Our nation’s critical infrastructure – the water we drink; the dams and levees that keep our cities from flooding; the roads and bridges that we depend on to live our modern lives – just got a report card, and it isn’t good. Not good at all. As in, you’d ground your kids for the foreseeable future if they came home with grades like these.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, assigning letter grades based on current conditions and needs. The report card includes grades for aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, public parks, railways, roads, schools, solid waste, transit, and wastewater. The letter grades take capacity, condition, future needs, funding, operations and maintenance, safety, resilience, and innovation into account.
Automation professionals will see a lot of familiar concerns in the report, and I’m willing to bet more than I put on my NCAA brackets that you’re not at all surprised about these results.
“Our nation is at a crossroads. Deteriorating infrastructure is impeding our ability to compete in the thriving global economy, and improvements are necessary to ensure our country is built for the future. While we have made some progress, reversing the trajectory after decades of underinvestment in our infrastructure requires transformative action from Congress, states, infrastructure owners, and the American people,” says the report.
We’ve heard your collective screams for years now – stories of horribly underfunded utilities, an unwillingness to invest in the technology of the future, and far too many people turning a blind eye to the realities of our situation – especially in the areas of safety and cybersecurity. Our ISA members – not just here in the US, but around the world – have led the rallying cry to invest and protect critical infrastructure before it’s too late. That may sound dramatic to some, but unless you’ve studied the potential impacts of a cyber breech or the devastation of a hazardous waste spill, or evaluated the possibility of the entire electric grid shutting down, you still have the luxury of seeing this as some kind of an abstract funding issue rather than an impending series of crises that you’ll someday be forced to acknowledge. In the words of one of our ISA training instructors, “it’s not IF, it’s WHEN.”
For some, this will be an “interesting” report that sheds some light on things you’d rather not think about – after all, it’s not pleasant to acknowledge that many drinking water treatment facilities, especially in smaller cities, report that a lack of resources and personnel can limit the frequency of testing, monitoring, maintenance, and technical capability in their systems (according to report findings.) The United States boasts the safest drinking water in the world, but for how long, when we’re hearing things like this from our professionals in the field?
Turning to energy, another area in ISA’s wheelhouse, the report highlights what many of you already know – most of our transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 50’s and 60’s, with an expected life of 50 years. Do the math… it’s long past time to upgrade these systems. In fact, more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the power grid are at full capacity. Without considerable investment in the technology we use, we won’t be able to count on that light switch flooding our rooms with light each morning, or that handy heating system keeping us warm at night.
So, where is the good news? There’s good news, right? Somewhere?
At ISA, we believe every problem is an opportunity. After all, we’re a society of engineers and technicians – that’s what we do: solve problems. The good news can be found in the life’s work of our members and in the innovation of our companies. We have the technology we need to solve these challenges. We can harden our infrastructure against cyber vulnerabilities, thanks to the world’s only industrial cybersecurity standards, ISA99/IEC62443. We can keep our drinking water safe, thanks to the efforts of thousands of SCADA system experts around the globe. We can apply the latest automation best practices to the power grid and upgrade our infrastructure to reflect just how far we’ve come in the last 60 years, thanks to the ingenuity of our control systems.
ASCE provides three key solutions in the report: investment (increased from 2.5% to 3.5% of U.S. Gross Domestic Product by 2025); leadership and planning (public and private sector must ensure wise prioritization of projects and plan for economic, safety, and quality impacts over the entire lifecycle of each type of infrastructure); and preparing for the future (leveraging innovation to ensure resilience and sustainability.) They highlight some success stories, called #GameChangers, in a cool, interactive map so that you can see the good things going on in your region, or submit your own examples of progress.
With the proper attention, and the right amount of investment, in the US and around the world, we can change these grades. We are entirely capable — and that’s because of YOUR efforts as automation professionals. This is what you’ve trained for, what you’ve studied, and what you’ve spent so many hours working on in your careers.
At its core, a society like ISA exists to nurture and inspire the minds that will change the world. Isn’t it time to take our message to the masses?
Whether you’re reading this in the US or across a few time zones and oceans, take this opportunity to spread the word. Talk to your lawmakers. Share the ASCE report card with your families and friends. Start the conversation about your own country, your own state, your own city. What are your grades, and can you look your kids in the eye and tell them that it’s good enough?
When the world wakes up to these realities, ISA will be here, leading the way with cutting edge technology and capable, bright professionals. We’re ready when you are.