The Unexpected Environmental Impacts of Technology Infrastructure

Every four years since 1998, the American Society of Civil Engineers has released their Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The assessment process for assigning scores across the seventeen major U.S. infrastructure categories is quite extensive. A group of professionals diligently assesses data across a spectrum of criteria. The 2021 Report Card reveals that we’ve made some incremental progress toward restoring our nation’s infrastructure, but it is not a good news story yet.

For the first time in 20 years, our infrastructure is out of the D+ range, the overall score for 2021 was  C-. While this seems like positive news, the gap between where we are currently and where we need to be is varied and vast. For example, while the aviation score went up slightly, it still earned a D+.

On March 31, 2021, President Biden released his proposed $2 Trillion Infrastructure Plan, just as previous administrations have done before. Trillions of dollars have been spent over the last 20 years across four presidential administrations in the name of improving the condition and safety of our nation’s physical infrastructure. The value of this investment seems almost insignificant when we consider we have moved from a D+ grade to a C-. 

Let’s put aside opinions about where and how previous funding was spent or how today’s proposed funding is allocated. What remains are issues with legacy infrastructure, converging with a list of new and growing problems like carbon emissions and greenhouse gas. 

Asking the Right Questions

Might it be we are looking at the problem wrong? Maybe we are chasing an unachievable outcome with outdated approaches. Perhaps we have a more significant opportunity to take a different approach – one that is sensitive to emerging infrastructures and aware of the growing interdependencies. Are the decisions being made in one area having unintended consequences in another area? Is there a better way to solve the problem rather than a top-down investment from our federal government?

Consider the implications of our growing broadband infrastructure. As telecommunications companies roll out 5G, more people and businesses are going online. The confluence of a growing network and increasing desire to use advanced technologies such as data mining, data analytics, and machine learning create future problems we just now begin to consider. Elevated volume of internet traffic and reliance on data raises the demand for more data centers, which increases the stress on our power grids. That, in turn, means more energy use and greater carbon emissions. 

If the Internet were a country, it would be the sixth biggest polluter in the world. 

The eight billion global data centers that currently form the backbone of the Internet account for 2% of the world’s carbon emissions. That’s as much as the airline industry.  Estimates predict that by 2040, data center pollution will comprise 14% of the world’s carbon emissions. The implications of our connected world open the aperture to new problems emerging. How will they be addressed and who needs to bring solutions seems to be spread across potentially thousands, if not tens of thousands of organizations.

3 Ways to Advance Infrastructure

As infrastructure (d)evolves, how we address it must change. The Biden Administration has incredible power to facilitate collaboration and drive a nationwide, all-community approach to solve our pressing infrastructure issues. The federal government can reach every state, every locality, every university, every company to map out the ecosystem of problems to be solved and the science and technical capability for solutions.

The needs in our infrastructure are evident. And it’s relatively simple to spot infrastructure sectors that are morphing and putting new stresses on our systems. By weighing all the information, we can spot opportunities for the federal government to collaborate with corporate, academia, state, local, and innovation leaders to make real progress.

  1. Develop characteristic-based models of infrastructure problems to solve. Develop models to work collaboratively to identify parameters and interdependencies that, if addressed proactively, will not only prevent the weakening of our infrastructure but strengthen it and position it for future resilience. 
  2. Establish a knowledge collaboration center. Integrate the nation’s knowledge about modernizing current and supporting emerging infrastructure. Facilitate the collection, storage, and sharing of data and tools to be used across the business, non-profit, and government communities to innovate solutions.
  3. Invest research and development funds where infrastructure issues exist. Allocate R&D spending to the nation’s 127 land-grant universities to help assess how changes in infrastructures have cascading impacts across other forms of infrastructure. Fund advanced R&D to solve infrastructure problems. Facilitate the connection and collaboration across universities on innovative solutions.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to take these first steps towards truly improving our infrastructure for today and future generations. Those steps will require them to act with authority, thought leadership, and collaboration while deviating from past strategies that no longer have relevance.

Engage a human-centric perspective

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