Technology will fuel an economic recovery if, and only if, we as individuals commit to working toward a more responsible and sustainable future. Unprecedented transformations lie ahead of the U.S. that will require both incredible governmental leadership and public support and action.
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The first of these is the fundamental rebuilding of the United States' operating infrastructure, which is aging, out of date or in need of massive upgrades. From roads, to electrical generation and distribution, to water and sewage, to air traffic control, cellular, television, name an infrastructure and we are either in dire need of building or upgrading it, or have already decided to do so and are trying to find the funds, engineers and resources to make it happen. This will require governmental priority. Not only will U.S. citizens need to vote for change, they will need to act on that need with their personal sweat and effort. It will require new technologies and new approaches. Never before have we had to "rewire" the country in such a dramatic way. Most of our prior infrastructure buildouts were new, without a need to navigate the replacement of something in the past—or they were the equivalent of "paving the cow paths."
The revamp of the air traffic control system will not proceed in this fashion. We have to keep 8,000 planes flying on radar and radio towers each day while simultaneously launching GPS-based systems that can take advantage of safer, more efficient routes.
The revamp of our electrical systems means finding new ways to clean our coal-fired generation plants even while we find the next-best solutions for powering our country in the fastest way possible (solar, hydro, nuclear, etc.). This will require new technologies, and it will require that we look at where the generation is and where the people are and build or revamp transmission facilities in an economical, safe and environmentally sound way. The full solution for a more efficient and stable electrical infrastructure will require the use of "smart" metering at the home for instantaneous monitoring of our electrical use. These meters will give consumers the ability to see the direct effect of their usage immediately and will allow them to buy the cheapest, greenest energy and use it wisely.
The ever marching advances of cellular (now going open source, multinetwork and exclusively digital—obsolescing any remaining analog handsets) and television, (also going "open" at the set-top and shutting down all analog transmissions) will create a wave of new technologies and new interaction models that will open yet another flood of communications channels for us to figure out how to exploit (corporations) and manage (consumers).
Other transformations center around taking action against climate change—the "green revolution." There have been few issues that are in so much need for endemic change; no matter what your proof that it is happening or your conclusion as to why, the reality is that we have to learn to manage our environment better, waste less and preserve more. It's a national and global concern, and the need for innovation in this space is awesome. From new ways to carry our groceries, to packaging, building materials, lighting, clothing, production, transportation, farming, you name it—it can probably be created, used, reused, recycled cheaper, faster and with a smaller carbon footprint. With additional motivation from prizes and research and government grants, this will be a hotbed of innovation over the coming years at a time when we need it most.
So, we could be entering an era reminiscent of the golden infrastructure days of railroad, telephone, interstate highways, and moon shots with jobs aplenty and innovations everywhere. Or, we could slumber and stumble into a spiral of international alienation and forgotten technologies akin to the situation in East Germany at the height of the Cold War.
Speaking of war, if you are wondering where some of the funding for these monumental efforts might come, consider the fact that we are currently spending more than $1.2 billion per day on military activities.
There are many clouds over the U.S. at the moment, but as is evident from this simple discourse, there is also incredible hope for the U.S. economy and for technology as a fuel for recovery. Success will come only if each and every one of us takes action and commits to working toward a more responsible, more tolerant and more sustainable future—each in our own way, to the best of our abilities. Now.
Gregor Bailar was CIO at Capital One and the Nasdaq Stock Market and held several senior roles at Citibank. Bailar is an inductee into the CIO Hall of Fame, winner of dozens of industry awards and is celebrated by eWeek as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Information Technology. Since September 2007, his energies have been directed toward investing, speaking and pursuing global philanthropic endeavors intended to create a more responsible, tolerant and sustainable future.