“You’re trying to decide today what the conditions will be like 8-15 years in the future, and just what type of things you should develop. Under these circumstances it turns out that competent, honest, people don’t do very well.” Herman Kahn
President-elect Biden’s infrastructure team has a big challenge: operationally they need to guide the infrastructure ship (nearly 130,000 employees spread throughout the country); tactically they need to avoid the unnecessary forever internal wars that will bog them down and sap their initiative; and – strategically – they need to get the nation on course for the once in a century new economic paradigm that is bearing down on us. Pete Buttitieg at DOT, Jennifer Granholm at DOE, Michael Regan at EPA, and Brenda Mallory at CEQ – along with the still unnamed head of the Interior Department – have caught the whirlwind. At the same time that they need to quickly learn to work together, they must get our economy safely to the other side of the Covid crisis.
The 5G Economy – Christmas for the Machines. According to David Knight, CEO of super brain start-up Terbine, the potential of the 5G economy is a magnitude beyond what we have seen so far in the digital revolution. If 3G boosted GDP by 15%, and 4G – the app economy – boosted GDP in the range of 27%, 5G has the potential – the potential – to drive GDP growth of 40% or more by 2030. 5G is Christmas for the machines. Connecting 1 trillion ARM chips through AI, our economy has the potential to explode with new opportunities, creative companies and astonishing services. Just as most of the leading publicly traded companies in 2010 are no longer leaders today, the leaders in 2030 are just blips in our mind’s eye. We had the 4G consumer revolution, and now the 5G machine revolution is bearing down on us.
What does this have to do with infrastructure? Everything, and urgently. First, nothing will be possible without a nationwide 5G rollout that is both visionary and immediate. We are far behind peers like South Korea and the Scandinavian countries, not to mention competitors like China – their 5G is five times faster than the limited experiments rolled out by AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. Second, as chips are embedded in everything – Jennifer Granholm’s electric vehicles being charged as they pass over Pete Buttitieg’s highways – we are going to need nationwide standards for data collection, usage, sale, organization and communication. This process has barely begun. Third, there is a kind of ‘fighting the last war’ feel to all of this. The policy community needs to address equity, education, employment and justice issues, and more, while they seem focused on the equivalent of the burning question of 1904: ‘who will feed the horses if everyone becomes car mechanics?’
This is not an issue for the geeks among us, it is a policy issue, and the ethical challenge of our time. Most small and mid-sized businesses are not aware of what’s coming: the CEO of an engineering company in the Midwest asked me whether AI and data analytics was something he should worry about, or is it ‘just a bunch of BS?’ I told him that it was everything for his business in the future. In a CG/LA survey concluded last week only 66% of infrastructure executives nationwide thought the Biden Administration should push for a nationwide 5G rollout.
This Time is Different. Nobody is talking about this infrastructure initiative in Washington. The focus on Covid recovery is absorbing people’s attention. This is legitimate, of course. We particularly need to minimize what economists call the lasting scarring effects on businesses – in infrastructure these are the professional services businesses, horrifically damaged, particularly those that rely on state and municipal budgets. Somebody, however, must shine a light – and keep that light shining – on the future.
How does the Biden Team do that, solving this problem while shifting their focus – and ours – to what’s coming? This moment calls for real strategic creativity:
Create an Infrastructure Cabinet. We need an entrepreneurial government, again. Nothing institutional will ever approximate the speed of technology, but it can catalyze research, investment and economic growth. Recall that DOT was only created in 1967 (hived from Commerce on April Fool’s Day, to be exact). Bringing the infrastructure cabinet together, with their $120 billion joint operating budget, would begin an important process of driving growth, driving equity, ensuring sustainability and establishing U.S. leadership. Note: infrastructure is not a minor issue, because of the emergence of the 5G economy it is the issue of our time.
Create an Infrastructure Bank. The 5G economy is within view, but someone – in our democracy – is going to have to take the initiative and increase the mass and velocity of critical investment. One example: municipalities (Mayor Pete) and states (Gov. Granholm) have budgets that are under siege at the same time they should be making massive investments in edge computing and other digital infrastructure. Otherwise they can’t process, utilize, package and monetize the data from the 1 trillion ARM chips (by 2030) spewing data into their Amazon
Create an Infrastructure Office in the White House. Leadership is critical. A specialized unit in the White House is essential to ensure our foundational new infrastructure investments are made quickly, equitably and strategically. There is no going back, this is our future. We are fifty countries (in infrastructure terms, at least), each state relying on the other. But Washington matters: not because only 30% of our country’s infrastructure spend comes from the federal government, but because 100% of the permissions originate there. We need to do the right things, quickly – permission delayed is permission denied, and right now there is too much denial. Note: in the survey that concluded on December 12th 89% of industry executives answered ‘yes’ to the question of whether a specialized infrastructure unit should be set up inside the White House.
Eyes on the Prize. What Herman Kahn meant at the outset of the nuclear age is exactly what we need now, at the outset of the 5G Age – imaginative, provocative, perhaps outrageous, certainly robust decision-making on what we want the world to look like in 15 years. An energetic ethical discussion, along with real strategic competence, is going to be essential. This means setting a course, it means listening to the experts – technology, engineering, finance, policy – and it means constantly adjusting the course, making the kind of systematic haste that leadership demands.
This is a unique moment for humanity – the Skynet Moment – in which the networks that bind us, digitally and physically, are going through an epochal transformation. We better pay attention – the only reason to give machines intelligence, and to let machines communicate between themselves, is to increase the liberty and dignity of all of us. Never were the words of Heraclitus more true: “Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become.” The infrastructure decisions that we take now, and that the Biden Infrastructure Team enables, are not only crucially important, they determine who we become going forward.
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