Road construction (Andrew Ostry/Shutterstock.com)

Smart civil infrastructure could save US billions

The United States is in need of a strategic smart-infrastructure plan that integrates digital technology into new projects because inadequately maintained systems can result in “billions of dollars in lost economic productivity,” according to a recent report from Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance & Innovation.

Most of the major civil infrastructure in the U.S. was designed and built during the 1960s; since then, the country’s population has more than doubled. With high-profile incidents such as the 2021 Texas winter power outage and the Flint water crisis grabbing headlines, there is more than enough evidence to suggest that America’s decaying infrastructure is in need of an upgrade as it extends beyond its life cycle, researchers said in “Toward a Smarter Future: Building Back Better with Intelligent Civil Infrastructure.”

During a Sept. 29 discussion about the report, Illuminati Infrastructure Advisors President and CEO Jill Jamieson, who also served as an author on the report, stressed that even though smart infrastructure garners broad public support – there must be a shift away from today’s “repair and replace” mindset.

To address population growth, urbanization and economic development, local governments must not only reimagine how the systems are built and designed, but also how they are operated and maintained, the report said.

Life cycle cost is an important factor in these considerations, according to Luna Lu, director of Purdue University’s Center for Intelligent Infrastructure. Funding for maintenance projects have not kept pace with rising costs, and in some cases, civil infrastructure such as roads can cost up to four times as much to repair as expected, she said.

Concepts such as sensor-equipped smart pavement can help alleviate maintenance issues in roadways. Research from Michigan State University suggests that this technology could pinpoint the best points for preventive intervention during the life cycle of a typical asphalt pavement. For every $1 spent on preventive smart pavement maintenance, there is a savings of $4 to $10 on rehabilitation, the research found.

The smart pavement could also provide data and insights that would inform similar initiatives around the country, promoting a more proactive approach to the current “repair and replace” mentality. Since 2019, Lu and researchers at Purdue University have embedded internet-of-things sensors in concrete to collect data on moisture levels, strength and pH levels for the Indiana Department of Transportation, which can use the data to increase construction efficiency. Moreover, similar sensors can be used to improve safety and performance in other systems such as bridges, dams and sewers.

“This preliminary data has been showing we improved 30% of the construction productivity, reduced 20% of the labor costs and related insurance and also reduced 15% of the overuse of materials,” Lu said. “There is a tremendous economic benefit to be regained from this.”

Read the full report here.

About the Author

Shourjya Mookerjee is an associate editor for GCN and FCW. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, and has written for Vox Media, Fandom and a number of capital-area news outlets. He can be reached at [email protected] – or you can find him ranting about sports, cinematography and the importance of local journalism on Twitter @byShourjya.

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