An Engineer’s Perspective on Innovation

Are we ready to rebuild transportation infrastructure in the image of tomorrow?

By Nathan Johnson, Ph.D., P.E.

Last November’s presidential election focused attention on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and the immediate need to re-build it. Our roads and bridges, in particular, have been permitted to deteriorate so significantly that many are unsafe and their condition is hampering commerce. The problem is so substantial that President Trump has called for a trillion dollar infrastructure program.

What are the challenges to implement a national infrastructure initiative? Of course, funding is the most obvious. It will be challenging to find the funds—or the political will to spend those funds. Another impediment is a shortage of road and bridge engineering talent. It has been so long since road and bridge development has been a national priority that the United States suffers from a serious shortage of experienced and qualified road and bridge engineers.

But perhaps the biggest barrier to success is the way we think and communicate. The interstate highway system was initiated over 60 years ago, based on an autobahn planned 100 years ago, before transistors were invented or computers were imagined.  Technology surrounds us and has grown exponentially, yet our approach for transportation infrastructure has changed very little.

We are living in an age of innovation. In many ways our lives are unrecognizable from our parents’—or even from our own just a few years ago. Who could have dreamed in the 1950s that we would be walking around with phones more powerful than moon mission computers? Or have data connectivity to instantly send email across the street, country, or world with any fact literally at our fingertips. Or that we could obtain virtually anything online to be delivered anywhere within hours?

Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Ray Tomlinson did. They dreamed of iPhones, and Internet commerce, and email and then they made it happen.

Peripheral industries have helped transportation significantly, and will continue to do so…

So far, much of the innovation in surface transportation has come from outside the infrastructure industry.  Cellular technology and global positioning allow us to optimize routes.  Autonomous vehicles have arrived and are being implemented. Fossil burning engines based on 100- year-old technology are being replaced with electric vehicles that can be charged using limitless solar power.

Peripheral industries have helped transportation significantly, and will continue to do so.  However, we could get there faster by approaching infrastructure itself with this same spirit of innovation. We need to be willing to look outside ourselves, to other areas of life, for inspiration.

Two decades ago, my university professor, a bridge engineer, looked at the dental braces on his children and thought “how can this help with what I do?” Today, thanks to this inspiration and energy to “make it happen”, bridges are being built in Washington with shape memory alloys to resist earthquakes.  Where else might we find inspiration?

In the engineering industry, we have traditionally been able to build roads and bridges around 40 year plans. However, we no longer have the luxury of taking a 40 year approach. Technology is changing the world too quickly, and our infrastructure needs to be adaptable. It needs to be able to accommodate today’s vehicles and communities, sure, but it also has to be able to meet our needs in 5, 10, 20, and 30 years. And with the rate at which technology is evolving, those needs are likely to be dramatically different in 30 years. How do other industries handle this challenge?

Can we transform roads or transit infrastructure efficiency in the same way retail is transforming efficiency of the US Postal Service?  Can our roads serve as something more than just a surface for tires to roll over?  Are they being used as efficiently as possible?  Perhaps we can learn from retail industry.  Why replace one bridge at a time when we could package them up and replace 20, or 200?  The communication industry has boiled over with innovation. If our cell-phones can charge wirelessly, why not our vehicles?

This adaptability should also extend to the ways we communicate our vision to the public. For instance, many highway restoration projects are opposed by environmentalists concerned about the pollution the cars will cause. In these cases we need to effectively communicate that our plans are designed to promote change—that within the lifecycle of that facility personal vehicles will be emission-free and that the piece of infrastructure will then promote sustainability, not work against it.

Engineers aren’t technicians; we are dreamers. We envision what the world should look like and we help design the infrastructure that will bring that world into being. We must look to other walks of life to see how those innovators are turning their dreams into reality. Ultimately, this will help us overcome the challenges we face in rebuilding our infrastructure, and the roads and bridges we build and re-build will be safer and more useful.


Nathan Johnson, Ph.D., P.E. is Vice President and Bridge Market Segment Manager for Kleinfelder. Dr. Johnson has over 15 years of engineering and management experience, specializing in leading multi-discipline teams to complete structure-centric transportation projects through planning, funding, permitting, design, and construction. He may be reached at