Sandy's Lesson: Improve Infrastructure, Utilize Technology To Mitigate Damage

The devastation reeked by Super Storm Sandy — and our struggle responding to it — provide brutal reminders of the importance of planning.

While it is impossible to manage the unpredictable impact of a natural disaster, improving infrastructure and internal systems at every level and using technology to monitor and provide services can mitigate some of the physical, economic and personal toll.

For instance, replacing our outdated airline system with digital satellite technology would result in critical operational and cost efficiencies, some of which would have mattered  in the wake of nearly 20,000 flight cancellations, according to Marion Blakey, of the Aerospace Industries Assoc.

Similar assertions have been echoed across the spectrum of this latest disaster experience -- from century-old transit systems and inadequate power grids to insufficient water and gasoline management — all complicated by what has become an extreme weather norm.



Ironically, just days before the super storm made landfall, these concerns were mentioned against the backdrop of America's fiscal and economic problems, in a presentation by Mary Meeker, a former Morgan Stanley Internet analyst turned venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

In an update to her annual assessment of USA Inc., evaluating the country's prospects as if it was a failing, flagellating corporation, Meeker argues that trends, events and data points underscore an urgent need to “reorganize” USA Inc. Mobile connectivity and digital technology can be catalysts for improving infrastructure and systems, while creating jobs and generating new wealth.

It is a clarion call that no longer can be ignored.

The enormous wealth destruction caused by Super Storm Sandy exacerbates the national fiscal crisis created by high unemployment, exorbitant debt, dangerous cutbacks and failure to upgrade aging internal systems.

In the storm's aftermath, Meeker was quick to shift her focus from the stunning changes leisure-time, entertainment and commerce noted in her 2012 Internet Trends report to more critical innovation and advancements required in the country's most fundamental public services and safety systems.

Every company, organization and government agency should be focused on ways to use technology to “reimagine” what we must and can do better in America to protect and improve the quality of life. It will take a village of private-public collaboration.

"Innovation is alive and well in Silicon Valley. Young entrepreneurs are reimagining the things we have known for many years reconstructed and rebuilt using the Internet, using mobile phones and using applications,” Meeker said in a CNBC interview Nov. 1.

The rigorous public use of social media and mobile connectivity throughout the storm-related chaos points to a vital tech system ready to be mined for new, better ideas. The pledge by companies such as Google and Facebook to rewire the way people access, share and use information should be pushed beyond the profit motive to support the public interest.

That mandate should be embraced by every company, regardless of size and scope  —broadcasters, cable operators and Internet service providers — familiar with and invested in local public service as well as commerce.  

“Mobile connectivity is growing very rapidly. There are 5 billion mobile phone users in the world, only 1 billion of which are smartphones users, so the growth there will be strong for a long time," Meeker said.  

While Meeker’s latest iteration of USA Inc. drills down on the need for USA's financial turnaround, she returns to the key point: There is almost nothing wrong with the U.S. economy and well being that can’t be fixed by a more enterprising application of technology. Advances in technology—particularly in areas such as public services and safety-- will drive demand and costs, Meeker says.

Investments in technology, infrastructure and education boost productivity which, like employment growth, accounts for half of long-term real GDP growth.

Although technology, infrastructure and education investments drove 90% of labor productivity growth from 1977 to 2000, USA Inc. has increasingly allocated resources away from productive technology, infrastructure and education investment in favor of less productive entitlement program spending through 2009, Meeker reports.

USA Inc. also has steadily scaled back investment in technology R&D since the 1960s, relying on private industry has picked up much of the slack. Although 2% of companies accounted for nearly 100% of net wealth creation of the 1,720 tech IPOs in the USA, 1980 to 2002, a poor economy is now straining businesses, while the country's fiscal and infrastructure state grow more dire.

Within 15 years, the government will be helpless to respond to those needs when its entitlement spending and interest expenses exceed its revenues, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The bottom line, Meeker says, is that newer technology and improved infrastructure will translate into increased efficiency and lowercosts over time. In the shadow of Sandy's lingering distress, this should be a no-brainer.  


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