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Public infrastructure: what happens if we don’t invest?

Megacity HighwayLast weekend a huge storm dumped as much as 3 feet of snow on New England. Many municipalities put in place driving bans, which kept people off the roads and sped up snow removal. But when we all hit the roads on Monday, the traffic jams highlighted the huge problems we’re facing: our roads and bridges are crumbling and, often, were never designed to carry today’s volume of traffic.

We bounce from pothole to pothole. We wait as road crews try to put temporary patches on roads scarred by snow plows. We sit in the stress-inducing, polluting time sinks known as traffic jams. We worry about bridges and overpasses that barely pass inspections but are kept open because closing them would put an even greater burden on surrounding structures.

Public infrastructure includes more than roads and bridges. This most recent storm, called Nemo, left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity for days. When we consider that there are still 2000 or so homes and businesses without power in New York and New Jersey because of super storm Sandy, in October 2012, we see how fragile our electricity distribution network really is. Most towns do the best they can to comply with water treatment requirements, yet there are “boil water” orders far too often. Our public infrastructure is in crisis — in the developed world because we stopped paying attention to it, and in the developing world because demand outstrips capacity to invest.

Professional organizations and think tanks have raised the alarm for at least the past 20 years, pointing out that deteriorating public infrastructure poses huge threats beyond personal harm if a bridge fails. According to CNN, in just the US

[i]f more money isn’t spent –$1.1 trillion more from all funding sources by 2020, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers– deficiencies in the nation’s infrastructure will cost the country almost $1 trillion a year in lost business sales and 3.5 million jobs.

What can you do about this, aside from discussing it (loudly) with your elected officials? Think about how to use design, analysis, data management and PLMish technologies in new ways. Design and operational/maintenance software could have a huge impact on this industry, but too few people know about it. The core components of discrete manufacturing strategies –things we’ve taken for granted for years– are just now starting to take hold in infrastructure projects. Looking at assets from a lifecycle perspective, the idea that design info may have value downstream, is a concept that is just now trickling from vertical infrastructure (aka buildings) to horizontal projects. Of course, the technologies that make possible the efficient production of millions of variants of one item aren’t directly applicable here, since every infrastructure project is different, but commonalities do exist.

Over the next couple of months we’re going to be exploring the public infrastructure world because it’s at the point, from a technology perspective, that discrete manufacturing hit about 15 years ago: industries and companies that need technology solutions to improve efficiency, reduce waste, streamline communication and create more predictable outcomes. It’s a very exciting time and I think you’ll see more and more action from the discrete manufacturing solution providers, like Dassault Systèmes, Siemens PLM, as they join the traditional players of Autodesk, AVEVA, Bentley Systems, Hexagon/Intergraph, Nemetschek and Trimble/Tekla in this arena. Exciting new technologies are coming to the market, in laser scanning, project and construction planning, asset management and operations that we’ll cover in more detail, too.

There’s lots of innovation, money to be made and product to be sold. How that can happen is the topic of the next post in the series — so stay tuned.

What do you think are the critical technologies for solving our infrastructure crisis? What barriers to adoption do you see? What do you think is going well and is likely to become more widespread soon? Contact us or leave a comment on this post, especially of you’d like others to weigh in. Either way, let us know what you’re thinking!

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