The infrastructure report highlights the challenges that local leaders expect to face in the years to come

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Remember when customers could order a coffee without talking around a plastic barrier and N95 masks were most commonly used in the construction industry? Twenty-two is just two years from the start of the pandemic, but it feels like we’re worlds apart.

From more people than ever working from their sofas to board meetings being held online, the pandemic has fundamentally changed the world forever.

In a poll of 300 American officials and infrastructure managers published by Deloitte, 97 percent expect “the pandemic will have a significant and lasting impact.” Most of the anticipated impacts relate in one way or another to the global shift towards remote work. A September report by Gallup at the time found that “45 percent of full-time employees in the United States worked from home either all of the time (25 percent) or part of the time (20 percent).”

In line with this trend, 42 percent of respondents to the Deloitte survey reported increasing demand from their constituents for improved broadband and Wi-Fi access. Other related changes include an increase in the popularity of telemedicine (33 percent), distance learning (31 percent), and a decline in demand for office space in major cities (23 percent).

While these correlations are to be expected, Avi Schwartz, one of the report’s authors, highlights a reaction that was not so expected.

“We were very surprised that respondents to the survey — again, they’re mostly governments — said they didn’t expect people to flee the cities,” Schwartz said, noting that just 2 percent identified migration as a concern look at “There was a general consensus among respondents that they would not empty their cities, and not only that, there was a desire to invest in mass transit.”

This is particularly notable given America’s bailout plan and bipartisan infrastructure bill that will pump trillions into America’s infrastructure.

“Maybe we won’t give up our office buildings entirely,” Schwartz continues. “We’re going to have a different combination – I know some companies have three days in offices. This is a complex planning (challenge).”

If splitting time between offices and remote working environments is the expected future norm, city planners will need to adapt — some days may see more commuters moving than others. The cash flow into infrastructure projects comes at a welcome time but requires forethought.

“If that’s done right, the infrastructure, especially for large projects, could take three, five, or 10 years,” Schwartz said. Guessing what the working landscape will look like after the pandemic upheaval is something “infrastructure planners are now trying to work through.”

This challenge is reflected in the survey results. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said there is a need to expand multimodal transportation options (37 percent), and 27 percent emphasized the need to increase social equity in mass transit.

“I’m watching over the next year or two how state and local governments can take full advantage of this opportunity — with some preparation, a particular state or local government could use this as an opportunity to improve or transform infrastructure in their particular region,” Schwartz said.

A post-pandemic shift in focus to cybersecurity is also expected, along with a commitment to building digital and climate-friendly infrastructures. This is no surprise when viewed alongside the highly visible digital infrastructure attacks that have taken place in recent years, such as the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack.

“The challenge is particularly acute for state and local governments. While federal agencies often spend 5 to 20 percent of IT budgets on cybersecurity, most states only spend 1 to 2 percent specifically on security,” the report said. “For local governments with smaller IT budgets, even paying the average salary ($100,000+) of a cybersecurity professional can be a daunting task.”

Therein lies another challenge. Infrastructure elements exist today in a three-dimensional space. Roads and bridges not only have physical layers, they also house a range of digital devices that are vulnerable to cyber threats.

“It’s not your grandparents’ infrastructure,” Schwartz said. “I’ve read a lot of articles about the last major infrastructure spending (the New Deal) – it’s not that. Even if you build a freeway today, you have built in sensors. … There is a real convergence of digital infrastructure and physical stationary infrastructure.”

Given the digital dimension, modern infrastructure is incredibly complex and requires teams of highly skilled people to build, maintain and oversee it. That need could exacerbate a talent shortage that existed before recent infrastructure legislation, given federal infrastructure spending initiatives. 46 percent of respondents cited a lack of talent and expertise as the biggest obstacle they will face in completing projects in the next three years.

“There is no question that this will have a domino effect throughout the infrastructure economy,” Schwartz said. “We will spend more money and differently. Whenever you do more and differently, it poses a challenge for state and local government.”

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