At yesterday's press conference to discuss the economy, President Obama emphasized that there were a few things that Congress could do "right now" to create new jobs - with one of them being to put construction workers back to work on local infrastructure projects like bridges and roads. The only problem is that pitching infrastructure as some type of modern-era New Deal — even if it comes from the private sector and not the public sector — will never resonate with young technology innovators and urbanites who are busy raising money from investors and inventing things like Square and Foursquare.
The cool kids of today - yes, the same kids who will be voting in the 2012 election - don't want to talk about infrastructure. Instead, they want to talk about mobile devices, crowdsourcing real-time data and collaborating via high-tech RFID sensors. They don't want to think about massive government expenditures and cheap bank loans for new construction projects. They think about cool ways for The Internet of Things to empower everyday citizens.
Which is why the whole concept of the "Smart City" and the "Smart Grid" sounded so exciting back in 2009 when Obama still talked about infrastructure in "smart grid" terms rather than in terms of construction projects. Infrastructure, believe it or not, was on its way to being cool. Even as recently as February, The Economist hosted a conference as part of its “Ideas Economy” forum on "intelligent infrastructure," and the star power of some of the scheduled speakers was high, to say the least. You had Frank Gehry from the architecture world, you had Nicholas Negroponte from One Laptop Per Child, and you had star computer scientist David Gelernter of Yale. This was exciting stuff.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to getting the future of infrastructure right, one of the companies that is really turning heads is not based in the U.S., but in London. Pachube (pronounced Patch-bay) has led a number of impressive projects around the globe, including a project to measure radiation levels in Fukushima. Check out their Web site -- they don't even look like an "infrastructure" company. You'd be forgiven for thinking they're post-skateboard, post-tattoo and pre-IPO. On their blog, they take a gentle knock at Big Government, suggesting that "connecting garbage cans” is as close as they get to getting it.
Yes, it may sound trite to say, but infrastructure suffers from a branding problem. The closest that we've gotten to making Infrastructure sound sexy is the whole Smarter Planet marketing message that tech giant IBM uses. The message from the Obama Administration needs to be that infrastructure investment can be innovative and game-changing for Silicon Valley (and Silicon Alley). It's not just about "roads and bridges," it's also about digital ecosystems and real-time data.
Obama once described infrastructure as the path to a “clean energy superhighway." Even Don Draper would agree that's a pretty good start — you know, alluding to the Information Superhighway while simultaneously appealing to the Green Energy crowd. Someone on the Obama team gets that sometimes you have to sell the sizzle, not the steak, if you want people to buy your product.