America has an overabundance of futurists, but only realists can save our aging built world

America's bridges, power plants, roads, railroads, and power lines need the input of innovators.
Patrick T. Fallon—AFP/Getty Images

Americans are obsessed with the technologies of tomorrow. From autonomous aircraft and vehicles to quantum computing, fusion energy, and all the possibilities offered by generative artificial intelligence and advanced robotics–there is so much excitement about what’s to come. But therein lies the problem.

We’ve dedicated so much innovation to the future that we’ve completely neglected the problems of the present–problems so significant that if we don’t address them soon, we may not get to enjoy the fruits of tomorrow. Namely, our infrastructure.

Many of the assets in our built world are failing at an alarming rate, without enough skilled labor to maintain them. Despite providing for basic human needs, our energy grid, water systems, buildings, transportation infrastructure, bridges, roads, dams, ports, airports, and a myriad of other physical structures are not aging well. When–not if–they fail, it will cost communities millions, if not billions, of dollars, and could cause substantial loss of life.

Just think of recent events: A road crumbled in Wisconsin on Apr. 2. The largest U.S. energy grid shut down almost 25% of its power plants this past Christmas. A nuclear facility in Minnesota suffered a radioactive leak last November. And the people of Jackson, Mississippi had to drink bottled water for two months last fall when their public water system failed.

Today’s opportunity

Innovators often move where opportunity exists, and the problems of the built world are massive in scale. Globally, the corrosion of physical assets costs $2.5 trillion. U.S. customers and businesses lose $150 billion a year due to power outages. The Department of Defense reports maintenance backlogs of over $130 billion. Water system failures are projected to cost households $14 billion annually by the end of the next decade. And who knows what the final costs–both direct and indirect–will be to clean up the Norfolk Southern train derailment, just miles from my office in Pittsburgh. There is so much opportunity here that you would expect the invisible hand of American innovation to start churning out startups dedicated to building solutions for these problems. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case for infrastructure.

For example, in 2016, my co-founder and I went through the world’s most successful accelerator, YCombinator. While we focused on robots designed to improve power plant safety today, other founders focused on things like self-driving trucks, supersonic aircraft, and rockets to support a multi-planetary existence. This is not to put down their work in the slightest. As we crawled around in the dark belly of a power plant in hard hats, I spent more than a moment thinking we should have opted to solve a different problem. I understood the allure. Our cohort was–and most continue to be–focused on products that will change society decades from now. We chose to solve a problem for today, and I will forever be glad we did.

Moving forward to save the present

In the U.S. alone, there are 600,000 bridges, 25,000 power plants, and hundreds of thousands of miles of roads, railroads, and powerlines. To understand those assets, you need to collect and process a massive amount of data.

Collecting and actioning data at that scale was science fiction even a few years ago. But today’s technologies, including advanced robotics and sensors, can scan and capture an incredible amount of data from structures incredibly quickly, while current A.I. models are constantly breaking the barriers of what is thought to be possible in terms of making that data useful for humans. Taken together, these components hold new promise for protecting our built world.

Earn the right to build for tomorrow

The technology is there to fortify our infrastructure and prevent failure. We just aren’t seeing enough applications in the built world right now. As I take a quick glance through the current 2023 YCombinator class, it shows 190 B2B software companies and 33 fintech startups–and of the seven in the “industrials” category–none are addressing the needs of our aging physical infrastructure. This must change.

Futurists are needed. So are realists. We must all work together to solve the practical problems of today’s infrastructure with innovative applications of technology. It could be the most important, time-sensitive collaboration of our lives. The opportunity and market are there, but the cost of failing to act could be catastrophic.

By focusing on today, we earn the right to build things for tomorrow. Here’s my pitch: I invite my fellow entrepreneurs and business leaders to see the hundreds of thousands of miles of highways, railroad tracks, and powerlines, the thousands of dams, airports, bridges, power plants, and chemical plants, and hundreds of ports, refineries, and nuclear facilities as an opportunity to build world-changing products for today and beyond. Come get some dirt (or rust) on your boots. It’s good for our world, and yes, good for your bottom line too.

Jake Loosararian is the co-founder and CEO of Gecko Robotics.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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