We should have smarter infrastructure…but do we really want it?

As we rip the page of August from the national calendar, with its steamy, fevered electoral memories, the cooler, more rational new month of September lays ahead, its days yet unmarked by ill-advised stump-speech digressions and conspiratorially theoretical misdirections.

Another sixty-ish days and this election will be in America’s history books. But today, the outcome is still far from certain.

One thing is a fact, though. Everyone wants to rebuild America’s infrastructure. We’re falling apart apparently. The litany of what’s broken is echoed from all sides of the political divide, sounding a bit like those times around the campfire where everyone sings “Row, row, row your boat,” with different voices starting at different times, creating — in this case — a cacophony of inertia.

Bridges, roads, airports, highways…bridges, roads, airports, highways….

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has laid out a $275 billion five-year infrastructure plan in quite some detail. Republican candidate Donald Trump anted up $500 billion for his plan, but with few details except to repeat the above shopping list of worn-out public systems.

It’s highly likely one of these two candidates will be sworn in as president next January. So that means we can expect these infrastructure platform planks to turn into policy, right?

Wrong.

Like many Americans, I fear none of these big building plans will go anywhere.

As editor-in-chief of ReadWrite, I’ve had the opportunity in recent weeks to travel around China and western Europe. China’s infrastructure buildout is mind-blowing, for a westerner, with some much being done so quickly, and with striking professionalism and engineering skill. Everything is new, and for the large part, it works well.

And even in Denmark’s Copenhagen, an old city of 2 million, is undertaking a massive subway expansion.

How did we let our infrastructure crumble?

So why is America seemingly so far behind? Cities like NYC are undertaking impressive expansion and refurbishing of mass transit. Smart city competitions see rival American cities duking it out for transport modernization grants and attracting truckloads of private capital in the process.

But at the core, infrastructure investment means a lot of money, money with a long time horizon, and that typically means government needs to spearhead the charge. Given the political gridlock in Washington today, despite our long history as forward-thinking people who invest in the needs of the next generation, we may never build something as grand and as critical as the national interstate highway system again.

Now it’s all just debt-scare-mongering and hidden pork-barreling of pet projects…often by the exact same politician.

See also: Smart city traffic tech could save us 4.2 billion hours annually

Can smart cities concepts help hack this rebuilding?

Countries like China, whose leaders are building their infrastructure essentially from scratch, aren’t held back by existing technologies. They have an opportunity to leapfrog us in technological skill and expertise, just as we once did with the rest of the world. If we’re stuck refurbishing the old systems with a trickle of capital, it’s a downward spiral.

As supporters of smart city technologies, we here at ReadWrite know there’s an opportunity for American cities to truly be great again. We meet the people who want to do just that every day. But it takes coordinated efforts – of all levels of government, of the private sector, of our best researchers, of tinkerers and makers of all kinds, and most critically — of citizens everywhere.

So we’ll be taking on this big challenges in our coverage, and hopefully finding some equally big solutions.

We invite you to join us on these discussions as well. Let us know what smart cities technologies you want to see, or just tell us what works in your city and who made it work. Maybe it’s something that will help your fellow citizens next door or ten states over.

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