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Construction Science Fiction: Presidential Infrastructure Address, 2038

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Tonight, on October 1, 2038, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the millennial omnibus infrastructure bill that showed that all three major political parties could come together to address this nation's economic and security future. Urban infrastructure has already changed, in large part because of the efforts of engineers and the Millennial Legislation.

How did we get here? At the beginning of the third millennium, over six billion people lived in the world, and we had a projected population growth rate of 1.25%, which would have resulted in 9.6 billion people today. But the terrorist states' war, the regional nuclear conflict and last decade's food shortages and pandemics took a toll, limiting today's world population to eight billion. The food shortages further accelerated the movement of people into cities as every acre of arable land was pressed into production. Urban population now accounts for nearly 90% in more developed countries.

Infrastructure decay that began in the last quarter of the 20th century continued and reached crisis proportions similar to those experienced by New York City's subways in the 1970s, Boston's arterial highway network in the 1980s and England's collapsing rail infrastructure in the present millennium. Water pollution was the largest environmental killer in the world, and the majority of the urban population in the then-developing countries did not have access to proper sanitation facilities. But here at home, we faced tremendous issues in potable-water supply and subsidence from excessive groundwater extraction. In addition, power grids suffered from "disinvestment."

The beginning of this century also gave witness to the intimate coupling between the cityscape we see every day and the tightly interwoven infrastructure that allows a city to meet the full range of its peoples' economic, social, political and intellectual needs. The sudden, blatant attack of Sept. 11, 2001, targeted what were iconic symbols of cities in the developed world. But out of that destruction and subsequent disasters— called Katrina, Fukushima, Sandy and Horatio—came a newfound awareness. Just this year, we have made a new urban infrastructure paradigm our preferred implementation approach. We now recognize the importance of our urban infrastructure, resilience and infrastructure's intricate linkage to the "development" it ties together. The core tenets of the new paradigm include a comprehensive and integrated systems view of development and urban infrastructure; a recognition that deferred maintenance represents a real cost and a real risk; and an understanding that operation and emergency response training is an integral element of critical infrastructure.

There's another important change: Cities and infrastructure in the third millennium require more than an enthusiastic dream. The cold, analytical methods of the engineer must move to the forefront. The concept of an engineer as commanding a mastery of numerous social sciences underscores the delicate but vital relationship between engineering and the broad social problems that infrastructure often seeks to address. This social awareness, which is a commitment to the public good, combined with a sense of leadership and responsibility, has only recently become broadly accepted—thanks to the efforts of these academies. In 2018, the U.S. finally addressed infrastructure in a long-term, systemic way. Today, in 2038, the generational challenge of rebuilding the past has been replaced by a sense of generational opportunity. The National Academies have challenged us to realize a future that we now embrace. A challenge not of words, but of actions and leadership—a future of hope and success. This and your engagement must continue. As president, I need your support.

 

PRIETO

Robert Prieto, a senior vice president of Fluor Corp, Irving, Texas, is responsible for industrial and infrastructure group strategy and can be reached at Bob.Prieto@fluor.com.

To see all of the stories in ENR's Imagining Construction's Future science fiction collection, click here.

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