High on anyone’s list of evolving innovation in our infrastructure would have to be the adaptations of electronics, communications, and information technologies that will make the systems “smart.” There is little chance that the new infrastructure will ever approach passing a Turing test, but certainly these “intelligent” systems will give us enhanced return on our investment.
The essence of what is happening has three elements. First, increasingly powerful and low cost digital electronic devices are giving us greater ability to monitor and exert control of the condition and use of roadways, pipes, cables, and other physical constituents of our infrastructure. Second, we are learning how to send very large amounts of information between these geographically widespread infrastructure components and more centralized locations where human managers can make judgments about the systems’ performance and make adjustments in operations. Finally, our growing ability to store and use information is allowing us to comprehend more fully the factors that affect system performance and how to manage our infrastructure more effectively. The progress of change looks different in each of our infrastructure’s several functional service areas.
In water supply and wastewater management, for example, we have Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems being adopted. The concepts, hardware, and software have been derived from process control in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) have grown out of traffic signaling but increasingly relay on wireless telecommunications and communication between vehicles and the roadside. The United States government reserved a segment of the radio-frequency spectrum at 5.9 GHz for use by the transportation sector. Electric power utilities are increasingly committed to the “smart grid” concept that includes giving electric suppliers an ability to adjust users’ demand and to shift energy supply across a network to meet short-term peak loads. Transmission of digital data across power lines as well as via fiber optic cables and wireless channels has been important in the smart-grid’s development.
The most immediate payoff of this increasing intelligence in infrastructure will be greater efficiency in operations. A universally applied principal of engineering in the past has been the inclusion of a “safety factor” in calculations to decide the number of lanes needed for a new highway, the diameter of the pipes for water supplies, or the generation and transmission loads to be met by the power supply. The safety factor represented an allowance for uncertainty, a multiple of what the planners and designers estimated to be the maximum load a facility would have to meet during its service life, perhaps 30%, 80%, or 120% to this maximum. New practices are shifting to a statistical view of the world and probabilistic measures are taking the place of safety factors, but the result is still the same: infrastructure facilities are built with redundancy and excess capacity to enhance their reliability in the face of anticipated variations in demand. Increasing the smartness of these systems offers potential cost savings by allowing total system-wide excess capacity to be reduced without sacrificing reliability in meeting peak demands in parts of the system.
A second payoff of increasing intelligence will be enhanced ability to charge all users of infrastructure for the services they receive. The services of infrastructure are for the most part available to all, approximating the conditions economists use to define a “public good.” If the taxpayers of a particular community choose to build good roads in their region, it is difficult for them to exclude road users from neighboring communities from using the roads to travel to and through the area. This is the “free rider” problem. Installation of meters substantially eliminates the problem for power and water supplies (except in places where people are able to divert supplies—to pirate, in other words—as is the case in many cities in lower-income countries.) For roads and waste management, smarter technology has yet to be developed and adopted.
Another payoff will be improved ability to identify the use of public resources that now have low or no market value. Use of the atmosphere and surface waters as a repository of for our wastes is an example of (again using the economists’ term) “free goods.” More precise detection and monitoring will enable pricing of these goods, both discouraging their use and generating revenue to be used for resource recovery and renewal. Periodic inspection of motor vehicles to ensure that emissions-control devices are functioning properly is a rudimentary step toward this aspect of system intelligence.