Investing in (all kinds of) infrastructure

Oct. 27 marked the 105th birthday of the New York City subway system, which is both gratifying and depressing.

It's gratifying because it's a reminder of how vital, enduring, and effective properly designed infrastructure can be. The subway has endured throughout two world wars, the Great Depression, 26 presidential elections, Prohibition, women's suffrage, civil rights, and 9/11. And as I've mentioned elsewhere, it's undergone that rarest of transformations: from commercial entity to functional government service. All that — and it gets me to Van Cortlandt Park to go running on a sunny summer weekend.

It's depressing because I was out of town on business travel, so I missed the cake with 105 candles. (And it was probably red velvet, too. Dang!)

But seriously, that got me thinking about the value of investing in infrastructure of all kinds — including intellectual capital. I've complained before about the drop in U.S. engineering graduates. This past weekend, I spent time at my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, and I learned that the situation's even worse than I thought. Over just the past few years the number of students interested in majoring in engineering has dropped 31%, from 161,694 in 2001 to 111,533 in 2008 (2009's numbers were up slightly, to 119,741). That's on top of more than a decade's worth of decline — the numbers were far higher as recently as the mid 1990s.

Is this a problem? Depends on who you ask. The last time I wrote a column lamenting the lack of engineers, a reader responded: "I don’t want my son to study engineering. I want him to study marketing." He had a point -- the big money these days (to the extent that any is left) seems to go to folks who are good at promoting, entertaining and selling.

That said, and with all due respect to promoters, marketers, and salespeople, there's something special about engineering. Engineering is all about building things — taking ideas and making them concrete (sometimes literally). And although art and design also involve creation, engineering is unique in that it's about creating something useful as well as innovative.

That has an outsize impact on human lives, because useful innovation is one of the most powerful economic (and humanitarian) forces in the world. Without engineers to make stuff, salespeople would have very little to sell.

That doesn't even consider the outsized impact of not-for-profit groups like Engineers Without Borders, who deliver state-of-the-art engineering without charge to some of the most disadvantaged people in the world. (Check out the ram pumps for delivering irrigation water to South African villages -- something my fellow JHU students were involved with..)

So, yes, I think it's a problem that more kids aren't going into engineering. Without engineers, there would be no New York City Subway. And no irrigation pumps for South African villages. Not to mention any of the technology that defines the 20th and 21st centuries.

So if you want to invest in infrastructure — start with the human capital kind.

This story, "Investing in (all kinds of) infrastructure" was originally published by Network World.

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