We need silicon, not just shovels

Some public relations type came up with the term “shovel-ready” to draw the image that construction projects are ready to start immediately. We all want our money to go right to work. I’m not against that at all. But it’s simply not enough.

Our competitive advantage isn’t construction. I don’t want to minimize the importance of construction and the planning and talent that go into it. Done right, wonderful things can be built. Done wrong, structures can fail and cause damage and even loss of life. Construction is not trivial, and it is necessary. I don’t think there will be much argument about the United States needing new roads, bridges, public transportation, water and waste management, and other infrastructure projects that are essential to our future.

But in a global economy, construction isn’t something that only we can do. There are lots of firms worldwide that can muster the planning, equipment, muscle, and project management that can build anything. In fact, there are some things that are too easy to build. I drive down the street here in Arizona, and there are more new construction projects for shopping and light industrial buildings than ever, right next to vacant buildings. It really doesn’t seem like the best use of resources, but economics cause funny things to happen.

If change is what we want

We hear so much about change these days. Here’s one change that needs to happen. It’s about time economics cause something more meaningful to be built – a better way to connect people with information. Connecting things, sharing information, and freeing people to be more creative and innovative will make for a competitive advantage in the future, and the firms and countries that seize this opportunity during this downturn will come out ahead.

I’m not talking about trivial fads, like creating a potted plant that can call for water over Twitter or anything else that just blasts out info because it can. I’m talking about really connecting things in a way that improves efficiency, saves money and resources, and enhances our quality of life.

For instance, our electrical power grid is a massive opportunity ready to become more intelligent. Every second, all electricity generated has to be consumed or it is lost in the system. A smart grid could not only tie all producers to all consumers (and even all devices used by those consumers) and exactly measure demand, but it could also forecast and control demand to match supply much more precisely and efficiently, saving money and resources.

Creating a truly smart grid doesn’t seem as elegant as, say, building a bridge. We send 10,000 construction workers out, a couple years later we have a bridge, and everyone thinks that’s cool. We send 10,000 electrical workers out to install smart meters in homes and businesses, a couple years later we have 4 million connected electrical consumers in a region, and everyone wonders what really happened. It’s a long-term investment with incremental return that has to be aggregated over millions of users.

Now extend that idea to not just the electrical grid, but every device consuming resources: cars, offices, machine tools, potted plants, whatever. Knowing how much of a certain resource is needed at an exact spot at a given time will save money and resources in the long run.

Then silicon is what we need

To do this, we need so much more than just shovels – we need silicon and software. Embedding intelligence into our devices will not only create exciting new jobs, but will also create lasting change and help safeguard jobs in the future.

We’ve got some intelligent ideas inside this issue, with looks at motor control from Freescale Semiconductor and Altera, software ideas from the OPC Training Institute and QNX Software Systems, our usual Editor’s Choice selections, and a wide range of offerings from many featured companies in our Resource Guide section.

If you have ideas or things you’d like to see, I’m always available at ddingee@opensystemsmedia.com.