“We actually know that our crumbling pipelines, roads and bridges are ticking time bombs. That is why President Obama and Congressional Democrats have pushed to fund jobs that repair our roads, runways, and railways — we can’t have first rate American communities with third-world American infrastructure.”
— Democratic strategist Christine Pelosi
According to 2016 American Society of Civil Engineers President Mark Woodson, for over 20 years the U.S. has had a critical need for infrastructure funding. Even so, elected officials continue to win on mandates that include not raising water and sewer rates.
“That’s a mandate that’s saying we’re not going to maintain our infrastructure,” he observed.
That fact, along with the infrastructure crisis, prompted an announcement at last year’s ASCE Convention. At its onset, Thomas Smith III, executive director, spoke on behalf of the organization’s board of direction. He issued a challenge to civil engineers to “significantly enhance the performance and value of infrastructure projects over their life cycles, reducing the life cycle cost of infrastructure by 50 percent by 2025 and fostering the optimization of infrastructure investments for society.”
In the Dec. 4 issue of ASCE News, he suggested reaching this goal by “advocating and influencing major legislative, regulatory and policy changes, and infrastructure funding, while challenging ourselves and each other to focus on innovation, to rethink life cycle costs and to initiate transformational change — from planning to design to delivery.”
The catalysts for the challenge to close the gap between infrastructure needs and funding were, of course, the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure and the Failure to Act Economic Studies. The two documents illustrate that Americans’ quality of life is increasingly threatened by woefully inadequate infrastructure investment.
“We need to rethink and reinvent every stage of project delivery and embrace the challenge to innovate and to transform our practice,” he said.
So, how might the Grand Challenge’s goal happen, and what are some examples of the progress so far?
Currently, the challenge is concentrating on four areas of interest: life cycle cost assessment, innovation, resilience and performance-based standards. The convention opened with a session on disruptive thinking to spur discussions and thinking about its transformative power. There were also technical sessions and case study presentations on life cycle cost assessment, resilience and innovation.
“To help develop a renewed culture of innovation within civil engineering, during the convention, ASCE also launched an Innovation Contest to encourage professionals, educators and students to share their most creative ideas for revitalizing our infrastructure. The contest covers four topics areas: innovative business models and technologies, the Internet of Things, green engineering and resilience.”
In March of this year, 15 winners were announced whose entries best embody the core values of the Grand Challenge. Those winners were invited to present their ideas to industry leaders at special networking events. They will be considered for research grants, recognized in trade publications and will receive special recognition and awards.
Four proposals were honored with special awards show trends in innovation and creativity:
- Greatest Impact on Achieving the Grand Challenge: “Rise of the Drones: How Unmanned Surveying Can Help Make our Coasts Resilient” by Jason Magalen, P.E., M.A.S.C.E., HDR Engineering, Oregon.
- Best New Concept: “Big Picture Resilience via Ocean Forests” by the ASCE Los Angeles Section Sustainability Committee, Calif.
- Best Student Innovation (tie): “Advanced Drone Technology to Handle Disaster in Underground Construction and Mining Sites” by Purushottam Gupta, India; and “Capitalizing on the Internet of Things to Promote Water Conservation” by Morgan Dicarlo, S.M., ASCE, Thiells, N.Y.
“Also, ASCE is engaged in a major, ongoing effort to develop guidelines for life cycle cost assessment, and we recently established an Infrastructure Resilience Division,” said Smith. “As we work to support achievement of the ASCE Grand Challenge over the next decade, every area of ASCE will be engaged, from our technical institutes to our strategic initiatives areas.”
Although the Grand Challenge was conceived by the organization’s Industry Leaders Council, the heads of some of the largest civil engineering companies and agencies are co-champions of the need for it to achieve results.
ASCE members embraced the importance of the goal and have begun formally pledging their support. Another hopeful indicator of the likelihood that emergent thinking will effect change has been the willingness of the next generation to engage the difficult task, said Smith.
“The enthusiasm from the entrants to the Innovation Contest, many of them students and young professionals who will be developing the infrastructure of the future, was outstanding.”