By: Karen de Bartolomé Issue: Rebuilding Our Infrastructure Section: Academia
My first job after graduate school was as a planner for a big infrastructure development organization in New York City. In the midst of a worsening recession, I was asked to research and recommend ways that our organization might put its vast capabilities and capital resources to work on behalf of the regional economy. My team worked hard to create a visionary strategy that connected large scale infrastructure with the human needs that were evident on every street corner. An early test of our intellectual stamina occurred when we presented our work to a notoriously tough skeptic in the front office. She read our report and had only one question: “What the hell is human capital?”
Infrastructure is ordinarily assumed to mean hard infrastructure, but it can also be soft. Historic achievements such as the Hoover Dam or the transcontinental railroad are constructed of concrete and steel, but they only exist because they were first conceived in a human mind. The organization of human endeavor to make such achievements possible is infrastructure of a wholly different—but no less important—kind.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, when the United States was developing its core of hard infrastructure for communications and commerce, we built soft infrastructure too. We encouraged the development of innovative engineering schools; we rewarded creators of new materials and designs with patents and profits; and we engineered financing mechanisms like toll-roads and municipal bonds to pay for the public infrastructure we needed. We could do it all ourselves, and we did.
In the 21st century, however, we deal with global interdependence. Today’s challenge isn’t how to transport supplies across the Rocky Mountains or how to harness the mighty Colorado River to provide electricity for the growing population of California. Think of these challenges instead: the United States’ current dependency on natural resources from unstable and illegitimate governments such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and countries involved in an Arab Spring; or the growing problems related to the need for new skills and ideas to solve health problems such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and bird flu. How can we protect ourselves from cyber-attacks aimed at disabling e-commerce and internet communications? (Think ILOVEYOU virus from the year 2000). There are many questions that must be considered about these future challenges. These include:
• What does the world look like when illiteracy rates in certain spots reach 62 percent? (Think Somali pirates).
• What is the potential for the bottom 90 percent of the world’s population to benefit from innovation when products are designed only for the pocketbooks of the top 10 percent? (Think digital divide).
• What happens to stability in our own neighborhoods if we can’t learn to live with the growing number of immigrants from extremely “other” traditions?
Solving problems like this cannot and will not be done within our borders alone. Building 21st century human infrastructure requires collaboration between countries and across cultures. None of the problems above can be solved by one person or one organization in one country. At the heart of building 21st century infrastructure is the international exchange of people and ideas.
How is this done? How do people from one culture contribute to or benefit from the knowledge and ideas of another?
The movement of students around the world has exploded in the past couple of decades. International students in the United States (690,000; more than half in grad school) have grown 22 percent in five years. These students come in especially large numbers from Asia to study business and engineering and form a growing infrastructure of intellectual and commercial connections between the US and the rest of the world. There’s been growth in the numbers of American students going abroad for study as well (260,000; a doubling in the past decade). These experiences put students in unfamiliar situations and force them to see life from a different perspective at a very formative time in their lives. A 2009 study published by the American Psychological Association found a strong, positive linkage between living abroad and creative insight (visit http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090423105848.htm). Students and scholars return home understanding that diverse knowledge and perspectives exist outside their own national and cultural boundaries, to the great benefit of their careers and their societies.
With the growing cost of higher education, study abroad is outside the financial reach of many U.S. students. The Institute provides many opportunities for students to find needed aid (www.iie.org), and higher education institutional practices such as the University of Denver’s Cherrington Scholarship are also leading the way. But the U.S. lags far behind many other nations that send their students abroad.
For example, China sends about 130,000 students to study in the U.S. each year; only about 13,000 or one-tenth as many US students go to China. Washington has offered a plan to change that: the 100,000 Strong Initiative targets 25,000 U.S. students to go to China each year for the next four years. To help make this possible, please visit www.diplomatsball.org to contribute to a fund that will help Colorado students participate.
Corporate expats, career military personnel and staff of non-governmental organizations can attest to the mind-expanding experiences they gain by working with colleagues overseas. The skills and networks they build can develop or strengthen economic and diplomatic ties among people that help nurture the development of human infrastructure.
Even short term professional exchanges can have substantial benefits. When a delegation of police officers and social workers from Copenhagen came to Denver a few years ago, they met with counterparts and exchanged practical tips for working with at-risk youth in changing neighborhoods. The exchange was so beneficial that it resulted in a return trip of two Colorado police officers to Denmark, where a different model of integration of social services and police work was taking place.
Another recent example: a Buddhist monk who works with orphaned boys in rural Cambodia was invited by the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program, a public diplomacy initiative of the State Department. One of the four cities he visited on his three-week visit was Denver, where IIE staff arranged several days of meetings along with a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. So inspired was he with the U.S. park ranger who led his tour that he has returned to Colorado twice to continue to exchange knowledge about the large mountain park he has since started in Cambodia, as a way to expose “his boys” to natural environments and create employment opportunities.
While we are unlikely to outlive our need for highways, water systems and energy transmission, the infrastructure of the future is human and global. The challenge we now face is how to organize ourselves to build it. Academic and professional exchanges are two of the possible answers to this challenge.
Karen de Bartolome is the Executive Director of the Institute of International Education, Rocky Mountain Center. For more information about opportunities to build your own global human infrastructure, please visit www.rockymountainiie.org.