13 May 2015
Potholes In The Sky: Fixing America's Glaring Infrastucture Problem

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Brian Kenny: Today on The Business, we welcome Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter to discuss her new book, “Move: Putting America's Infrastructure Back in the Lead.” I'm Brian Kenny, the chief marketing and communications officer at Harvard Business School, and this is The Business, the official podcast of HBS. As a member of the Harvard Business School faculty, a world-class scholar, author, and speaker, Rosabeth Moss Kanter logs a lot of miles, and I do mean a lot. Today, she is returning to The Business to share some of the insights that she gained writing the book “Move.” This will be of interest to anyone who travels anywhere, and I guess that means pretty much everyone, right?

Rosabeth Moss Kanter: Oh yes! You have to get to work somehow, right? Thank you for having me.

BK: You have to get to work. So this book, by the time this podcast posts, is going to be hot off the presses. And I wanted to lead in by just reading the names of some of the people who endorsed it. So I'll just go down the list: President Bill Clinton, Walter Isaacson, Jeffery Immelt (CEO of GE), Virginia Rometty (CEO of IBM), Arianna Huffington, Scott Griffith (CEO of Zipcar), and Deval Patrick, who just stepped down as governor of Massachusetts. That's an amazing list of people. This is clearly a topic that resonates with business leaders, with governmental leaders. And I was astonished to see some of the data and facts in the book. It's filled with historical facts. I's filled with really relatable examples for people such as, “we spend 38 hours a year sitting in traffic during our commutes.” I think we can all relate to that. What prompted you to write the book?

RK: So this is a very important part of U.S. Competitiveness, and HBS has been focusing on U.S. Competitiveness. That's one reason. No one else was taking this on. And yet I was suffering with it every day too. I began to see the data about bridges collapsing. I saw the data about traffic congestion. I saw the data about where our airports stack against airports in the world. This is something that everybody talks about, but there's no single focus for doing anything about it. So everyone talks about it and then changes the subject and says, “oh yes, this is important, and I see leaders, national leaders, having it on their list.” They check it off. “Jobs are important, education is important, and infrastructure.” And then they don’t say much about what that means.

So I decided to look at this from a user standpoint— not policymakers, not economists, not people who were talking only to one another, but to all of us— people who commute, people who have kids they have to get to school, people in inner city neighborhoods who don't have access to jobs, businesses that have trouble with shipments of goods. Right now, as we speak, ports are clogged, and then we can't get the goods onto the trucks, and the trucks on the roads are a big problem. It's of concern to environmentalists because the air we breathe is heavily dominated by transportation. It's the second-largest source of carbon emissions after energy. So just about everything— health, safety, all affected— and yet no single place to find all the information, to see why it's important, and to figure out how to do something about it.

BK: Just for definitional purposes, the word infrastructure is used a lot. How are you thinking about that term in the context of the book?

RK: I wasn't sure whether I was going to really use the word infrastructure, but that's the one that seems to be on everybody's mind. I mean this is about mobility, about making things happen from place to place, getting us there, getting the goods there. But infrastructure includes all the platforms that we use to be mobile, so it actually also includes telecom infrastructure. It includes wireless networks. And wireless networks are a virtual infrastructure that's so important to the future of any kind of transportation and infrastructure. Infrastructure is also the air, I mean in the skies. I started thinking of weather as the potholes in the skies. We can't change the weather, but we can certainly figure out how to better manage the data and evidence about where there will be turbulence and how we route planes.

So I think about it pretty broadly. It's the background stuff, the structure, the system on which everything runs. And my fear for America, also some other countries…HBS is global. We're focused now in this, in my book and in U.S. Competitiveness, in thinking about how America can rebuild and again be a strong force and leader in the world. But infrastructure starts getting taken for granted. We once had the best in the world, after World War II. If we neglect it, we begin to plan around it. We know planes will be delayed, so we'll figure out something else, we know we'll be stuck in traffic, so we build it into our commutes.

BK: It's like we tolerate it.

RK: Yes, it doesn't have to be that way.

BK: You write in the book that, and I'll quote this, "Every major issue facing America has a transportation/infrastructure angle to it." But it becomes very clear as you get into the book that we're lagging behind in pretty much every category because you break this out by the railways and the highways and the skyways, and you look at all those different areas. And the U.S. isn't leading in any of them. So what happened here?

RK: Well we do lead in a few things, I should say. We lead in available airline seats. One of the things that happened was we began to value flying so much, and lots of competition, so we are number one in the world in your choices of cheap ways to be crammed into airplanes. And we lead, or are in the top five in many aspects of technology. It's just that we're not always using our own technology. We lead in freight rail too, by the way. And freight rail is really interesting because we have several alums who are responsible for major freight railroads.

BK: Let's stick with railways for a minute because you structure the book around, you start with railways. You move to the skies. You get to the highways. We talk about technology. So we'll cover each of those, and I thought it would be great just to hear, big picture, what's the issue, what are the major issues facing each area, and what's a bright spot? Just so we can have some hope.

RK: Rail is kind of interesting because it's so important in our history and the history of development all over the world. The 19th century was the era of railroads. There are many people now who say, “well, we're not China in the US. We don't simply tell people to move out of the way and tear down villages so we can put in transportation systems.” But look, we once had the will in America, the Transcontinental Railroad— a great achievement. In fact, that built the continent. This was a defense thing, too, because if we had all this land all the way to the West Coast— you have to have people settling there and bringing their products back east and traveling and so forth. So rail was incredibly important. But it's not as though, and I delved into the history, that the Transcontinental Railroad was this golden era of political consensus. It turned out to take a long time, and Abraham Lincoln finally, after several decades of talk, pushed it through. There was a lot of corruption, and there was building that started from both the West Coast and the East Coast, and it didn't meet in the middle.

BK: That was amazing.

RK: So there had to be a little change. It wasn't perfect back then. And all the people who now say, “well, infrastructure, that's all about jobs,” I like to remind them that we had to import 6,000 laborers from China to build the track because we didn’t have enough people that wanted to do it. The jobs are temporary, but the legacy of that railroad remains. But what happened was that we had other developments that started. The automobile, which was developed here (and even though Germany had a big role in it), Frederick Porsche and others, and also in the air with the Wright Brothers— we were, we've always been innovators.

In a way I think of this book as about innovation. It’s very important for us all to think about in all of our companies too, that incremental innovation, you’ve got to keep moving because someday you'll get the big breakthrough. So the quintuple winds, the idea is if we see each of these things, project by project, mode by mode, each one in its own silo is probably not the right image, especially if we don't see the connections. In order to solve all the problems we have, safety and health, cost and efficiency, productivity, use of time, environmental sustainability, and job opportunities, economic growth— if you find the projects that have spillover effects in all of those areas, that really can help America leap forward.

BK: Let's go to air travel for a minute. Another quote from the book that I really loved, "For all the flying Americans do, you'd think we love it. Instead, we often hate every mile of the trip." I think everybody who’s listening can probably relate to that. So we've got some really big challenges on the air travel side, yes?

RK: We do, and the hating it part— people don't like to be crammed into seats where you feel you should've checked your knees with your baggage too, but you can't check baggage anymore because they charge you for it. Many of our main challenges that we have to fix in air have to do with airports and how we get onto the planes, how we get to and from airports. That hasn't been thought through well enough. Somebody important, a national official just said that LaGuardia airport is like a third world airport. People land at Kennedy if that's their gateway to the U.S. I’m very proud of Boston Logan Airport. Nice, small airport having all those nonstop international flights now.

We could transform airports, but we've fallen so far behind, and our competition internationally is from the Middle East now. And they have government subsidies. So we also have to think about how we finance all of this. My fantasy is (and we could do it) is that you could book all your transportation, besides your flight, all at once, have a barcode. Just wave your smartphone and get on anything, and it would also tell you whether the train that you're on will meet the flight, and how you can get from place to place. Right now, it's all so unconnected. The other thing is in the air itself, technology. I was so impressed with what I learned. I had such a great time going to the American Airlines flight operation center.

BK: There were great insights that you learned with the weather, the folks from the Weather Company as well.

RK: I went with the Weather Company at first because American was a big client. And there are now new products that use data to help identify turbulence and weather patterns in ways that mean that planes don't have to carry as much fuel, pilots can work with the ground people to figure out reroutings that aren't so huge. You know, they would once have to reroute 10,000 feet to get around weather patterns, or reroute many miles. Now it can be very targeted and more efficient.

BK: And when they do that, that uses fuel. People don't necessarily consider the implications of rerouting, but that adds to the cost.

RK: Oh, absolutely. Now they save in fuel. But the other thing is injuries. It turns out that a major source of injuries, both passenger but especially crew, is turbulence. What I learned in part was that American and some of the other major carriers are working collaboratively with the Federal Aviation Authority on how to deploy new technology faster because there are lots of great things they can do, including glide on landing, saving noise, which might mean that we could get in later. I don't know why the last flights between Boston and New York are 9:00 p.m. I just say that for those of us who need to be on those routes, it's hard to make those planes.

We also are learning about innovation there because many entrepreneurs have tons of applications, including smartphones and tablets, that it takes government regulators a longer time to get comfortable with. So in the air, we have so much potential for using technology. We have to make sure it's safe. I think it empowers pilots, instead of making everything automated. And I want good pilots who have been checked for their mental health. I want good pilots who make decisions and who talk collaboratively, seeing the same data that people in air traffic control and in their own operations center see.

BK: Technology is a recurring theme throughout the book. When you talk about the highways and automotive technology, I don't know how any of us used to get anywhere without our Google Maps, but I guess we did. But nowadays we have a whole generation that's coming up and will just plug in their coordinates and off they go.

RK: Off they go. Yes, and they might even be in the backseat doing work. I mean it. I don’t know how fast fully self-driving cars will come, but they’re coming. Google is testing it. This is a true industry in turmoil. This is a set of industries. It's even hard to say what the industry is. Who's the auto industry now? Is it Google? Is Google in the auto industry? Google transportation is testing cars. Somebody else is going to build them, but Apple doesn't build its own phones, and they're in the smartphone business. And what's the value added in a vehicle? Is the value added the metal, the outside? That's what it used to be, and in fact the auto industry thought they'd just sell us on better metal, same engine. It was all design. Now young people who are not even owning cars. Car ownership is dropping, particularly among younger generations. They don't talk about the cool cars (I suppose there are some that still do). They talk about the cool smartphone apps. So the center of attention has gone to what controls the car— the software, the apps, the wireless networks, and not the metal. This is a new world, and this is the world we're on the cusp of. We don’t know the answers here. There's an entrepreneur in Massachusetts who's building a flying car, Terrafugia.

BK: Terrafugia, yes.

RK: We're not the Jetsons yet, and I'm not sure that we'll get there. But which of us hasn't had a fantasy that you're sitting in traffic, and you could suddenly make your car take off like a helicopter and fly above it all? It might be coming, if we invest. So here's where I get to our lessons.

BK: So what do we need to do to realize that kind of a utopian vision?

RK: What we need to do to make this happen is a lot more collaboration. Uber fascinates me, not only for the service, but Uber has managed to offend nearly every stakeholder, including governments, although it has made good relationships. Massachusetts is passing an Uber exception law. But the point is here is an area where our great entrepreneurial spirit in America isn't enough. We also need collaboration. The innovators have to work with some of the establishment to make all of these new things happen. At HBS, we're thinking about how we now teach collaboration as much as we teach innovation and entrepreneurship.

First of all, it will take getting the entrepreneurs at the table every time we debate these issues. They haven't been at the table in discussions of the future of cities, or in discussions of transportation systems, or the future of an industry like the auto industry. We need them at the table. We need the tech people at the table. Nationally, we have to set aside a portion of money— a lot of this is going to come down to exciting people about the fact that paying for this is a really good investment in our lives; in every funding, setting aside a portion that also goes for technology. And don't simply repair things; reinvent them. It kills me that there are certain things like I cross every day, a historic picturesque red brick bridge which is being fixed up for two or more years between Harvard Business School and Harvard Square. And when we finish, we'll have a historic picturesque red brick bridge. Why won't it be laden with sensors, new lanes, a different way for bicycles to move across? We could ferry bicycles on little shuttles. I don't know. But we haven't thought enough about reinventing. So those are the things not only for roads, but air and rail and cities that we have to do.

BK: Yes, we have to do that. Let me just ask: do you think that this is the new space movement? You talk in the book about some of the things that have mobilized the country before, and the space race was one of those, and the railroads were another. Is this the next place where we can rally that kind of support?

RK: I would love it if this were the next space race. In fact, that's one of my recommendations. As all leaders know, or should know, one of the ways you get change is you tell a different story. You change the narrative. And for such a long time in America, we invested because our narrative, our story was defense. The interstate highway system was dubbed “the national defense highway system.” Even Sputnik, that was defense. Even the Transcontinental Railroad was defense. We need another logic, and the logic should be opportunity, building the future, which means mobility. You don't have social mobility. There's a lot of concern about inequality in America. You don’t have social mobility unless people are physically mobile and can get to jobs. So I would love that to be the next space race.

This is one thing that I think we at HBS can champion: a new way of thinking about the issues. It's all about our lives. It's a family issue, it's a family budget issue. It's kids and jobs and everything else. We have to tell that story, and we should have a mobility race to be the most mobile nation on earth. We used to think that was a virtue. We were mobile, we could incorporate immigrants, we could give people opportunity. The thing that people complain most about in America, and they're always issues of the moment, but overall it has to do with opportunity, and the decline of the American dream. And I feel that an investment, particularly in transportation infrastructure, would go a long way toward restoring that dream, because of the quintuple winds: job opportunities and economic growth, cost, convenience, safety. It could go a long way.

I want both our political leaders, but also our business leaders to think about it that way. I know that companies now are increasingly concerned about how their employees get to work, because if people are stuck in traffic or in train derailments, they're not going to come to work and be productive. Google of course ran its own bus service, a private bus service between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. So we should rally behind a national vision with a lot of regional planning and implementation, and that should be our new story.

BK: Rosabeth Moss Kanter, thank you for joining us again on The Business.

RK: Thank you, Brian. It's always a pleasure.

BK: You can find “Move” on Amazon and in all major bookstores. If you buy it at the airport, you can read it while you're waiting on the runway to take off, right? Thank you for listening to this edition of The Business. Check out all of our archives by going to our website, hbs.edu/thebusiness, and tweet us anytime to comment, ask questions, or make suggestions for future guests. Our Twitter handle is @harvardhbs. And don't forget to subscribe to The Business on iTunes or iTunesU, or follow us on SoundCloud.

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