Technology-Enabled Infrastructure

Early developments in farming allowed humans to become more stationary. As villages, towns, and cities grew in size, new problems were introduced, such as sanitation, pollution, and food storage and distribution issues. Although infrastructure has evolved throughout history, there has always been a tension between the pull of cities and the push of systems that enable health, transportation, and productivity.

In modern times, of course, we have a better understanding of hygiene and waste removal, and we can structure our cities to better manage large groups of people and the associated risks of pollution and disease. These are not easy challenges to solve, and they are made more complex by the addition of more and more people. However, from the Roman aqueduct systems to the modern wastewater treatment plant, we have always figured out ways to build solutions to our problems. For example, at one point in its history, the entire city of Chicago was physically raised up on jacks to allow wastewater to flow freely down and away from the city until better infrastructure could take its place.

As cities grow larger, new problems are created that require different types of infrastructure. The largest apartment building in the world, in Sao Paulo, houses over 5,000 people in more than 1,100 units. The water, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), sanitation, and logistic systems to support this building and others like it are much different than the systems supporting a less dense population.

More technologies are available to provide for different infrastructure capabilities than ever before. The ability to embed sensors and software-enabled governance systems into physical infrastructure simply did not exist in the past. While the most recent changes in infrastructure were focused on materials technology, the step-function increase in capability that we are currently seeing is driven by software and sensors. These tools and systems are different than anything we have previously experienced.

These new systems are dearly needed, and regardless of all the political posturing in the United States, they will be implemented because much of the critical infrastructure in the United States must be replaced. It is worth repeating that the Infrastructure Report Card, broken down by aviation, ports, bridges, parks, and so on, graded the United States at a D+ average. American infrastructure is clearly facing the end of its lifecycle and must be updated. According to some estimates, the United States requires $3.6 trillion in needed investment by 2020.

So, what we have here is the perfect storm. Cities are growing larger than ever before, new types of infrastructure are available, and we are reaching a generational replacement cycle for much of the key infrastructure in the United States. This will look different in different parts of the world, as infrastructure challenges vary from city to city. However, virtually all cities face challenges in dealing with pollution, quality of life, congestion, crime, and all the other complications that emerge when massive numbers of people are brought together in close proximity. Regardless of these differences, each of these factors will result in the changing shape and structure of cities. This represents a massive opportunity and an equally sizeable risk for both the public and private sector, since where and how people live determine so much of what they need and use.