In This Issue
Spring Bridge on Sustainable Smart Cities
March 15, 2023
The world’s cities face increasing threats from natural disasters, aging infrastructure, traffic, and resource constraints. The articles in this issue examine smart infrastructure, sustainability, net zero carbon options, and autonomous driving, among other approaches to smart and sustainable cities.

A Word from the NAE Chair: Infrastructure Here and Abroad

Monday, March 20, 2023

Author: Donald C. Winter

Much of the national political discourse of late has revolved around the topic of infrastructure. As is typically the case for such matters, the political focus has been on the financial aspects of infrastructure investments—how much to spend and where to spend it. Little attention has been paid to questions associated with priorities for investment, options for future infrastructure, and alternative paths for development. These are important considerations that can determine the efficacy of the planned investments and the utility of the future infrastructure.

Unfortunately, infrastructure can be expensive and consequently tied up in the political process. An old saying is that “All politics is local,”[1] and the distribution of funding necessarily plays a critical role in infrastructure investments.

The opportunity to take public credit for such appropriations factors in as well. Some aspects of infrastructure satisfy political needs better than others. We saw this play out in January when multiple (sometimes bipartisan) press conferences were held at bridges that were slated for significant investment in recent congressional action.[2] There is little doubt that such investments are long overdue—but what was not funded?

On January 11 the United States experienced a nationwide ground stop of all air traffic.[3] Such an event had occurred only once before, on September 11, 2001. In the January event, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) halted all flight operations because of the failure of the NOTAM system (Notice to Air Missions), which provides safety-related notifications to pilots. While preliminary reports from the FAA indicate that the failure was due to a damaged database,[4] the root cause is still under investigation at the time of this writing.

NOTAM is a vital piece of safety infrastructure that has been the subject of calls for major improvements or replacement for many years.[5] Unfortunately, as with many aspects of increasingly pivotal IT infrastructure, it lacks the visibility of physical infrastructure and its importance is known to few until it fails.

For these reasons, constituent and political support for significant investments in such infrastructure is limited, creating a high barrier to funding. In the case of the NOTAM system outage, it appears that, although it caused major disruption to US air travel, the decision to call for a ground halt ensured that no accidents—or associated potential fatalities—occurred. Hopefully, the publicity surrounding this event will spur the necessary attention and funding to upgrade NOTAM capability.

The question to be addressed is, How can our government identify appropriate priorities for infrastructure investment and ensure that such investments provide the greatest return while minimizing disruptive effects during the transition? This is where the National Academies and, particularly, the National Academy of Engineering can play a very important role. As a trusted advisor to government, we can provide unconflicted and nonpartisan advice on highly technical matters such as these. I am hopeful that Congress and the Executive Branch will recognize the value that we can bring to such matters and that NAE members will volunteer their services in support of such critical issues.

While the need for infrastructure investments in the United States is, for the most part, due to long-term effects such as aging and population growth, the same is not true elsewhere. The tragedy of Ukraine is an unfortunate and most poignant circumstance.

Notwithstanding the commitments to Ukrainian territorial integrity that Russia made when it signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in 1994, Russia has engaged in military operations in Ukraine since 2014 when it took Crimea.[6] When the current escalation of hostilities—the so-called “special military operation”[7]—was effectively countered by Ukrainian forces, Russia adopted a strategy of terrorism against the civilian population, targeting residential areas and energy infrastructure.[8]

This strategy has not shaken the resolve of the people of Ukraine, but it has destroyed much of their power grid. Actions are underway to provide capabilities to alleviate the damage caused by these attacks, addressing both humanitarian and defense needs.[9] But many of these measures are temporary stopgaps that do not address the country’s long-term needs.

Once the conflict with Russia is resolved, extensive rebuilding will be needed to reestablish Ukraine as a self-sufficient country with a modern infrastructure. This will be a massive undertaking, not unlike the Marshall Plan effected to enable the economic recovery of Europe after World War II.[10] It will require both financial support from the United States and European countries and intellectual support—the engagement of individuals with the requisite experience to develop a modern infrastructure tailored to Ukraine’s needs.

I am pleased to note that the National Academies’ Division on Policy and Global Affairs (PGA) has started to engage on the situation in Ukraine. The initial focus has naturally been on supporting Ukraine’s research establishment,[11] but it will soon encompass the broader needs of rebuilding the country, including its infrastructure.

I would like to encourage my fellow NAE members to participate in the PGA activities and/or the efforts of other organizations supporting Ukraine. There is a vast repository of expertise among our members that could greatly assist Ukraine in its redevelopment and I can think of few problems more deserving of our attention and expertise at this time.

[1]  O’Neill T, w. Hymel G. 1993. All Politics Is Local: And Other Rules of the Game. Crown Publishing.

[2]  Fox News. 2023. Biden’s visit to Kentucky bridge highlights infrastructure push, Jan 4 ( bridge-highlights-infrastructure-push).

[3]  Diaz J, Schaper D. 2023. Here’s the latest on the NOTAM outage that caused flight delays and cancellations. NPR, Jan 12 ( ground-stop).

[4]  FAA NOTAM statement,

[5] notam-improvement/

[6]  Pifer S. 2014. The Budapest Memorandum and US obligations. Brookings Institution. budapest-memorandum-and-u-s--obligations/

[7]  US State Department, operation/

[8]  Human Rights Watch. 2022. Ukraine: Russian attacks on -energy grid threaten civilians. energy-grid-threaten-civilians

[9]  Majkut J, Dawes A. 2022. Responding to Russian attacks on Ukraine’s power center. Center for Strategic & International Studies. ukraines-power-sector

[10]  National Archives. Marshall Plan (1948), plan

[11]  NASEM. 2022. Rebuilding Research, Education, and Innovation in Ukraine: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief. National Academies Press.

About the Author:Donald C. Winter is chair of the NAE