Biden’s infrastructure package unites government and industry to rebuild better

President Biden's $2.3 trillion infrastructure package provides opportunity for public and private sectors to build back better together through digitalization.

Image of bridge at sunset

Andrew Friendly

May 11, 2021

min read
  • President Biden’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan will rebuild the country’s infrastructure, leveraging public and private partnerships.

  • A dual approach is needed: legislation to provide incentives for digital processes and adoption from architecture, engineering, and construction firms to make it happen.

  • Going digital can help achieve these goals more efficiently through better collaboration, faster timelines, and reduced waste.

In March, President Joe Biden unveiled the American Jobs Plan, a robust agenda for revitalizing the economy through infrastructure development and other investments—a major step toward fulfilling a campaign promise to “build back better.” If enacted, it will bring an influx of capital across numerous industries, and all will be called upon to make the most of each federal dollar for the good of the nation’s future.

The infrastructure package is also a rare chance to accelerate digital transformation on a broad scale. Those in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industries who have already adopted digital processes will have an advantage—and those who haven’t have a strong incentive to catch up.

The American Jobs Plan lays out the framework for a $2.3 trillion overhaul of the country’s infrastructure and is much broader than a traditional infrastructure plan. It calls for repairing and upgrading roads, bridges, water, rail, and transit systems; renovating schools and public buildings; upgrading the electrical grid; and building a broadband network to ensure everyone has equal access to the Internet. It also includes funding for workforce development, manufacturing, tackling climate change, health services, and addressing issues of inequality that have long plagued the country. Ambitious? Yes. Achievable? Also yes, if challenges can be overcome.

Reaching these goals will take a coordinated effort among federal and state agencies, as well as private industry. The success of these partnerships requires a top-down and bottom-up approach centered around digital transformation.

Driving change from the top are the people who write the legislation and control the purse strings. As government provides a massive investment of capital for infrastructure development, it should offer more incentives and programs to help AEC industries adopt digital technologies and best practices. AEC industries, in turn, should weigh in on legislation to be sure it will help them modernize their processes and upskill their workforces.

The World Economic Forum has dubbed this period of recovery from the pandemic as The Great Reset—a global opportunity to create more equity, more sustainability, more successful outcomes, and a more resilient future.

Transitioning to new ways of operating, learning to interact with digital models, and retraining workers are logistically complex undertakings. But with advocacy and incentives, government digital transformation can raise the bar and establish a new way forward. Government BIM (Building Information Modeling) policies are already in place in many nations around the world, for example—and those countries are reaping the benefits. The United States has an unprecedented opportunity to move technology adoption forward in the same way. The recent formation of a Building Information Management Council by the National Institute of Building Sciences is a great first step.

Reskilling workers for a digital world

Workers in construction hats look at tablet
Workers in architecture, engineering, and construction need new skills to perform well in jobs with digital components.

At its core, the American Jobs Plan is about putting people to work. To maximize this mission, companies should prioritize reskilling workers for the digital world. In a recently published report from MIT, “The Work of the Future: Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines,” researchers found the nature of work is evolving with new technology, but a skills gap is slowing the digital-transformation process. The current workforce is not trained for Industry 4.0 environments, and younger workers—digital natives with the right skill sets—often overlook careers in these fields.

With technology changing at an increasing pace, scaling up workforce-development efforts in construction and other fields is critical for putting people back to work. Through on-the-job training, investing in the pipeline from educational institutions to industry, and certification programs, public and private sectors can attract the next generation of talent and digitally empower workers, boosting productivity and driving innovation.

It’s a known fact that the jobs of the future will have digital components, but there has to be a new baseline of skills to perform these jobs. Right-skilling is critical to ensure that companies can compete globally. With Biden’s plan, the US government has a unique opportunity to bring companies up to that baseline, growing the country’s economy and creating jobs.

Sustainable infrastructure for a changing planet

Workers look at laptop in wind turbine field
Architects and engineers can use technology to build more sustainably.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the United States a C-minus on its infrastructure report card. Bridges and roads that were built decades ago are failing due to their age and the impacts of a warming planet.

Architects and engineers once relied on historical weather data to inform their designs. Now, forecasting based on past patterns dramatically underestimates the chances of extreme events. As the intensity and frequency of natural disasters increase and sea level is predicted to rise to 8 feet by 2100, planners must factor in elements such as wind load and stormwater runoff, as well as use materials that are resistant to droughts and wildfires. Infrastructure must be designed, built, and retrofitted with resiliency in mind.

AEC firms are leveraging digital construction technologies that simulate environmental risks to help extend infrastructure lifecycles. This creates a strong incentive for government agencies to promote better adoption of digital construction technology.

When a record rainfall flooded the Berrendo Creek in Roswell, NM, in 2013, it submerged a 50-year-old steel highway bridge. Its original design was no longer relevant to today’s environment, so the state’s Department of Transportation took a new approach. Using BIM, engineers redesigned the bridge (PDF) with 3D technology that allowed them to adjust input values, such as geometry and elevation, for a generative-design process that developed a stronger structure. Digital-modeling software also allowed engineers and survey crews to easily collaborate for more time- and cost-efficient workflows.

Meaningful carbon reduction in the U.S. economy is central to the American Jobs Plan. Architects and engineers can leverage technology to build more sustainably. Construction technology and rapid prototyping can help determine the amount of materials needed for construction to reduce waste. The embodied carbon calculator—EC3—analyzes alternative designs and materials to make greener choices and lessen a project’s carbon footprint. With President Biden’s goal of a 50%–52% percent reduction in net greenhouse gas pollution by 2030, the government should incentivize digital tools to foster more sustainable construction methods.

A global competitive advantage

Man in construction hat looks at building plans on computer screen
The public and private sector should invest in digital tools and processes for the United States to remain competitive on a global scale.

In an increasingly digital world, technology will be the main driver of productivity, efficiency, and innovation. The public and private sector should invest in digital tools and training so they won’t be left behind. As the American Jobs Plan moves through the legislative process, the time is ripe for the digitization of key industries to spur economic growth; fuel prosperity; and make companies, industries, and the nation more competitive on a global scale.

Digitizing engineering and construction workflows means fewer mistakes in the design and construction process, and 3D modeling results in more accurate planning, fewer miscalculations, and fewer cost overruns. The benefits of digital project management extend beyond the design and build phases. Whether it’s a road, bridge, tunnel, or building, having a digital model to manage the project brings a lifetime of savings. All of this contributes to greener, more sustainable infrastructure development.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, digital transformation can lead to a 15% increase in productivity for construction companies. Emerging technologies can speed up project timelines, reduce waste, and improve safety. Real-time communication and cloud-based project management can break down information silos to facilitate seamless cross-functional collaboration. Digital transformation also leads to greater agility, which helps companies effectively manage disruptions to supply chains and operations. This leads to significant savings and leaner operations, critical for companies competing on a global scale.

Digital transformation is a key to maximizing the goals of the American Jobs Plan. As Congress turns this ambitious plan into legislation, it should prioritize the inclusion of incentives and programs to foster greater adoption of digital design and construction technologies for infrastructure development and other industries.

A combination of the government promoting digital adoption and AEC firms modeling the benefits of digital transformation will create enormous opportunity to drive changes that will equip the workforce with skills for the future, modernize industries, and invest in a more resilient America. It’s about building back better—in a much better way.

Andrew Friendly

About Andrew Friendly

Andrew Friendly is the vice president of Government Affairs and Public Policy at Autodesk, where he leads a global team advancing policies to support Autodesk’s business. Before entering the world of technology, Friendly spent five years at the White House in a variety of positions, including personal aide to President Bill Clinton and senior advisor to the special envoy for the Americas. He holds an MBA from the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and a B.A. from Middlebury College.

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