The US infrastructure bill is a huge opportunity. Let’s not waste it

The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and President Joe Biden’s larger domestic policy package garnered national interest because of the bipartisan struggles and brief periods of unity for the United States.

Now, in the passed legislation, there is $100 million earmarked over five years to “accelerate the deployment of digital construction technologies such as 3D modeling software and digital project management platforms,” thanks to the Coalition for Smarter Infrastructure Investments.

“President Biden believes we must produce, here at home, the technologies and goods that meet today’s challenges and seize tomorrow’s opportunities,” the White House said in a fact sheet.

Yet while the sweeping package — which aims to boost the economy, reduce carbon emissions and narrow economic inequality — gets off the ground, we in the private sector know infrastructure on this level will need robust changes that incorporate emerging technologies during design and construction, or much of the construction will only hamper our major cities and hubs.

Recent technological advances truly do have the ability to aid an industry that has been beaten down by the pandemic and then global supply chain shortages. New York City alone lost an estimated $9.8 billion in construction activity and 74,000 jobs because of the pandemic.

At the time of writing, over 73 cargo ships could not dock at major ports within Los Angeles and Long Beach because of a backup in offloading goods. The uptick in some material prices and these delays lead to shortages, causing new tensions in supply-chain business relationships, making it more important than ever to complete major infrastructure projects on time.

The infrastructure bill would add $488 billion to the U.S. GDP by 2027 with just the additional $153.7 billion slated for new highway, bridge and public transit investment, according to ARTBA.

The full bipartisan bill contains $550 billion in new spending; the $1.2 trillion figure comes from including additional funding normally allocated each year for highways and other infrastructure projects. The new spending includes:

  • $110 billion for roads and bridges.
  • $66 billion for railroads.
  • $65 billion for the power grid.
  • $65 billion for broadband.
  • $55 billion for water infrastructure.
  • $47 billion for cybersecurity and climate change.
  • $39 billion for public transit.
  • $25 billion for airports.
  • $21 billion for the environment.
  • $17 billion for ports.
  • $11 billion for safety.

What the Smarter Infrastructure Coalition and I know from our respective fields is that within that list, there is north of $500 billion that is about to be dedicated to infrastructure projects that still use outdated methods, hurting return on investment and eventually the next generation of taxpayers who will foot this bill.

With this kind of spending and need for accountability, it’s time to harness the power of algorithms and call on AI for greater accountability. Machine learning tools can examine huge volumes of data for patterns. Varying sizes of construction companies will be looking for solutions to manage applications, mobile devices and a range of other collaborative tools to ensure projects land on time and on budget.

We’ve all seen the success that firms like Uber, Amazon and Airbnb have built on their ability to analyze vast amounts of data. It may have taken longer for a hands-on industry like ours to adapt, but now AI is realizing massive savings in construction by reducing the cost of equipment and manpower while also helping to spot delays and recommend improvements with accuracy and scale previously not possible.

Piping insulation might sound like a small thing, but there are a million “small things” that make up these projects and need tech enablement to save taxpayer dollars.

In an example from my work with Doxel, a multibillion-dollar project from a global oil and gas company saved millions and avoided a three-week delay because computer vision was able to immediately prioritize corrective action when piping systems had not been properly installed.

Essentially, when digital surveying and our algorithms caught the fact that insulation had not been installed according to the plan, we saved that company money by opening the plant on time, avoiding sending home thousands of workers at that plant.

Even before the infrastructure bill was announced, there was a global uptick in appetite for major infrastructure projects because they provide jobs and then positive ongoing economic impact for the regions where they are implemented. Boots on the ground waned, however, and are reaching new lows — perhaps because of stigma attached to the work, or maybe because of vocational fads and new adult education learning patterns.

What is abundantly clear is that tech-enabled surveillance and daily project reporting are simply imperative for the infrastructure bill’s success to stimulate our GDP. Construction is a power player on the world stage, representing 13% of global GDP, but construction has seen a meager productivity growth (1% annually), largely because of fragmented solutions and lack of tech adoption, according to McKinsey.

According to the same report’s Infrastructure Productivity Guidelines, streamlining delivery (e.g., investing heavily in the early stages of project planning and design) can save up to $400 billion annually and accelerate timelines of large construction projects.

We currently have the ability to precision-track job-site progress with the use of cameras and lidar devices, in addition to the ability to connect progress to budget and schedule to predict delays and cost overruns when job-site conditions stray from the plan. We can augment worker presence by freeing up time previously spent on job-site walks, in addition to providing critical progress reports with contextualized insights weekly — and much more.

After 2022, a boom in U.S. construction is inevitable and will play a significant role in reviving a battered global economy. Let’s not be afraid to use technology, when properly managed and deployed, to empower the limited workers we will have available to us to be more productive and avoid the costly pitfalls from the schedule delays that so many huge infrastructure projects in the U.S. have been dogged by in the past.