- The week-long virtual event United for Infrastructure 2020 took place September 14-21 and featured 30 sessions and hundreds of speakers, including federal officials, advocacy groups, and others.
- Formerly known as Infrastructure Week, the conference is normally held in May in locations across the US.
- Zach Schafer, executive director and CEO of the nonprofit United for Infrastructure, said going online helped the organizers bring in more voices and make the event more accessible during the pandemic.
- “It is such an important conversation, and we could not risk taking a year off when so much is at stake,” said Radhika Fox, CEO of US Water Alliance.
- Read more from the Inside Infrastructure series.
From funding the nation’s roads and bridges and addressing the racist origins of some city planning to making broadband internet and clean water accessible for everyone, the United for Infrastructure 2020 conference cast a spotlight on the valuable role infrastructure plays in local economies and citizens’ daily lives and outlined the solutions needed to ensure infrastructure thrives for generations to come.
The week-long virtual event, held September 14-21, featured 30 sessions and hundreds of speakers, including federal officials, city leaders, advocacy groups, and other experts, said Zach Schafer, executive director and CEO of United for Infrastructure, a nonprofit that works to educate the public and stakeholders about the key role of infrastructure.
“We had powerful speakers on really important topics that are relevant to so many facets of America right now, and we were able to do it in a way that’s accessible to anybody who wants to watch or tune in,” Schafer told Business Insider. “I couldn’t be more proud of and grateful for the week that we had, especially given the challenge of holding it during a pandemic. We just really felt that these conversations were as important as ever to have during this time and glad that we were still able to have them.”
Sessions centered on the theme #RebuildBetter and discussed how communities are grappling with COVID-19 and the projects they’re working on. Recordings of all the sessions are available on United for Infrastructure’s Vimeo page.
Pivoting to a virtual format
Formerly known as Infrastructure Week, the conference began eight years ago as a series of in-person events held around the country. It’s typically held in May, but Schafer said the organization decided in March to postpone and hold the conference virtually because of COVID-19.
“In the virtual format, you definitely lose the in-person [networking] in between panel sessions experience,” he said. But, he added, “We were able to have more speakers, and we were able to accommodate more people’s schedules because it was remote. It wasn’t just who can fly into the conference for a whole day. It was who can carve out an hour to spend with us during a panel or as a speaker.”
Though attendance numbers aren’t yet available, Schafer said the virtual format made participation easier and brought larger audiences.
Radhika Fox, CEO of US Water Alliance, one of United for Infrastructure’s more than 540 affiliates, told Business Insider that she was pleased with how the conference pivoted from in-person to virtual.
“It is such an important conversation, and we could not risk taking a year off when so much is at stake,” she said. “While the nation is facing a public health crisis and grappling with systemic racism, we need to turn the mirror on ourselves and ask how infrastructure can either contribute to inequity or help all communities thrive.” Fox joined a panel discussion titled “Infrastructure, Race, and Equity” on September 16.
The virtual events will likely continue, Schafer said. “We definitely will be excited to get back to in-person meetings when we have that opportunity, but we’ve learned that there’s real value, both from the speaker perspective and the audience perspective, to the virtual event,” he added. “We plan to continue to do virtual events and possibly figure out how to hybridize them.”
The #RebuildBetter theme addressed solutions for pandemic recovery
A common thread throughout the week-long conference was how COVID-19 has exposed many cracks and inequalities in the nation’s infrastructure, including lack of access to broadband internet and the need for more equitable transportation systems and sustainable utilities.
“It’s in moments of intense societal disruption that we have the greatest opportunity to create the future we want,” said Barbara Humpton, president and CEO of Siemens USA, a sponsor of United for Infrastructure 2020. Humpton spoke during the conference’s #RebuildBetter kickoff event on September 14.
“If we can advance bold projects and harness the potential in emerging technology, what I see ahead is a transformation of US infrastructure that creates jobs, fuels our economic recovery, and allows us to turn the page as a nation from crisis response to the reinvention that leads to greater resilience,” she told Business Insider by email.
Schafer said he hopes attendees gained a better understanding of why infrastructure is important and that it shouldn’t take a backseat.
“We heard from so many speakers who talked about infrastructure’s role in getting us through the pandemic, in keeping millions of people employed during the pandemic and helping to overcome so many problems that pre-date the crisis and haven’t gone away during the crisis,” he said.
Even though he’s worked in the infrastructure sector for years, Schafer said he learned from many of the speakers and found longtime US Congressman and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, who joined the race and equity panel, especially inspiring.
“I’ve looked at issues around systemic inequality, and there are times when you want to throw your hands in the air because you don’t know how to fix these issues that are just so hard coded into our society,” he said. “But then there are these leaders like Majority Whip Clyburn who has solutions for at least how to get us started, and I really valued that.”
Fox said she hopes United for Infrastructure attendees were inspired to think creatively and bring innovation to their work in infrastructure. “We have an opportunity not to go back to how things were, but to move forward and rebuild in a way that is actually better for everyone,” she said.