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“Build Back Better” Requires Going Beyond Hard Infrastructure

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Keren Zhu
February 14, 2021

As news about delayed COVID-19 vaccine rollout and clogged phone lines suggest, the ambitious plans President Joe Biden has outlined to improve America’s crumbling infrastructure will require solutions beyond buttressing bricks and mortar. Modernizing soft elements in hard infrastructure is as important as upgrading its material, physical components.

The COVID-19 crisis appears to reveal a number of vulnerabilities in the vital “soft” components of America’s infrastructure such as adaptive planning, skills training and access equality.

Prior infrastructure planners have not fully accounted for risks and uncertainties in setting standards and capacity thresholds. The current internet infrastructure, for example, was designed based on pre-pandemic commuter behavior patterns. New trends towards the gig economy have enabled knowledge workers to work from home, and the pandemic has further accelerated the process. When 42% of the United States labor force started to work from home, internet traffic shifted from offices and schools with higher broadband service capacities to residential networks that are easily congested and more vulnerable to breakdown. As the pandemic has normalized remote work, preparing a communications infrastructure designed for 20th century needs for the future of work in the 21st century becomes a real challenge.

Second, while uncertainties such as climate change ought to affect infrastructure decisions, administrators of critical infrastructure still lack the knowledge, skills and experience to deal with unprecedented emergencies brought by compounded crises. For example, this past year, California battles the worst fire season in recorded history, while simultaneously contending with the spread of coronavirus and the threat of rolling power outages. The virus makes firefighting and evacuation far more difficult; working from home stresses residential electricity supply; and breathing wildfire smoke may worsen COVID-19 symptoms. These compounding factors put unprecedented strains on health, fire protection and emergency and electrical infrastructure. Relevant administrative entities have little experience with facing with such a crisis, and have had difficulties coordinating a public response across agencies.

COVID-19 has also disproportionately affected socio-economically disadvantaged groups and many social determinants of health affecting racial and ethnic minority groups are closely linked to unequal infrastructure access. Dense housing makes diseases more easily transmissible and unequal access to hospitals and healthcare increase the risk of infection and death. Because a higher percentage of ethnic minorities are essential workers in healthcare and public transport, they are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. Finally, remote learning creates further challenges for this group, widening education gaps.

These new challenges facing the United States mirror uncertainties in the global policy environment in which new infrastructure is being planned, constructed and operated. In addition to the Biden Administration’s commitment to, “Build Back Better,” governments across the world are eyeing infrastructure investment to boost growth in the near term and further out, to reverse the pandemic-caused recession. But as theory and empirical evidence suggest, infrastructure investment leading to economic growth depends on many external factors such as institutional support, technological development, education and local culture.

A paradigm shift towards developing infrastructure more resilient to future risks and uncertainties suggests that we adopt a more holistic view to infrastructure. Understanding the three non-material faces of infrastructure is critical in preparing decisionmakers for future plans and actions.

First, infrastructure is both structural and institutional. Stakeholders make decisions within institutional constraints and are affected by infrastructure and political structures. Policymakers need to overhaul current institutional framework to better prepare for uncertainties such as global pandemics, climate change and supply chain decoupling due to changes in international relations. That response should include upgrading planning, construction, operations and maintenance guidelines to make infrastructure resilient to natural disasters and human hazards, promoting monitoring and evaluation that supports adaptive planning, streamlining emergency management agencies and resources for timely, effective coordination, and offering competitive grants to support research, development and deployment of new technologies to confront emerging risks.

Second, infrastructure is also social and relational. Unequal access to public infrastructure perpetuates inequality and deepens social divide. To move from “just is” to “just-ice” requires building in disadvantaged communities. Doing so entails not only building better hospitals, schools, libraries, waterpipes and subway lines accessible to underserved communities, but also campaigns to raise awareness and encourage local residents to make full use of new facilities and resources.

Third, infrastructure is also discursive. The rise of social media, the tyranny of algorithms and other changes to the information environment exacerbate political and social polarization, creating walls between groups and communities. Planners should tactfully link traditional views of infrastructure as promoting progress, growth, prosperity and modernity, with public debates and discussions to offer hope, cohesion and aspiration to people, and heal the divide gashed by politics. New plans for the Los Angeles River that connects communities along the river, for example, could be leveraged as a symbol of unity in public discussion.

“Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished,” said poet Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inaugural ceremony. Infrastructure may be broken at times, but a more holistic approach and attentiveness to non-material dimensions of infrastructure will help advance President Biden’s agenda, and help America and the world rebuild, reconcile and recover faster.


Author: Keren Zhu ([email protected], @Zhu_Keren) is a PhD candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Her research interests include global infrastructure and international development. Prior to joining RAND, she was the international affairs manager at Research and Development International, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, where she promoted international cooperation and produced policy research to advance the Belt and Road Initiative.

Her thoughts do not necessarily reflect those of the RAND Corporation, Pardee RAND, or RAND’s research sponsors.

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