Last month I attended Smart Cities Expo in Barcelona—the first international in-person event I’ve been to since 2019. With public sector organizations all over the world focusing on infrastructure, the timing really could not have been better. In fact, the Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA) was even passed by the House of Representatives in the United States while I was in Barcelona.

Earlier this year, I wrote that The future of “smart” cities start with people, not technology and I was thrilled to see so many people at the conference with a people-centered vision. Now is the time to turn that vision into action and meet the increased demand for public infrastructure, along with government services that meet the needs of everyone. From roads and bridges, to utilities, transit systems, and digital infrastructure, this is our once-in-a-generation moment.

The energy I saw in Barcelona tells me we will rise to the occasion. Public sector leaders and their private sector partners at the Smart Cities Expo were focused on inclusion and accessibility, security, sustainability, and mobility.

In short, we are stepping into a key moment for infrastructure. What we do in this moment will define our infrastructure for the next generation. It’s time for proactive, strategic investments in critical infrastructure that will stand the test of time and bridge the gap. That starts with a commitment to digital tools that transform our ability to understand and manage our infrastructure.

What does it mean to be proactive?

According to Brookings, in the 1950s, nearly 60 percent of infrastructure spending was capital investment, with about 40 percent spent on maintenance. By 2017, those numbers had reversed, with only 40 percent going to capital investment. In short, we’ve steadily moved from spending more on building new things to spending more on maintaining what we already have. The ramifications of that trend for accessibility are significant. Because so much of our infrastructure was built without inclusion and accessibility in mind, much of the accessibility work that has been done is to retrofit existing structures.

The historic investments in infrastructure happening around the globe are a rare opportunity to reverse the trend of the past 70 years and improve the accessibility of our built environment. A generation from now, we can’t find ourselves in the position of retrofitting the infrastructure we build today.

As I pointed out at the Smart Cities Expo Plenary session on Inclusion, Rights, and Ethics at the Core of the Digital Transformation, we need to take a broad view of accessibility and inclusion. It needs to span everything, from design and training to procurement and the future of work.

Committing to that means understanding in detail how our infrastructure is used. It also means listening to our communities about their needs. Technology—deployed safely and securely—can amplify the voices and experiences that have been left out in the past. But crucially, technology can’t do that on its own. It must be used alongside public commitment, funding, and expertise. And it requires private-sector partners who are fully committed to offering comprehensive accessibility support.

In 2019, Microsoft engaged a cohort of 11 companies to help develop AI-driven solutions to help people with accessibility needs and benefit the environment. Microsoft also partnered with the City of Brampton to build an app to help visually impaired people navigate the town more easily. Microsoft had 25 partners with us in Barcelona, and our partners are central players in delivering high-impact solutions for our customers. Now is the time to build on successes like these, by making smart, sound, forward-thinking investments.

Strategic investments in critical infrastructure

Earlier this year, I wrote about the importance of strategic investment for the future of government technology. The same strategic investments in scalable infrastructure, automation, shared services, and workforce transformation apply across critical infrastructure.

For my year at Microsoft, I’ve focused on three crucial elements of critical Infrastructure that I believe speaks to this moment and its needs:

  1. Accelerate the deployment of secure, reliable, efficient, and compliant infrastructure for state-owned public utilities.
  2. Enable digital transportation systems that are connected, accessible, efficient, and sustainable.
  3. Provide trusted, digital experiences and easy to use capabilities that enhance resident services in cities.

Combined with a focus on accessibility, these priorities will help public sector customers build critical infrastructure that better serves its communities and establishes a strong technological base for long-term sustainable success. Now it’s time to do the work.

For more information, check out our just-launched page Microsoft for Critical Infrastructure for the public sector and learn more about trends in public sector critical infrastructure, get access to our latest white papers, and find out more about our valuable partners.