The United States’ aging civil infrastructure needs a new strategy to build better infrastructure. The current repairs and replacement of infrastructure in the country are disorganized and patchwork, inefficient and costly.
Intelligent or smart infrastructure that integrates digital technology and smart sensors can address these problems, mitigate risks, and improve infrastructure conditions that affect daily living.
‘Toward a Smarter Future: Building Back Better with Intelligent Civil Infrastructure” from Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation reports that inadequately maintained systems can cost billions of dollars in lost productivity.
Most of the US civil infrastructure is built in the 1960s, and since then, the country’s population has exponentially grown.
Notable events such as the Texas power outage in 2021 and the Flint water crisis that stretched from 2014 to 2019, and the 2017 Oroville Dam collapse, or the less report water mains breaking every two minutes, road congestions that cost US drivers close to 100 hours a year, show that the US infrastructure badly needs an upgrade.
Aging infrastructure poses threats to human lives and can cost billions of dollars in lost economic productivity. Because of these conditions, updating and modernizing civil infrastructure has gained broad public and bipartisan support.
According to the report, intelligent infrastructure offers the following benefits:
- Life-cycle cost savings through maintenance efficiencies. For decades investments in US infrastructure have been unable to keep up with the rising cost. Funding prioritizes new construction, but overtime infrastructure has declined due to deferred or underfunded maintenance.
This is where intelligent infrastructure can help because continuous monitoring of infrastructure’s integrity particularly aging infrastructure can help detect damage, enable early intervention, and avoid cost repairs or removal.
- Enhance Infrastructure Safety and Resilience. Infrastructure tragedies have become very common in the US and when it happens it cases public outrage. Because modern society depends on infrastructures, they expect it to be safe, reliable, and resilient.
With the help of sensors unnatural and potentially dangerous changes in infrastructures like bridges can be identified accurately and acted on quickly.
Smart sensors imbedded on infrastructure can support disaster preparedness and response and public health as sensors can detect toxins, viruses, and bacteria in sewers and wastewater treatment plants, help prevent dams and levees failure, and support transit and transportation safety.
- Sustainability. The application of digital technology and smart sensors can support water sustainability through smart water grids and the integration of smart technology into water infrastructure and management systems. Smart sensors can also help decrease emissions, conserve energy and eliminating material waste.
- Equity, social justice, and community involvement. Intelligent infrastructure can combine physical and digital infrastructure and use technological innovation to reduce inequalities and improve inclusion.
According to the report, there are challenges to the broadscale application of intelligent infrastructure, including the cost of investments, limitations in present power resources to operate the smart sensors and smart network, and cybersecurity threats.
Despite the promises of intelligent infrastructures – providing constant infrastructure monitoring, improving infrastructures efficiency, safety, resilience, savings in repairs and replacement, better management of infrastructure, it has mainly been left out in the country’s infrastructure plan.
As the US seeks to update and modernize its infrastructure, it should also prioritize investment in intelligent infrastructure.
According to Director Cleckley, “Digital infrastructure is the future and, quite frankly, if the cities don’t do it now, they’re going to be behind decades because the industry is not stopping.”