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Looking East to Make America Great


By Robert Ikenberry

I’m on an extended trip in Southeast Asia, still trying to keep up on the news from home in the United States.

Our Congress, as usual, seems to be bogged down in partisan and intra-party bickering, even though one party is theoretically in control of all three bodies in the legislative process—Senate, House and the executive branch.

This has been the established state of paralysis for most of at least the past three or four presidential cycles. It is unfortunately creating lasting problems.

Images courtesy of the author

China is taking its deserved reputation for terrible air quality and turning it into a reason to become a world leader in green technology.

As anyone who works in construction knows, projects are built on cooperation, even though owner and contractor have very different priorities and interests. Both parties need to have a realistic vision of what a successful project will be. Attempting to dictate that the project only conform to one side’s sole interpretation of the letter of the contract terms and specifications, regardless of which side wants to be rigid, is a recipe for delays, cost overruns, claims and ultimately the failure to meet the objectives of either party.

Politics is no different. Cooperation, dialogue and a shared vision of the ultimate goal (even if the methods to get there may be subject to disagreement) are necessary for success.

My friends know that I have particular political views, but it doesn’t really matter what my political leanings are for the purposes of this discussion.

It is clear we need to focus on several basic areas, including:

  • Long-deferred maintenance on our infrastructure, and sorely needed upgrades,
  • Actually having an approved budget with fiscal goals and project planning that extends beyond one election cycle; and,
  • Improving efficiencies in government spending in general, and health-care spending in particular.

These changes seem unlikely to come from an entrenched, contentious government, but they need to come. They will only come when the rank-and-file population demands them. I believe that all governments, even authoritarian ones, eventually reflect the will and vision of the collective people. Sometimes this means material and economic success, sometimes it means failure of the government through election or revolution, and sometimes it even means chaos and a failed state.

The View from Asia

You should know that new construction is growing rapidly all over Asia. As I write this, I’m in southern Malaysia, across the strait from Singapore, and I can see construction tower cranes and high-rise buildings going up in every direction I look. Developments of 30, 50 even 70 stories high are common. And these are just a reflection of vibrant—frantic, really—construction and infrastructure growth. Traffic on divided (and often elevated) multi-lane highways is dense, and there can be traffic jams even in the middle of the day on weekends. This entire area is energized and active—and seeded with money and demand from China, not the U.S.

steel fabricator in China

China has real issues relating to both construction quality and environmental quality, but the country is taking rapid, giant strides in both areas.

These stories of intense construction and building activity are even greater in China proper. Granted, China has real issues relating to both construction quality and environmental quality, but the country is taking rapid, giant strides in both areas. The Chinese people are engaged and active. Riding the subway in Shanghai, every face is buried in a portable device. They are just as connected, tech-savvy and plugged into the web as in any western city, if not more so, and they are creating mostly their own apps and e-commerce. They aren’t on Facebook as much as WeChat. They don’t shop at Amazon; they use AliBaba.

China is a (the?) world player and becoming the de facto world leader. The country’s people are energized and optimistic. They see challenges as new opportunities. They almost never wanted to talk about politics. They didn’t want to alienate potential future customers or clients. While they currently don’t have much say in running their own political system, they look for ways to make it work for them. It seems every Chinese citizen thinks life will be better for their kids and grandkids. And there are four times as many of them as there are of us.

Turning It Around

China is taking its deserved reputation for terrible air quality and turning it into a reason to become a world leader in green technology. The country’s carbon emissions are dropping year-to-year as its economy expands. They are adding more electric automobiles, solar capacity and computing power annually than any other nation, including the U.S.

This was an opportunity that the U.S. has squandered. Our lack of long-term, focused action, and lack of political support due to intense lobbying from legacy fossil fuel interests, has kept us from leading the world in this critical area where we could have been far ahead technologically.

China’s government doesn’t hesitate to act, even when the public might not readily support the needed actions. Earlier this year we were in Shanghai for the Lunar New Year, and were looking forward to the celebrations with giant fireworks displays in the skies and firecrackers exploding by the tens of thousands on every street corner. Well, Beijing decided that there couldn’t be fireworks, of any kind, in any of the major cities, as a way to cut down on air pollution.

This is a thousand-year-old tradition and a cherished part of the New Year celebration. But there was not one firecracker heard over the entire week of celebration. No professional aerial displays, no back alley hidden strings of firecrackers. Chinese people traveled to their hometowns to celebrate with family and old friends and came right back to the city to get to work.

And the air in Shanghai was amazingly good for New Year’s.


Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now semi-retired as the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.



Tagged categories: Bridges; Program/Project Management; Asia Pacific; Construction; Environmental Protection; Government; North America; Robert Ikenberry

Comment from WAN MOHAMAD NOR WAN ABDUL RAHMAN, (10/2/2017, 1:29 AM)

This is the truth even though its bitter to swallow.

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