How Using Technology to Make Infrastructure “Intelligent” is Key for a More Equitable, Sustainable Future

Policymakers need to pay more attention to how we can make our infrastructure more intelligent, resilient, and equitable, argues Harvard Kennedy School Daniel Paul Professor of Urban Policy Stephen Goldsmith

Published August 31, 2021 

As Congress continues to debate the size and scope of President Biden’s signature infrastructure proposal, Harvard Kenedy School's Stephen Goldsmith, the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy argues that policymakers should be focusing not just on the overall spending levels of the President’s plan, but how best to make our infrastructure more intelligent, resilient, and equitable.

In a new paper published by the Kennedy School's Ash Center, Toward a Smarter Future: Building Back Better with Intelligent Civil Infrastructure Smart Sensors and Self-Monitoring Civil Works, Goldsmith and his co-authors Betsy Gardner and Jill Jamieson make the case that intelligent infrastructure should be a priority for both policymakers in Washington and state and local governments officials developing infrastructure spending plans. Smart infrastructure tools that integrate digital technology, sensors, and data, the authors write in the paper, can more effectively bridge the country’s growing infrastructure deficit and identify deficiencies before they become acute dangers.

The authors point to embedded sensors in bridges and buildings, that can warn of problems in real-time, as examples of intelligent infrastructure. For example, earlier this year bridge inspectors found a significant crack in the Hernando de Soto Bridge, which connects Tennessee and Arkansas near Memphis. The find sent emergency officials scrambling to divert traffic away from the span. Engineers were concerned that the structural integrity of the bridge was so severely compromised that it was at risk of immediate collapse. Only after nearly four months of repair and significant disruption was the bridge reopened. “If there had been an investment in bridge sensors, inspectors likely could have found the crack before it grew into a significant safety risk and avoided the massive costs associated with shuttering a major river crossing over the Mississippi,” said Goldsmith.

Intelligent infrastructure will also play a more central role as rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns caused by climate change pose greater threats to the country’s roads, bridges, and water systems. Last week for the first time, federal officials declared a Tier 1 water shortage for the Colorado River system, significantly curtailing the amount of water Arizona and Nevada can draw from the river. As drought ravages much of the West, smart water grids will be critical for more efficiently monitoring and managing the distribution of water and detecting leaks. Aging water infrastructure results in nearly one-sixth of the nation’s treated drinking water lost through leaks–enough to compensate for many of the country’s parched rivers and reservoirs.

State and local leaders shouldn't wait for the federal government to act on investing in intelligent infrastructure, especially when it comes to initiating related workforce development, argues Goldsmith

Goldsmith points to equity as another important consideration for increasing investment in intelligent infrastructure systems. “Data allows us to better pinpoint where we can remedy past wrongs, better allocate the delivery of government services, and improve the health and well-being of municipal residents.” The paper cites the example of how Chicago has deployed a citywide network of air sensors on lampposts to monitor air pollutants, which has given city officials better tools for identifying pollution sources. They are also better able to predict poor air quality, a problem that is particularly prevalent in minority neighborhoods nationwide, despite these communities producing less air pollution.

Likewise in Oakland, California, the city launched a new paving project using mapping data to more equitably determine which streets received a layer of fresh asphalt. Traditionally, the authors noted in the report, “paving projects and street repairs were focused on major streets, with a few local streets chosen for improvement, mainly based on complaints to the city council.” After extensive community outreach, and with detailed mapping data in hand, city officials were able to show that neighborhoods of color had longer commute times, worse road conditions, and fewer protected bike lanes. As a result, many more local and highly trafficked streets in traditionally underserved communities across the city received more new asphalt than they had during previous repaving projects. “Oakland shows how data can be a critical tool for ensuring the equitable delivery of municipal services. As a former mayor myself, I saw how all too often, whoever yells the loudest gets the attention of city hall, but data serves as an equalizer, giving both government and communities the tools to ensure that projects such as paving are carried out in a fairer fashion,” said Goldsmith.

With the debate over the Biden infrastructure package set to continue when Congress returns from its summer recess, Goldsmith and his co-authors urge federal policymakers to look beyond roads and bridges and consider intelligent infrastructure as a system: upheld, connected, and integrated by data. Yet state and local officials, the paper notes, shouldn’t wait for the funding to start flowing from Washington to begin investing in innovative approaches to infrastructure. “We’ve got to get a whole workforce of state and local government employees trained on how best to utilize these new tools,” added Goldsmith. “Now’s the time to do it.”

Written by Daniel Harsha, Associate Director for Communications and Public Affairs