Barack Obama has announced the single largest new investment in the nation's infrastructure since the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s under Eisenhower. Speculation begins to build up about the precise nature of this investment.
I have been in Singapore for the last two weeks and have been observing how this tiny country has created a superbly modern infrastructure that flows seamlessly by leveraging technology and process automation.
From the minute I walked through immigration, I began noticing the country's well-conceived mechanisms for efficiency enhancement. Singapore residents have a special smart card that lets them clear immigration without human intervention. Taxis link up via transponders to a central system through which the country implements congestion control, including peak hour and business district surcharges.
As I have watched the city in motion during my stay, it has made me think about the possibilities for infrastructure modernization in the U.S., now that we're embarking on a new era. The problems--health care, energy, traffic congestion, education, poverty and security--each have major implications when you apply smart-card-based process control in the Singaporean way.
Dominique Trempont, former CEO of smart-card firm Gemplus Corp. (now part of Gemalto), believes that the U.S. should roll out one multi-application smart card to the entire population in order to automate various government and private-sector functions.
"The card can be partitioned into application segments, and the companies rolling out applications on it can pay for the privilege," Trempont says.
The first application category for a smart card is a government-owned, centralized patient record database that then becomes the heart of the U.S. health care system. A patient goes to a new doctor, and the doctor's office can access the records with the card, without the hassle of gratuitous paperwork handling by multiple office administrators and frustration on the part of the patient.
Insurance claims and processing could also be integrated with this central system, closing the loop with the doctor's office and the insurance company.
A second application category could belong in the realm of security and identity. Passports and driver's licenses could be implemented on the smart card: It can enable a smooth transition through immigration and other functions, such as traffic management.
After all, why do we need cops to monitor whether drivers are staying within the speed limit? If there is scientific evidence that the most energy-efficient speed at which cars should be driven is 60 mph, then drivers should pay for driving above that speed limit.
Fines can be automatically charged on a smart card. Congestion-control applications can also be implemented on the same infrastructure based on time, geographical zoning, vehicle type (with incentives for fuel-efficient cars and penalties for gas guzzlers), etc.
"Not only is a smart-card-based infrastructure great for efficiency enhancement, it can be a major revenue generator," Trempont says.
No kidding! If every car that drives above 60 mph is charged a fine, and there were an efficient way of collecting congestion taxes, that revenue alone could be enough to finance the $136 billion that the nation's governors need for infrastructure projects related to roads, bridges and railway. It will also generate ongoing revenue for years to come that can pay for many more ambitious projects.
Trempont also foresees applications for welfare management. In Mexico, for example, food stamps are administered by a smart-card system. Cards are issued to women for their children. The cards record whether the children are attending school regularly, getting appropriate vaccinations and so on.
If the records are perfect on all those measures, then the card releases payment for food at stores with whom the government has pre-negotiated subsidy arrangements.
"In this case, the card serves as a behavior-control mechanism, beyond simple payment administration," says Trempont. The welfare money cannot be frittered away at liquor stores, for example.
No matter which way we look at the population, given where we are today, a portion of people will have to go on welfare. Encouraging and enforcing responsible behavior for this segment would be a critical piece of the effort to push them out of welfare and back into productive employment. The Mexico example offers interesting pointers to the efficient administration of a host of social services.
Now, if a "universal card" were made available to all U.S. residents, corporations could also offer services based on that platform. In Singapore, for example, a universal payment system is about to get standardized. The system, baptized NETS, will be universally accepted by merchants, from taxis to grocery stores, making it a competitor to Visa or MasterCard.
The U.S. universal card could have Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Paypal and others as partners. And consumers, instead of carrying multiple cards, could just carry one. VISA, et al., would then have to pay the government a fee to use the infrastructure, making it yet another interesting revenue channel for the government.
Pushing the logic further, the universal card could also become the single-sign-on key to all the various Internet sites that we access and store all our passwords in. It could become the key that opens free, public broadband access. The key that unlocks numerous other password-controlled services!
So far, no company has been able to offer this centralized identity management with adequate security and authority. A government-issued universal card may just be the right place to finally address all the open issues around security, identity management and access control.
In conclusion, I urge President-elect Obama to look beyond the obvious places for infrastructure spending--roads, bridges and broadband--toward technology-enabled process control and establish the right public-private partnerships to make America an efficient, modern society that can keep up with what its more nimble counterparts in Asia seem to have already created.
Sramana Mitra is a technology entrepreneur and strategy consultant in Silicon Valley. She has founded three companies and writes a business blog, Sramana Mitra on Strategy. She has a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her first book, Entrepreneur Journeys (Volume One), is available from Amazon.com.