Integrating intelligent infrastructure
The evolution of the smart city is beginning to shift from a sci-fi rarity to an emerging reality. Can we design intelligent infrastructure that balances challenges and privacy concerns with an improved quality of life?
These days, a smart, connected city isn’t too difficult to imagine. Urban landscapes where we can interact with the built environment are already a common theme, particularly in larger urban centres. Most of us have had some initiation into the realm of this technology, whether it’s using a smartphone for an augmented reality museum tour, or just watching the office lights turn on automatically when we enter the room. But we are still at the relative beginning of the shift toward the smart city.
So how do we bring this vision to life? The technology already exists, but how does it fit into the current urban landscape?
The built and social infrastructure we rely on is already affected by trends in intelligent infrastructure — and smart tech has already begun seamlessly integrating into most aspects of our daily lives. In Canada, most of us are connected all day, every day; we have smart thermostats, smart homes, smart phones. We currently have the second-fastest wireless networks in the world. We feed our data to the commercial market and receive benefits in return, in the form of improved or more efficient, personalized service or cost discounts, such as lower energy bills.
Close to 90 per cent of Canadians currently own a smart phone, but there are significant generational differences. In evolving the current landscape, we need to think of ways that intelligent infrastructure can be inclusive and effective for the entire population.
But usage and uptake are not evenly distributed over demographic groups. We tend to assume that more smart technology in the public sphere will benefit everyone — but we know from demographic data that those over 75 have minimal usage and uptake of these technologies. If we’re using data from smart technology for decision-making, we’ll likely miss critical data points from older generational cohorts — resulting in decisions that may be skewed in favour of the younger generations’ needs and preferences.
Adding a digital layer to our analog infrastructure is increasingly complicated by the massive shift toward urbanization that has been ongoing for decades. We’ve seen this trend accelerate rapidly over the past 50 years, resulting in over 4.2 billion people living in urban areas as of 2019. Currently, 82 per cent of the population in North America lives or works in urban areas. With factors like rapid urbanization and generational data gaps in mind, to name just a few, it can be quite difficult predict how intelligent infrastructure may evolve 10 or 20 years down the line.
Increasingly dense urban populations will create direct impacts on quality of life for those who live in these cities, particularly in areas like energy, water, sewage, transit, roads, and telecommunications.
In addition to increased population density, we will need to adjust for other future trends as well. For instance, we know that climate will become more extreme and more disruptive; we’ll need to be better at predicting and managing these changes, and better at preparing and maintaining our assets.
About 50 per cent of public infrastructure will have reached its end of service life by 2027 — which gives us a huge opportunity to replace or upgrade those assets and make them smart. Now is the time to consider how we can use intelligent infrastructure and smart systems to allow growing urban populations to maintain and improve their quality of life, from things like efficient transit to shared vehicles and other shared services.
Uptake and mass promulgation of intelligent infrastructure has lagged behind the pace of technological advancement — and public and private spaces have not always kept pace. This is partly due to the costs of upgrading shared spaces, but it’s also a result of achieving buy-in from multiple stakeholders who have legitimate concerns. With smart buildings, there is a delicate balance between intelligence and security. By implementing smart systems and feeding information to this technology, we stand to gain numerous benefits — but there are also inherent privacy and security risks at play as we see digital crime on the rise, and sensitive data held ransom.
The technological revolution has brought forward a changed threat landscape, and it’s imperative that we evaluate all the risks. The line between the physical and digital environments is now blurred, and we must identify security gaps and determine how they arise. Generally, a system’s reliability can be assessed by checking on a few common pitfall areas — but we need to create a sense of responsibility on the owner’s part to stay a step ahead of emerging risks.
We are already seeing significant positive changes in implementing intelligent infrastructure in a phased approach. A key example is the Smart Cities Challenge, funded by the government of Canada. This pan-Canadian competition empowers cities to take an innovative approach to data and connected technologies. Winning cities receive grants ranging from $5 million to $50 million for this purpose.
A phased implementation, with early adopter cities serving as case studies, seems to be well underway on a global scale as well. A good example of this approach is a recent WSP project in Australia, involving work on a metro tunnel which passed through some very sensitive areas, such as a hospital with live operating theatres.
The site was so sensitive to even small amounts of noise and vibration that the project team installed numerous
smart sensors resulting in over 5 million sensor readings per day for real-time monitoring. The sensors will stay in place after the project’s completion to serve as the beginning of a smart city platform.
WSP is also developing other approaches to phase intelligent infrastructure into urban design. For instance, WSP’s Environment business line uses photography and GIS to digitally document a city’s assets. PRIME is another WSP Canada initiative: a web GIS platform for tracking development, infrastructure and policy information.
Intelligent infrastructure will be integrated one sensor at a time, but its promulgation will come quickly. It’s critical that we take a measured, well-considered approach to maximize the opportunities this technology provides for our cities, and for improving our quality of life for years to come.
Intelligent infrastructure isn’t just about making the infrastructure itself smart and assuming added value; it’s about enabling intelligent decisions about the infrastructure, measuring things, optimizing decisions and collecting information.
A crucial consideration is that infrastructure should meet key value-add criteria before being considered “intelligent.”
It should enable us to better manage our current assets, and better plan our future ones, through multi-way communication. Ultimately, it’s up to us to use intelligent infrastructure as an optimization tool, using the information it communicates to us to make better decisions.
In and of itself, intelligent infrastructure is not the solution to population density strains, climate change impacts, or other future challenges. It is simply one part of a broader solution.
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