Dynamic, Intelligent Infrastructure


A Conversation with the World

When most of us hear the word infrastructure, we likely think of something fixed such as pipes, tunnels, train tracks, bridges, roadways, power lines—and possibly IT hardware or servers. We know the world can't function without infrastructure. And we've probably heard that it is old, in disrepair and needs to be modernized to meet the demands of the future. 

That’s what comes to mind 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, intelligent, even emergent. 

Woman worker checking information on a laptop while checking a large electrical tower

 

Every one of the examples mentioned above is impacted—indeed, changed—by what’s flowing through it in real time, from traffic to energy to water to data. And these networks, even those underground, can be made visible through the use of geographic information system (GIS) technology. 

Most infrastructure is in urgent need of upgrading. We must repair what is crumbling and ensure it’s sustainable for the needs of today and resilient for the needs of tomorrow. This means protecting our networks of energy, water, and transportation from many threats:  environmental threats resulting from climate-related weather events, social threats from crime or social inequities, and cyber threats from the significant increase in digitization. It also means incorporating more renewable and sustainable energy sources and collaborative ways of working among commerce, government, and communities.  

To reach this level of resilience, organizations must be agile, able to adjust, accommodate, and meet changing business needs head on. A massive amount of new construction in the coming decades will be driven by the ongoing march of urbanization, decarbonization, and digitization. 

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, artificial intelligence, and the emergence of location intelligence, along with a geographic approach, make possible the integration of context awareness across all systems—built and natural.

 

Map showing a digital version of an electrical grid infrastructure

 

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 vehicles and manage billions of devices connected to the Internet of Things, all of them generating data that can be converted into insight using geospatial data analytics. Indeed, the 5G rollout requires significant cell densification of the network. And airports are transforming through location intelligence. 

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 and wind farms. 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? 

 

A field covered in solar panels

 

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? What if location intelligence allows us to us listen in to the ongoing dialogue between the systems we build and the systems of nature with geospatial context?

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.

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