21C Infrastructure Challenges and America’s Innovation Potential

Category: Business & Economics
Published on Jan 28, 2011

America’s infrastructure problem is truly serious and perhaps more dire than Obama let on in his State of the Union address earlier this week.

What’s worse, is that for all the talk of Sputnik moments and restoring America’s competitiveness, I didn’t hear much about the kind of infrastructure investments that could really boost America’s innovation potential.

Sure, Obama talked about building a network of high-speed commuter trains. But that’s in the “nice-to-have” rather than the “must-have” category for me. Similarly, investments in upgrading roads, bridges and levees may be necessary and would surely create short-term jobs (just check out the report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers for a sobering overview of the state of infrastructure and a quick peak at the potential costs). But rebuilding industrial-era infrastructure won’t do anything to address America’s long-term challenge in remaining competitive with rising economies such as Brazil, China, and South Korea.

So what kind of infrastructure investments could make a difference? Here’s five suggestions:

An open-access library of university course materials. Everyone tells today’s students that what they learn in university today will be irrelevant in less than five years. The corollary is that students better get ready to commit to a lifetime of continuous learning. The problem is that today’s universities aren’t really equipped for the job. But a global network for higher learning that provides every aspiring student in the US (and the world) with lifetime access to world-class educational resources would be a step in the right direction.

MIT President Emeritus Charles M. Vest recently suggested that with the growing open access movement we are already seeing the early emergence of a meta-university – a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced. A noble and global endeavour of this scale would speed the propagation of high-quality education and scholarship and give teachers and students everywhere the ability to access and share teaching materials, scholarly publications, scientific works in progress, including Webcasts of real-time science experiments. Leading universities like MIT are already well ahead. But grants towards digitizing course materials — perhaps through the Department of Education or some other agency — could help lesser-endowed universities join the fray.

A federal commitment to open access science. A global open-access library of university course materials should also include access to publicly funded research and scientific data. After all, without effective access to data and source materials, the scientific enterprise becomes impossible. Open up access to all of the world’s knowledge, on the other hand, and we will help deepen and broaden the progress of science, giving everyone from knowledge-thirsty students and aspiring researchers to entrepreneurs the opportunity to tap new insights and contribute their own. The NIH already makes 100% of all publicly funded research available to the public. Finally passing The Federal Research Public Access Act would expand that mandate to all federally-funded research. Contrary to some claims, this step would open scientific knowledge up to greater scrutiny, wider distribution and better commercial and social applications.

An open energy grid. Climate change legislation is a non-starter for the foreseeable future. So Obama is right to risk his political capital on kick-starting renewable energy. The opportunity for new product and service innovation is great, as is the potential for creating hundreds of thousands of new high-skill jobs in fields ranging from solar engineering to software. And since energy consumption and our fossil fuel addiction is the largest contributor to carbon emissions, the Obama admin can effectively kill two birds with one stone. To drive the required changes we need three things: price incentives to facilitate the growth of low-carbon alternatives, better data to drive smarter investment decisions, and an open source grid that can unleash a new wave of energy services. Let me expand on the last point.

The idea behind the smart grid is to weave millions, and eventually billions, of household appliances, substations and power generators around the planet into an intelligent and programmable network. The argument for making the smart grid open parallels the argument for an open Internet. In other words, just as open standards and “edge intelligence” brought forth creativity on the Internet, openness in the new energy grid will ensure it goes beyond being just a computerized pipeline for delivering cleaner electricity, and becomes a platform for a diverse array of new energy services that will introduce new innovation to an outmoded sector and bring greater consumer awareness and a sense of community to making energy consumption decisions.

Building a smart grid on open standards would allow, for example, software developers to build grid applications just as developers build apps for smartphones. The most straightforward application might analyze a household’s electricity usage data, identify inefficient appliances or practices in the home, offer tips on how to reduce energy, and provide special discounts on efficient appliances or electronics. Innovations like these are especially exciting for the behavior changes they will bring about. Studies have found that when people are made aware of how much power they are using, they reduce their use by about 7%. With added incentives, people curtail their electricity use during peak demand periods by 15% or more. Encouraging utilities to adopt open standards would be smart policy in my opinion.

New business models for open government. Government and innovation are not often considered synonymous. But the promise of open government is just that: dramatically more productive and equitable services, greater public trust and legitimacy, and new possibilities to crowdsource solutions to local, national and global challenges. When enough people can collect, re-use and distribute public sector information, people organize around it in new ways, creating new enterprises and new communities. In the past, only large companies, government or universities were able to re-use and recombine information. Now, virtually anyone with an Internet connection can mix and ‘mash’ data to design new ways of solving old problems.

Thanks to the Obama admin, open government has made great strides. But much more remains to be done and open government initiatives have been fairly criticized for producing lots of shiny new apps with a negligible impact on public value. A more relentless focus on driving better public services outcomes in 2011 will be necessary to ensure departmental leaders remain willing to commit valuable resources and talent to open government initiatives. Just as urgent, however, is that need for a new “business model” for open government.

Innovation contests – the de facto business model today – have their merits, but they fall far short of providing a sustainable model for public service innovation. To deliver genuine transformation, open government initiatives need a vibrant ecosystem of for-profit and non-profit entities that produces a steady stream of innovation, not just sporadic bursts. Closely observing the successes of platform leaders such as Apple, Amazon, Google and SAP will yield key insights as open government practitioners seek to reinforce the productivity and longevity their initiatives.

Preserving the open Internet. Easily the most important public infrastructure of all is the Internet itself. Keeping the Internet open will ensure that it remains the most potent laboratory for innovation the world has ever seen. Recent decisions by the FCC have been disappointing. The prospect of an ever-fragmented Web thanks to the proliferation of walled gardens is also worrying. But so much has been said on these issues that you may as well read Tim Berners-Lee’s call for the continued use of open standards and Net neutrality if you’re not convinced yet.

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[…] Just as the industrial economy needed roads, sewers and public education, we need new kinds of digital public goods to drive innovation in today’s economy. Think open source software, public data, digital courseware, smart grids and the manifold […]

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