New technology asks for rethinking the way we deal with infrastructure

By Dr. Geert Roovers – For years now I am watching the development of separate bus lanes on the major access roads in my home town. And in these years I am contemplating the sustainability of these lanes: long strokes of asphalt with every 10 to 15 minutes a bus passing. And with the rise of new technology and SMART Cities I think I found my answer.

With the so-called third technological revolution (according to Rifkin) new digital technology initiatives disruptively change the way we function. Big data, the Internet of Things, social media, Uber and AirBnB: all examples of developments based on this new digital technology. This third technological revolution also initiated the rise of so-called smart cities: cities in which technology enables liveability and sustainability. Cities with smart grids which enable local sustainable energy. Cities in which electric self-driving cars and drones have erased traffic jams and air pollution. Cities in which local 3-D printing has profoundly changed mass-production. It’s the promise of smart cities: smart technology and smart people make the city more attractive, more sustainable and more liveable.

This rise of new technology and smart cities has consequences for the development of sustainable infrastructure. We have to rethink the way we develop it. New technology is not a new gadget which can be incorporated within the design of infrastructure. Or a way of working which can be applied within our regular way of developing infrastructure. No, new technology disrupts the way we think about sustainability and the way we develop our infrastructure. Without having the pretence to be comprehensive, I see disruptive consequences in at least three areas of infrastructure development, e.g. design, planning and governance. I will elaborate shortly on all three of them, and then return to my hometown bus lanes.

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In regular infrastructure design of the construction of infrastructure, based on functional requirements, is leading. The dimensions of a navigation lock or a bridge are based on these functional requirements, and technology is used to make the use of the construction possible and efficient. For example, technology makes efficient passing of a navigation lock or use of a road possible. Technology strengthens the efficiency of infrastructure, but the design of its concrete, steel or wooden construction is leading: technology follows construction. In our new world, technology becomes leading. And infrastructure construction (only) has to make this possible. For example, functional requirements on capacity, overhauling or turning of cars and ships, first will have to be realized by adequate technology (soft- and hardware, embedded for example in these vehicles). And concrete or asphalt structures only have to make this capacity, overhauling and turning possible. Thus, in our new world construction follows technology. And this asks for rethinking the way we design our infrastructure.

But there is more. Regular planning of infrastructure comprises design periods of decades or more. Because of the large investments in steel and concrete, these long-term investment periods are economically necessary. In our more and more changing world, including the rise of social economical and climatic uncertainties, this leads to planning problems. The long-term perspective of infrastructure makes it difficult to anticipate on new or unforeseen developments. This is for example seen in the design of bridges, which often are technically still in adequate shape, but unable to deal with the enormous rise of traffic these have to digest. Or sound navigation locks that can’t cope with the growing dimensions of new ships. As these developments – within the third technical revolution – are growing quicker and quicker, sustainability asks for growing flexibility of our overall static infrastructure. In this, the before mentioned rethinking of the way we design our infrastructure, gives an opportunity. If technology is leading in design, flexibility can be found within this technology, instead of within the concrete or steel constructions that facilitate it.

Finally, I’d like to address some issues concerning the governance of our infrastructure within the smart city era. Governance of new technology and big data – apart from legal and ethical issues – raise questions about controlling them. Professor Albert Meijer (University of Utrecht) discerns two ways of control: central control of technology and data (‘cockpit’) and decentral participative control (‘bird swarm’). And he states that new technology and big data have the promise of efficiency and a better life, but that there are risks too. For example, when new technology and big data appear to be less controllable than thought, exclude parts of society or introduce new problems. Thus, our governance of infrastructure in our new world needs rethinking in the light of the way we will control it, maximise its benefits and anticipate on its risks.

We thus might state that new technology will help us in developing sustainable infrastructure. But new technology asks for rethinking the way we design, plan and govern them. Looking with these perspectives to my bus lanes in my home town, two conclusions are inevitable. First, as they are designed by technology follows construction, they are outdated and inflexible, and thus already unsustainable. But secondly: as developments (societal and technological) go so quick, it’s impossible to predict the way the lanes will be used in about 5 or 10 years. So, for wat seems to be an inflexible and unsustainable design of my home town bus lanes, might prove an unforeseen genius concept within 5 years. And I’m looking forward to this day!

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