Change Leader: Converging Technologies Create Smart Infrastructure
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Gratzke summarizes the difference between “traditional” and “smart” infrastructure as a difference between passive and proactive.
“Smart infrastructure today communicates,” she notes. “Smart infrastructure is able to provide transparency. And hopefully when we fast forward a couple of years, is able to self-regulate and self-monitor.”
Many technologies are converging to make infrastructure “smart,” and the field is growing and changing so rapidly that Siemens only established its Smart Infrastructure operating company in 2019. She explains the new group as a reaction to customer needs.
“Customers are looking for cost improvements,” explains Gratzke. “They want to drive energy efficiency in their buildings. They want to get operating costs down. And one way of doing that is to get increased transparency into what’s going on in your infrastructure.”
She also cites resiliency, where its importance was highlighted during the Texas power shutdown of early 2021 due to inclement weather, and the ongoing pandemic and its safety concerns as other timely reasons to seek better-informed and more-adaptable infrastructure.
“Overall, the tools we have today—IoT technologies—allow us to provide tenants, operators, and building owners with a lot more data that helps them manage people flow in a building,” she says. “How nice would it be to know where people are congregating? Where are people really hanging out? So I know where to clean, but also in case of an emergency evacuation. What if I could route evacuations based on where people are in the building—where people are gathering—to increase safety. There’s a lot of things we can now do with technology that we weren’t able to do just 10 years ago.”
Room for Improvement
As seen in the latest rankings from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which only changed the state of U.S. infrastructure from an overall grade of ‘D’ to a ‘C minus,’ Gratzke knows many improvements must be made immediately. “Nobody can be happy with an overall C minus,” she says.
She believes the key to improving our infrastructure is modernization with future expectations in mind. Energy utilities need more resiliency and stability in the systems, both in transmission and distribution. Renewables come with their own challenges in terms of new infrastructure and maintaining grid stability. To address these issues, we need clear priorities of what we can tackle in the near term.
“There needs to be a lot of collaboration and a consensus-driven approach among the different stakeholders driving infrastructure improvements,” explains Gratzke.
Funding and Efficiency
Like always, the amount and speed of infrastructure repair and replacement will come down to funding. Gratzke sees improved willingness from the federal government to help, but also thinks there’s room for public-private partnerships and new funding models. Becoming more digital and efficient also would make huge differences, especially in construction.
“The construction market is one of the least efficient out there and hasn’t really innovated,” she adds. “It needs to adopt new digital tools to drive project management and document exchange. I think adoption of these tools will go a long way and drive infrastructure enhancements.”
Engineers need to get ready for the impending “digital wave” to become more efficient and keep the cost point of large projects down. She also notes that a lot of engineering graduates aren’t going into the traditional engineering trades, and they should be encouraged to do so by their peers.
“I’m an engineer myself, and the best we can do is really encourage kids in high school or in the colleges right now to give traditional engineering—electrical, mechanical, civil—a chance and make it interesting,” she says. “There are a lot of cool and innovative things coming, and they should be super attractive. Not every graduate needs to go to Silicon Valley.”
This particular webcam interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can view a video of the full interview at the top of this page.