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From the Editor: Smart Engineering Urgently Needed to Improve Our Infrastructure

Robert Schickel on May 12, 2021 - in Articles, Column

The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently published its “report card” for America’s infrastructure. I read through the summary, and this is what I learned:

We received an overall grade of C-. That’s an improvement from D+ in 2017, but not much of an improvement, especially when the total investment gap grew to more than $2.5 trillion through the next 10 years. The United States scores mediocre at best (and we’re the ones doing the scoring). Of the 17 categories graded, the best we could manage was a B in the Rail category, and there are 10 categories in the D range. Not what you would anticipate from an advanced nation such as ours.

ASCE reports that our deteriorating infrastructure continues to burden our economy with negative effects on GDP, jobs and exports. All these costs get passed on to taxpayers, and ASCE estimates it will cost each person $63 per week if we allow the system to continue to deteriorate. One of the important notes ASCE makes is that the investment in infrastructure improvements pays off. It costs us more not to improve our infrastructure than it would to fix it.

The report also says it’s not too late to correct the situation, but the time to act is now. The proposal from the current administration for infrastructure investment, aptly named the “American Jobs Plan,” is a step in the right direction. But it’s too early to comment on it until we know which actions Congress decides to take.

As I’ve said before in this column, it’s one of the responsibilities of our profession to educate people about the importance of an infrastructure that’s better than a C- grade. I encourage you to take time to read through ASCE’s “2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” as well as “Failure to Act: Economic Impacts of Status Quo Investment Across Infrastructure Systems.” These documents provide all the information and actions necessary to help convince everyone you come in contact with about the importance of this issue.

Smart Cities

This issue of Informed Infrastructure focuses on “Smart Engineering,” including some examples of “smart cities.” (I find it somewhat incongruous to be talking about smart cities when we can only manage a C- in infrastructure.) I’m still learning about smart cities and the Internet of Things and the connections of all the devices used to collect data and distribute that information. I’m intrigued by what’s already in place and the concept of what’s to come.

ASCE also produced a video, “Future World Vision—Infrastructure Reimagined,” which describes how engineers of all disciplines can and should be more interactive when thinking about solutions for issues that exist or may show up in the future. One of the comments in the video is something to the effect of looking as far forward as you can imagine and “threading back” into the present.

Engineers have done this on a more-elemental level when, for example, we provide room for an additional lane of roadway for anticipated increased traffic. But it’s a much larger step to take into account the hundreds of drone flight paths required to deliver lunches to a 100-story office building at the same time, as the video suggests. Perhaps a building will “know” when you and your team have arrived, and not only record your presence but also adjust its climate accordingly.

Universities Leading the Way

I briefly searched the internet for the role universities can play in developing smart city applications. Not only do universities have the bank of intelligence required to think ahead, universities are essentially smaller, more-condensed versions of cities. They often have their own transport systems, small businesses and citizens (students). This makes campuses the perfect testing ground for smart-city systems.

Apparently, I’m somewhat behind the curve. There are numerous instances across the world of universities providing an important testing ground for all types of data gathering and system development. I look forward to reading more about smart cities and trying to put myself at least on the curve, instead of behind it.

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Andrew Herrmann, past president of ASCE and alumni of Valparaiso University, for providing access to the articles and videos noted in this column.

About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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