Technology’s Transformative Power

In 2020, technology will transform infrastructure systems, making them more resilient and sustainable

By Julia Edinger

The contributions of technology in the infrastructure industry have already proven to be transformative. Major shifts in the past year have occurred, not just in the way we talk about designing the infrastructure systems of tomorrow, but also in the way that we are building infrastructure systems today.

Since the emergence of the worldwide web, technology has advanced at an increasingly rapid pace. Technologies that were once no more than science fiction concepts can now be found in the average person’s pocket or living room. Technology is rapidly changing the scope of what is possible. Such a dramatic shift is certain to shake things up in a major way, so let’s break it down.

Smart Sensor Technology

Sensor technology is especially transformative because it can benefit many different sectors within the world of infrastructure. From water, to transportation, to smart cities, sensor technology is one of the fundamental building blocks to upgrading our infrastructure systems for the modern world.

Last year, I had the opportunity to interview Lisa Beutler, Immediate Past-President of the American Water Resources Association and the Senior Principal overseeing Water at Stantec. According to Beutler, the sensor technologies provide real-time data that allow infrastructure professionals to model different variables, increasing efficiency with scheduling and prioritization. Drone technology can also help improve the accuracy of predictions.

While sensor technology plays a major role in the world of water management, it can also be used to monitor failures on a wide range of construction projects, like in the case of Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge.

Smarter Vehicles

One of the major changes we are seeing in terms of technology in the world of transportation is the way vehicles operate. With the exception of a few experimental projects, like solar roadways, the key shift is people driving electric vehicles — and someday, these electric vehicles may be driving themselves.

While electric vehicles are gaining ground in many countries, the US has been slow to pick up this trend. One reason may be the lack of EV charging stations, making long trips particularly unfeasible. Without proper EV infrastructure in place, the purchase of an electric car seems like an unreliable investment. However, there is high demand for smaller, less expensive electric vehicles. Hopefully the market will respond.

A certain type of vehicle that will need a complete overhaul of existing infrastructure systems also has the potential to increase safety and convenience: the autonomous vehicle. Autonomous vehicles are already being tested on roads, but one concern is the way sensors may detect existing street markings that weren’t designed for a driverless car.

There are already initiatives to improve vehicle efficiency. Some states have even implemented regulations and initiatives to help push the transition smoothly and quickly. Ohio, for example, has been testing new smart transportation technology on the 33 Smart Mobility Corridor, providing a foundation for future advancements in autonomous vehicle technology.

Smarter Cities

The way we are designing cities and master-planned development projects is also shifting, as these new technologies reshape the planning period. To start, the infrastructure of a smart city goes far beyond the roads and bridges; it includes digital infrastructure: the sensors, artificial intelligence, smart technology in buildings and on traffic lights, and more.

Smart cities today mean something different than smart cities of the past, even 10 years ago. Now, artificial intelligence technology is much more readily available, and parts of our infrastructure networks are connected in ways we had not previously imagined possible.

A connected city has the potential to transform even the way that we define what infrastructure can be. Predictive weather technologies could set other systems in motion to mitigate the risks of storms. Smart technology can limit the use of lighting to the times when it is necessary. Drones can monitor traffic congestion and report on slowdowns.

The Technology of Nature

When thinking about technology, many think of computer- related technology, but technology encompasses the application of science to something to simplify a process or activity. In recent years, infrastructure professionals have realized that green infrastructure can unlock massive potential, from stormwater management to air quality.

It is time to look at the way we view technology, and the way we view infrastructure, with a new perspective.

Julia Edinger is the Editor for American Infrastructure Magazine. She can be reached at julia@builder.media.

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