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Three Words That Must Go Together: Innovation, Infrastructure and Texas

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Texas Capitol Dome on the left with the American and Texas flags waving on the left.

My first job and house were in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. My neighbor and I were both starting our careers. The fact that we both grew up in Texas along the Guadalupe River about 100 miles apart was a foundation for a lifelong friendship.

His wife, let’s call her Nancy, is an accomplished woman in her own right. While friendship with her husband was based on a common background, friendship with Nancy was built on appreciating our differences. One difference is that while I view shopping as punishment, she views it as fun.

When we visited them after they moved to a larger house, knowing they had done roof repairs, I said that the roof looked good. My friend’s wife replied, with disgust, “That’s the most boring $12,000 I’ve ever spent.”

I suspect that members of the Texas Legislature have that feeling when they approve infrastructure spending. School financing, tax relief or border security can make political reputations. Infrastructure spending is just something that has to be done.

That is an attitude we can and must fix. If not, the combination of growth and deferred maintenance will conspire to produce an infrastructure bill neither we nor our children can afford to pay.

Facing growing cost and limited resources to maintain our infrastructure suggests it is time for innovation. And Texas is the place. The Army Futures Command is located here, in part, to exploit our thriving culture of innovation. We have the best Army in the world today, but its leadership recognizes that innovation is critical to affordably maintain superiority going forward.

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to extend the innovation culture that drew the Army here in the first place to the infrastructure space. Texas is already home to the Construction Industry Institute, more than 130 organizations sharing best practices to improve the quality of construction.

In addition, the federal government invests about $2 billion annually in research in Texas universities, making it one of the leading states for research. Add to that the fact that nearly all of the top companies known for research and innovation have a significant presence in Texas.

It’s time for Texas to become the national model for future infrastructure program effectiveness.

We can recapture the original meaning of the phrase “good enough for government work.” Since World War II, the meaning has gone from “only the best” to excusing shoddiness. In Texas, our culture should be that if an infrastructure project is not more innovative, better and less costly than the previous one, it is not good enough for government work.

The steps forward are easy to define because the quality movement provides many examples. First, the state’s legislative and executive branches must set and fund the expectation.

They can set the vision that Texas will be the best in the nation at completing innovative, high-quality and affordable infrastructure projects. And they can make it real by funding a process improvement effort in conjunction with the infrastructure projects.

The process improvement requires effective management. This includes clear and appropriate success metrics, a culture of data-driven decisions for improvement, a tolerance for learning from failure and celebrating success.

Experience shows that we can expect some current state employees and contractors will be re-energized by the vision. These need to be identified and empowered because they will be the yeast that makes the whole infrastructure community rise.

And success begets success. If the Construction Industry Institute’s members know that proper innovation provides a competitive advantage in the Texas market, many would accept the challenge.

And new technology would be developed. Today, for example, there is a university research team that is demonstrating, and finding commercial interest in, a novel welding approach that has a sporting chance to make faster, better welds on bridge structures. Texas can enhance the demand pull that incentivizes a wave of similar development.

Leading through innovation is not easy. We’ll have some failures along the way. But we must try. Success provides not only bragging rights, but a high-quality, affordable infrastructure. Ignoring this opportunity makes a crumbling quality of life more likely for future Texans.

Robert E. Hebner is the director of the Center for Electromechanics at the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman and the Waco Tribune Herald.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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