
SCHAFER: We are seeing barriers broken down between zip codes because of those technologies, because of the digitalization of communications and power that may, in and of themselves, be the jumpstart to breaking down the inequality that we see across zip codes. But only if we can get those educational opportunities, workforce opportunities, career opportunities levelized across the board, and that takes investment in broadband, investment in wireless communications, investment in the power grid.
SCHAFER: And that's the why that we were talking about. Infrastructure is the panacea to so many things. We don't need infrastructure for infrastructure's sake but we need infrastructure to live the lives and get the careers and the educations and the outcomes that we all so desperately want for ourselves and our families and our communities.
HUMPTON: Whether it's bringing alternative sources of energy, creating microgrids for greater resilience, bringing power to the centers of our cities, greater bandwidth, connecting devices for smart city operation, and upgrading transportation, electrifying the way we move, my colleagues at Siemens are ready to tackle these challenges with you.
Published: June 23, 2020