Jack Eisenhauer

Each day we have a $1 billion opportunity to bake resilience into our infrastructure—but are we missing it?

When people talk about infrastructure resilience, they often confine their discussion to disaster response and recovery. This view of resilience is too common and too narrow. Better processes, practices, and procedures will improve our national resilience, especially in the short term. But the fact remains that we are constrained by the inherent limitations of the structures that were built 10, 20, or even 100 years ago. I contend that our greatest opportunity to achieve long-term sustainable resilience is to “bake it in” to the structures—the wires, pipes, roads, bridges, computer networks, and so on—that make up our critical infrastructures.

Won’t this take a long time? Yes! Building in resilience is a long-term proposition. It not only involves installing new equipment and technologies, but also reconfiguring road systems and designing complex computer networks to take a hit without losing critical functions. But every day that we delay we miss a huge opportunity to invest in resilience. How much? About $1 billion each day.

Investment in U.S. Critical Infrastructure

Reliable estimates of U.S. infrastructure investment are hard to come by. For example, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the McKinsey Global Institute, the Council of Foreign Affairs, the Brookings Institution, and the Cato Institute have all developed estimates of infrastructure investment, but they do not use the same definitions or data sources. So I decided to prepare my own very rough estimate.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, total annualized construction spending (public and private) in the United States topped $900 billion by mid-2013. (Although infrastructure investment includes both equipment purchases and construction spending, I focus only on the latter because it represents the largest portion of the total for most sectors.) Sector-by-sector construction spending data is published by the Census Bureau (through the St. Louis Federal Reserve Economic Data website). Of these, 11 sectors—communications, commercial, offices, power, health care, highways and roads, transportation, water supply, sewer and waste, lodging, and manufacturing—correspond to critical infrastructure sectors. Although these sectors do not align exactly with the sectors identified in PPD-21 and by DHS, they overlap with at least 9 of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors, including many that make very large capital investments each year.

Over the past four years, combined construction spending in these 11 sectors fluctuated between about $350 billion to $400 billion per year. This means that each day we spend at least $1 billion in new infrastructure that has the potential to bake in resilience for the life of that structure, be it 5 years for computer systems or 100 years or more for bridges and roads. But are the capital planners looking at resilience features and consulting with technologists and emergency managers? Are they considering materials that can better absorb shocks? Are they designing communication and electrical networks to be redundant and self-healing? Are they locating structures to take advantage of natural barriers? Are they anticipating rising sea levels?

The built environment represents our best opportunity to strengthen resilience but we will need to rethink infrastructure. Post-recession construction spending is on the rise, giving us an excellent window of opportunity to embed resilient features into new structures, often at no added cost. But we need a vision that encourages collaboration among business leaders, policymakers, city planners, scientists and engineers, emergency managers, and financiers. We need to encourage equipment upgrades rather than one-for-one replacement. We need public support for wholesale infrastructure improvements on blue-sky days, not just in the wake of disasters. The question isn’t should we spend—but how we make the best of our $1 billion/day investment.