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Op-ed: Post-Maria, Puerto Rico has chance to reimagine its future

This article originally appeared in The Hill on November 2, 2017

By Clare Lockhart and David Thorpe

Hurricane Maria left no corner of Puerto Rico untouched, meting out systematic destruction to the island and the lives of its 3.4 million citizens. More than five weeks latermany residents still lack clean drinking water and secure food sources; while communications, power and transportation links are only partially restored.

Tens of thousands of public servants and volunteers are now hard at work restoring those essential needs and unblocking constraints from logistics to information flow.

Puerto Rico’s leaders face two simultaneous challenges: addressing people’s most urgent physical needs and laying the foundations for the direction of the medium- and long-term recovery and reconstruction efforts ahead.

The island and its people have suffered a terrible blow, on top of a challenging legacy of debt and economic uncertainty, but the massive rebuilding effort now required provides a historic opportunity to reimagine Puerto Rico’s future.

The urgency to re-establish stability tends to lead people to replace what has been lost with what they know, so maximizing the outcome of Puerto Rico’s reconstruction will require thinking outside the box and innovative foresight from its leaders.

How reconstruction is conceived and implemented will determine the future of the island, laying the physical and civic infrastructure for the next 50 years of social and economic potential.

As Puerto Rico’s Economic Secretary Manuel Laboy recently said, “We have this historic opportunity: Instead of going with incremental changes, we can go and push the envelope to really transform the infrastructure. That is the silver lining opportunity that we have.”

Hurricane Maria exacerbated the considerable challenges Puerto Rico was already facing: a long-shrinking economy, a massive public finance debt crisis and migration flows that have seen the island’s population decline from 3.9 million to 3.4 million over the last decade.

But that negative lens obscured from view the fact that Puerto Rico possesses considerable natural assets: its central location in the Caribbean region, its hard-working and resourceful residents, its mostly mild climate and its development-friendly topography.

Many agencies involved in the reconstruction are rightly conducting a “needs assessment” to align their aid efforts. Equally important to medium- and long-term reconstruction is an “asset map” to ensure that the island’s strengths, resources and opportunities are taken into account when imagining the future potential of the island.

To get reconstruction right requires re-thinking the economic future of the territory: What mix of tourism, agriculture and fishing, manufacturing, services, IT and trade will provide sustainable jobs and revenue for the Puerto Rico of the future?

At the same time, how can it become more self-reliant and produce value for its residents, as a regional partner to its Caribbean neighbors and as an integral part of the United States?

The opportunity to create a decentralized, distributed power system is already being widely discussed, but similar designs for water, sanitation and communications, as well as decision making and economic production (in an era of 3D printing, fabrication and organic farming), should also be carefully evaluated.

The unique scale of and limitations inherent to islands make Puerto Rico ideal for testing the next generation of resilient structures. Power, communications and transportation are all sectors at the forefront of disruption by new technologies — the commercial and social opportunities are enormous if the design is right.

It’s encouraging that Elon Musk’s offer to bring what he describes as “solar and battery Tesla projects” to the island has already been enthusiastically received; a San Juan children’s hospital is now powered by this innovative technology.

Other innovations being considered include digital service delivery and new enterprises in digital economy and science and technology.

Also worth considering is the likelihood of more category 4 and 5 storms in our collective future. Building a resilient infrastructure now in Puerto Rico for power, water and sanitation, communications and transportation offers enormous potential to test and learn what will inevitably be needed elsewhere, in the U.S. and neighboring regions.

A strong argument can be made for the economic and strategic value of positioning the island — once dubbed the “Crossroads of the Caribbean” — as a regional hub for recovery for its neighbors in the medium term and as a trade and transshipment transportation hub for access to Central and South America in the long term.

Throughout this process, the reform agenda that Puerto Rico’s new administration has promised must remain front and center. An all-too familiar lament two-to-three years after large-scale rebuilding efforts is: “Where did all the money go?”

Recent criticism of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s now-canceled contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings provides a salutary example. Puerto Rico is looking at creating transparent budgets and plans for how recovery funding is allocated.

In addition, the island is exploring citizen panels and consultations to review different design options and careful procurement, oversight and reporting mechanisms.

A transparent procurement system and public-private partnerships function that can assess the myriad offers that will come in will ensure that the legacies created are cost-effective and the best options for the people and the island.

Puerto Rico has an opportunity to establish a compact that sets the path for it to become a truly 21st-century state — one that has at its core the trust and interests of its citizens. While the governor and his administration are primarily responsible for policy and delivery, the most successful rebuilding efforts are a collective citizen endeavor.

Opportunities to participate in reconstruction can create jobs and encourage Puerto Ricans who may otherwise consider leaving, to stay and help rebuild. Ensuring the participation and engagement of communities in both design and implementation of rebuilding is one of the fastest and most efficient ways to rebuild at a local scale.

Puerto Rico is indeed at a crossroads. There are two potential paths for post-Maria Puerto Rico. One would see it only partially restored and stuck in a cycle of debt and austerity.

The other is to use courage and imagination to re-conceive Puerto Rico as a nation on the brink of enormous opportunity, creating a new future and generating new value as a key contributor to stability and prosperity, resilient to the challenges (and hurricanes) of the future. That is the path we must choose.

Clare Lockhart is a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. She is director and co-founder of the Institute for State Effectiveness (ISE), which seeks to help support countries and cities reform and rebuild to meet their citizens’ needs. 

David Thorpe is a technologist and senior fellow at ISE. 

Photo: © Getty Images