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Innovation and Political Leadership Can Fix Potholes

By September 25, 2017No Comments

In her book, “Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead,” author Rosabeth Kanter sees technology, privatization and political will as the answer to our crumbling infrastructure.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is not an expert on asphalt and potholes per sé. The Harvard Business School professor is a specialist in strategy, innovation and leadership for change. And she has some pretty big, strategic and innovative ideas and perspectives on the sweeping changes underway in transportation.

Ultimately, potholes are a big concern to her – along with falling bridges, traffic congestion, and how all those things are economically detrimental. They are the subject of her 2015 book, “Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead.” In it she takes a broad look at what’s not working, then drills down into some things that are – in innovative, sometimes disruptive, and certainly interesting ways.

Outlining the problems specifically related to potholes, she says the following:

  • The Northeast Corridor – basically Boston through Washington, D.C. – is vulnerable to all kinds of disruption because so many people are dependent on aging infrastructure, including commuter trains, some of which have electrical wiring going back to the early 1900s. When a train derailed near Bridgeport, Connecticut in 2013, it forced 30,000 people to instead get on roads for basic transportation for two weeks. She cites a CEO who, forced to instead drive, claims he counted 1,278 potholes on the roads traveled between Boston and New York.
  • The most energy and money the U.S. has put into highways goes back to the construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. The problem, she says, is “they have not been hot spots for innovation, and for the most part, neither have the industries riding on them.”

While that may sting the civil and road building engineers, asphalt producers and the R&D departments working with them – not all asphalt is the same, and some newer technologies have been developed to increase the life of pothole fillers, for example – it helps to remember the author has a strong future focus. She envisions the benefits of disruptive technologies and business ingenuity that, if there is sufficient political will to sponsor them, could pave the way to smoother roads and faster travel.

On some more hopeful notes, she offers these ideas:

Wireless technologies are a great tool. “Highways are increasingly dotted with sensors and capable of changing on the basis of data analysis,” she writes. “Once inert physical surfaces are becoming intelligent, flexible, dynamic platforms that can deal with problems such as congestion and traffic management, pricing and toll collections, safety and maintenance.” Her example: Street Bump, a smartphone app created by the City of Boston, identifies potholes from bumps of the car as users drive, and immediately transmits the location to the city. “Imagine that,” she says. “Your car and your phone are allies in road repairs. The Information Superhighway reinvents the highway.”

Investment can find returns in infrastructure redevelopment. Kanter wrote in Harvard Magazine (July-August 2015) that, “Private capital, e.g. from long-term investors such as life-insurance and pension funds, could provide as much as $2.5 trillion for infrastructure globally by 2030.”

Political leadership and a willingness to challenge the status quo are required for change. One example she cites is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who created the first metropolitan infrastructure bank to fund such projects as under- and overpasses to separate freight rail from passenger vehicles and rail, street light modernization and improvements to surface transportation. The program pays back investors from increased transit revenues and cost savings, such as from lowered energy use in retrofitting 60 of the city’s buildings with efficiency improvements (tighter building envelopes and LED lights, primarily). Another example of political will was where the multi-municipality E-470 Highway Authority in Denver generates $190 million in tolls every year to pay back bondholders. The highway is faster and better maintained due to revenues from tolls.

The book is rich with other ideas and observations. It importantly draws that link between private engineering and science with the decision makers in government. Both have important jobs to do, and both have incentives for finding successful outcomes. It seems inevitable that innovative products and ideas will continue to move us forward – but with all the changes being sweeping and costly, a few potholes are to be expected along the way.

Kanter concludes that “mobility is opportunity, and we’re in a mobility race … an impetus to find common purpose,” she says. “And let’s not delay. We don’t want to be late for our appointment with the future.”

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