A Conversation with the World
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When most of us hear the word infrastructure, we likely think of something fixed (structure), permanent, out of sight (infra), mechanical. We may envision pipes, tunnels, train tracks, bridges, roadways, power lines, rolling stock—and possibly factories, warehouses, ports, airports, and train stations. We know the world can't function without infrastructure. And we've probably heard that it is old and in disrepair. We know fixing it will be expensive, and we believe this work primarily involves rebuilding.
That’s what comes to mind for most of us when we hear the word “infrastructure” – and it sounds boring. It’s also mostly wrong.
The truth is that infrastructure isn't fixed; it's dynamic, even emergent. Every one of the examples mentioned above is impacted—indeed, changed—by the multiple streams flowing through it in real time, from traffic to commerce to water to data. Even Industrial Age pipes and girders are now infused with sensors and intelligence. And all systems, even those underground, can be made visible to the public through the use of geographic information system (GIS) technology.
Conventional wisdom does get one thing right: most infrastructure is in urgent need of upgrading. We must repair what is crumbling and ensure its safety. And we must also protect the world's digital networks—on which critical infrastructure depends—from cyber attacks. In addition, a massive amount of new construction in the coming decades will be driven by the ongoing march of urbanization, transportation, and climate change.
The good news is that repair, security, and new construction can be far less expensive and far more transformative than anyone understood even as recently as a decade ago. The infusion of intelligent technology and the emergence of location intelligence, along with a geospatial mind-set, make possible the integration of context awareness across all systems, grounding them in a renewed sense of place.
What is location intelligence revealing about the future of infrastructure?
It tells us that intelligent infrastructure is now data-centric and dynamic.
Telecoms are investing in networks to support autonomous transportation and manage billions of devices connected to the Internet of Things, all of them generating data that can be converted into insight. Indeed, the 5G rollout requires significant cell densification of the network. And airports are transforming through location intelligence. For example, the Dublin Airport App shows visitors' current location and maps their route. The system even captures instances of birds striking aircraft and dictates the installation of hawk kites, or decoys, designed to scare birds away.
Intelligent infrastructure is interdependent and location based.
As we evolve from smart grids to smart infrastructure to the smart city, urban planners and designers are building not multiple infrastructure systems but a single, emergent meta-infrastructure—including transportation, water, sewage, and electricity. For instance, the underlying network model that runs a utility lets us transfer among electric, telecom, water, and gas. If there's a power outage, the single data model can traverse all the way from generation to the customer, but it can also work across all these domains.
Intelligent infrastructure is public, transparent, and increasingly democratic.
In both government and business, there's no longer a back office. Infrastructure managers need to understand the societal analytics of their systems as utilities go through a paradigm shift toward a more customer-centric model, built on rich data about where demand is and where it will be in the future. The telco industry, for instance, used to manage assets the same way an electric, gas, or water network would be managed. Today, it's a digital services company, heavily focused on customer engagement.
Finally, all infrastructure will be green infrastructure.
Decarbonization targets at country, state, and city levels require massive vehicle electrification. They require solar farms and windmills. Where are the right places to put those, taking into account airspace considerations, terrain slope, wind speed, floodplains, proximity to power lines, soil composition, and setbacks from existing infrastructure? How do you upgrade a power station with renewable alternatives?
So maybe we need to change our metaphors. When someone says the word infrastructure, what if we could think of it not as hardware but as the living body of the world—its skeletal, nervous, circulatory, digestive, respiratory, and immune systems? What if we could understand and manage those organic systems as a whole, coming together in a common space? What if location intelligence—a newly measurable sense of place—let us listen in to the ongoing dialogue between the systems we build and the systems of nature?
Now, that would not be a boring conversation.
By Matt Piper, an electrical engineer and a thought leader on utilities and infrastructure industries for Esri.