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Think tank: what is infrastructure for?

Smart infrastructure can underpin societal resilience but only if cities break down their existing silos.

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What is infrastructure for? The UK Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDDB) has articulated a 21st century take on this question, describing it as a series of interconnected systems that exist to support society. It is such a simple sentence that it is hard to see why we didn’t see it that way before. The evolution of the infrastructure industry sheds some light on this.


In the 20th century the focus was on providing nations and their citizens with efficient, reliable and affordable services. While this remains important, today resource constraints, environmental and health concerns, the climate emergency and social equality have become new priorities. In addition, society’s expectations on quality factors such as time, reliability, safety and wellbeing have risen.

 

In a recent paper called ‘Flourishing Systems’, the CDDB outlined how the infrastructure industry is stepping up to respond to this challenge using 21st century thinking, embedding the concept of smart infrastructure and broadening it to promote long-term societal resilience. The following learnings from the report need to be considered by all smart city practitioners.


People-focusedrecognising the fundamental role of infrastructure in the social, economic and environmental outcomes that determine the quality of people’s lives


With an increased focus on outcomes for people, we raise the age-old conundrum about whether we should work for the benefit of the individual or the benefit of society. This is epitomised by the trolley problem - the ethical dilemma of whether to sacrifice one person to save a larger number - and has huge implications for the application of AI in smart cities: for example, in the rules we programme into the decision-making of autonomous vehicles.

 

As smart cities practitioners, we need to think about how our actions support the development of social capital, because outcomes that benefit the many rather than the few will achieve longer term social resilience.

 

The understanding of what society values and what concessions people are willing to make is an important part of applying this concept. The smart cities agenda can support citizens’ assemblies and other forms of participatory decision-making. For example, the city of Auckland has used its Moata SafeSwim digital platform to create supportive citizen behaviour by demonstrating the impact of infrastructure-related municipality decisions on their beach-loving lifestyles.

 

Systems-basedrecognising infrastructure as a complex, interconnected system of systems that must deliver continuous service to society.


Since the industrial revolution the infrastructure that underpins our cities has developed into a complex, interconnected system of systems. We did not always have the tools to envision the system in its entirety and thus manage it as a complete system. But, with vastly improved data processing power and the ever-increasing abundance of data, we can now address interconnected challenges in a way that would previously have been unthinkable.

Data is the key to address the plethora of challenges a city faces across numerous sectors
Data is the key to address the plethora of challenges a city faces across numerous sectors

The opportunities are considerable if we can unlock the systems approach. Examples would include:

  • Integrated energy systems. Digital innovation and new energy technology enable engineers, striving for ultimate energy efficiency, to work across the supply/demand boundary. For example, traditionally the flexibility needed in our electricity system to match supply with demand has been provided through adjusting supply side generation. But smart, decentralised energy systems create the opportunity to access a huge, dormant flexibility asset that exists within cities; in the thermal mass of buildings, in heating systems, hot water tanks or in electric vehicle batteries.
  • Green infrastructure and resilience. Trees, green roofs/walls and parks absorb airborne pollution, reduce carbon emissions (through shading and evapotranspiration), provide shelter, decrease soil erosion, enhance biodiversity, benefit health and wellbeing and encourage physical activity. Where designed as part of an integrated system, green infrastructure can also help manage water resources and mitigate flood risk.
  • Accessibility. The design of cities, in terms of spatial proximity to services and digital infrastructure, can facilitate a modal shift away from motorised transport, helping people walk or cycle to their destinations and leading to better citizen health and well-being, improved air quality, reduced carbon emissions, local economic uplift and social inclusion.

Use of system-level data will improve cities’ ability to track these beneficial outcomes and make transparent and replicable decisions based on them.


However, the challenge involved in unpicking our historical construct is not to be underestimated. Helping a whole industry push through invisible boundaries that are steeped in precedent is a significant undertaking. Arguably the shift is so great that the change needs to start in the education system and the teaching of new ‘systems thinkers’ that are comfortable with inter-connectedness and the tools for engaging with it.

 

New value paradigms

 

One of the challenges of adopting this new way of thinking is our approach to cost. As the Flourishing Systems paper outlines, our industry has historically based decisions on capital cost. But with a better understanding of what constitutes a successful outcome and the ability to envisage an interconnected city system, there are new ways to monetise value. Technology is allowing us to “servitise” and the possibilities are endless.

 

Take ‘Heat as a Service’ (HaaS) for example. The increasing integration of the energy system – across the supply/demand boundary, between the provision of heating and cooling, and even across sectors such as heat and transport – creates the potential for a new operating model for the provision of heating and cooling, based on the sale of thermal comfort rather than the sale of energy.

 

This approach could assist in the decarbonisation of cities as, given the complexity and fractured supply chain related to the provision of heat, it is likely that a new operating model with fewer actors could optimise capital and operating expenditure, improve the ability to implement change and reduce system inefficiency. Once established, it may also provide the opportunity for previously unexplored monetisation avenues given that, as the operator is now selling an outcome (thermal comfort) as opposed to an output (kWhrs of energy), it has more freedom to innovate in the provision of the service.

 

Again, the availability of and ability to make sense of cross-sector information underpins such innovation.

 

Resilience

 

Through a smart cities approach, cities can increase social and economic resilience, by:

  • Reducing vulnerability. Treating the city as a system-of-systems can help city authorities understand where potential points of failure exist and highlight the best places to instil new resilience, resulting in lower long-term costs for the city.
  • Conducting scenario planning. In a time of fast-moving change there are many possible futures, and scenario planning can help us steer towards a preferred future; one that is resilient in the face of deep uncertainty.

Bringing it all together


The increasing availability of data will assist in understanding how city systems interact, enabling earlier warnings of potential system shocks, better decision-making, more effective use of assets and improved predictions of cause and effect, thus increasing system resilience.


However, before we can make great strides in applying the power of data and technology to analyse inter-sectoral city dependencies, we must be able to recognise, challenge and unpick these silos so that we apply our skills to the right problems – the ones that will bring the most benefit to society.

 

This is the underlying premise that drives our smart city leaders. It can be a game changer when disruptive technology and the fast-moving power of AI are combined with the industry expertise whose remit has always been to create better places to live, using the available tools of the day to improve outcomes for people.

 

SmartCitiesWorld is a forum to encourage these two historically separate industries to come together in support of a flourishing global future.

 

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