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Infrastructure Planning Must Account for Technology's Exponential Impact

Details of an infrastructure plan for the future must include an understanding of the many ways digital technology is transforming how America works, lives and plays.

If there's any consensus that emerged from the presidential election, it was on the need to do something about America's aging infrastructure. "We're going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none," President-elect Donald Trump declared in his victory speech. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responded that top Democrats shared that interest, with a particular focus on job creation. "We can work together to quickly pass a robust infrastructure jobs bill," she said.

Trump is talking about a 10-year, trillion-dollar infrastructure plan -- certainly a bold vision. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. And the details have to include an understanding of the many ways digital technology is transforming how America works, lives and plays.

Our biggest challenge may well be figuring out how to accurately plan for tomorrow's infrastructure needs when today's technology is disrupting virtually every aspect of our society. How does a highway planner, for instance, predict the effects of ride-sharing, car-sharing, driverless cars and drone package delivery on traffic congestion, mobility and land use? Consider this: According to a recent National League of Cities (NLC) report, "self-driving technology could allow cities to redevelop at least 50 percent of their current street parking permanently, reclaiming space for sidewalks and dramatically expanding the public realm."

A core driver of this disruption is explosive growth in different sectors fueled by the deployment of technology. Airbnb, Uber, Lyft and the Internet of Things are good examples of growth occurring at an accelerating pace. Planning that doesn't account for this exponential factor will inevitably be off the mark. My colleague Dustin Haisler, e.Republic's chief innovation officer, coined the term "exponential planning," and he and Paul Taylor, e.Republic's chief content officer, have written a playbook to help government officials better prepare for the future.

"There are material weaknesses in the way we plan projects in cities," Haisler says. "Constituent behavior and a rapidly changing technology landscape make it vital for government to consider a variety of new factors and risks in planning. This applies to everything -- a capital project or piece of land." In his view, exponential planning is an overlay on traditional planning processes, aiming to evaluate future trends and risks that will have an impact on public projects.

Here's an example that helps to illustrate the concept. In Austin, the Mopac Expressway provides access to the west side of the city and is highly congested. The city is making modifications to ease traffic and increase capacity. The traditional planning approach for such a project would be to analyze such factors as traffic patterns, anticipated growth and right-of-way availability, and then generate a series of recommendations.

An exponential-planning analysis would add valuable data and very likely change the final recommendations in meaningful ways. Haisler's guidelines include mapping adjacent impact areas and assessing the impact of macro-trends such as e-commerce, ride-sharing and self-driving cars. In the case of Mopac, these factors -- particularly self-driving cars -- might significantly alleviate congestion.

So far, we're not seeing much progress toward such an approach to transportation planning. The NLC report found that only 6 percent of major transportation planning documents considered the potential effects of driverless car technology, while only 3 percent took into account rapidly expanding private transportation network companies such as Uber or Lyft.

America certainly needs a major infrastructure fix. That there appears to be bipartisan agreement at the federal level is encouraging. And there's more good news in the passage, in this month's state and local elections, of numerous infrastructure-related bond and tax measures. But while new sources of capital are critical, so is planning that includes assessing the impact of technology on how infrastructure will be used. The broader adoption of tools like exponential planning would help ensure that the value of every dollar spent is fully realized.

This column was originally published on Governing.

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