Six criteria for truly intelligent infrastructure

We’ve heard many a horror story about SMART technology that is actually anything but. When smart technologies are applied to infrastructure, which has a much wider impact on the public than any one individual device, the stakes are even higher. In this conclusion to our Intelligent Infrastructure series, we explore the factors that help this tech add value — not complexity or unintended consequences.

With smart technologies such as sensors, robotics and artificial intelligence, Canadian infrastructure will soon have the capability to improve operation using data sets that were previously unavailable. With this robust information, it will be infinitely better-equipped to predict our behaviours and proactively adjust its own operations in response. But will the addition of smart technology make infrastructure truly “intelligent?”

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We tend to think of intelligent infrastructure as nothing more than the combination of physical assets such as roads and bridges with sensors, communications capabilities and analytics. The more sensing, communications, analytics and control capabilities, the more we can shift from merely describing a situation to being proactive about it, and even self-managing – and the more intelligent the infrastructure.

But what if we add “intelligence” that reduces efficiency, resiliency, safety, or general wellbeing?

 

Adding value

Intelligent infrastructure isn’t just about adding technological “bling” or arbitrary functions. Truly intelligent infrastructure is about using technology to improve outcomes, well-being, and quality of life. As an example of unintelligent infrastructure, consider the University of Toronto study that identified that autonomous vehicles don’t detect wheelchair users. Or whole new cities that have been modelled after a “Smart Cities” concept, that are full of automation and sensors, yet feel empty and uninspiring. Intelligent infrastructure talks to people, and invites people to respond.

When designing intelligent infrastructure, these six principles ensure that it truly adds value:

It is one part of an intelligent society

Intelligent infrastructure takes information from and provides information to users and decision makers, so that they can make decisions that will improve overall wellbeing. For instance, it can tell them to re-route to minimize congestion, or where to reduce activities that are exacerbating air pollution. Not all information exchange will happen digitally and automatically though; some of the richest sources of information will come through feedback collected from citizens whom the infrastructure is intended to serve, rather than from collecting and analyzing more digital data. Decision makers must be in a position to receive and interpret this information and convert it for use by the infrastructure — and users may need “warming up” to start realizing the intended benefits. Without connections to decision makers and users, and making changes that achieve community goals, infrastructure cannot be intelligent. Consider, for example, smart air pollution sensors in China that are simply ignored. The infrastructure should inform and help to create intelligent residents and decision makers, and support a healthy environment in the long term.

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It is one part of a network of infrastructure

A single asset may deliver little value on its own. A bridge, for example, may allow a vehicle to pass from one side of the river to another, but if there are other rivers along the vehicle’s journey, then every bridge on the route needs to perform well for the driver to achieve their purpose. Intelligent infrastructure evaluates its performance as part of a network — not only of human-made assets, but also of natural assets that work with it to achieve wellbeing.

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For example, clean drinking water could be provided by better designing transportation and land drainage systems, planting more vegetation, and/or providing enhanced treatment. The intelligence is in recognizing the potential contributions of the entire network and identifying the balance that most effectively and efficiently meets community goals. It can help to think first of an infrastructure network, then of a user/decision-maker network, and then of how those two parts interact.

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It monitors its own performance and learns

Intelligent infrastructure collects data about its own performance, learns how to perform better throughout its life, and either makes changes itself or provides the imperative for users to change behaviours or decision-makers to change decisions.

 

It sees, and increases resilience to, future shocks and stresses

Intelligent infrastructure gathers information about future changes in technology, society, climate and resources, and provides information that helps us prepare for — or change the course of — those changes. Importantly, to address the technology component, there is redundancy built in such that power or communications failures do not cause chaos. This means there must be predictive, diagnostic, and action capabilities somewhere in the intelligent society.

 

It controls and manages itself (almost)

Intelligence is about moving from having no information, to being able to predict outcomes, to having some control over a situation. To move toward greater control, we need greater analytical capacity, better sensors, greater communications capacity (to pull in more data from more sources) and better controls.

 

It gives more than it takes

The benefits of designing in the “intelligence” outweigh the costs over the asset’s lifecycle. Above all, it improves overall wellbeing, giving more than it takes.

 

Design considerations

Intelligent infrastructure requires full context, accurate diagnosis, predictability, and proactivity, with two major caveats: first, that these functions do NOT have to be provided by sensors and advanced technology — they can be provided by combining social and technical sources. And second, the potential intelligence “maxes out” where the costs of the intelligence outweigh its benefits. The benefits of working proactivity into an intelligent system may be marginal if there is little we can do to prepare. The more that overall community wellbeing is considered at each point along the intelligence gradient, the more intelligent the system.

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Blue relates to the hard technology and quantitative data, while green relates to the qualitative information.

It’s not all about infrastructure and technology; some of the richest sources of information will come directly from citizens who are informed and engaged. Consider, for example, that 14 per cent of Canadians have a disability — but it is only when we hear from a person with a mobility impairment that much of their day is spent waiting for inadequate paratransit systems, finding a safe way across the street, or finding an accessible entrance, that we have a stronger connection to the problem and the motivation to solve it. When data and stories come together to create motivation and improve wellbeing, we have truly intelligent infrastructure.

Intelligent Infrastructure (Series)

In our Intelligent Infrastructure thought leadership series, WSP experts discuss the impacts and implications of our evolution toward more intelligent infrastructure.

Discover the series