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Smart Infrastructure: Building Back Better, Socially. A report from Harvard’s Ash Center

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Cambridge, Massachusetts – Through research, education, and public discussion, the Roy and Lila Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation fosters excellence and innovation in governance and public policy.

The Center’s mission is to address the profound challenges confronting the world’s citizens by developing the best leaders, generating bold new ideas, and disseminating innovative solutions and institutional reforms. The Ford Foundation established the Center as a founding donor.

A just published report “Toward a Smarter Future: Building Back Better with Intelligent Civil Infrastructure” is part of a series published by Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

It is important to note that the Ash Center Policy Briefs Series represents the author(s)’ personal views and does not necessarily reflect the views of the John F. Kennedy School of Government or Harvard University. The papers in this series are intended to elicit feedback and stimulate discussion about critical public policy issues. Let’s take you through a brief of the report. A full version is located for download at the bottom of this article.


Stephen Goldsmith directs the Innovations in Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He leads Data-Smart City Solutions, Municipal Innovation, the Civic Analytics Network, and Government Operational Excellence. He was previously New York’s Deputy Mayor and Indianapolis’ Mayor. The Power of Open, Collaborative, and Distributed Governance is his latest book.

Betsy Gardner is a writer and producer for Data-Smart City Solutions. In her previous roles, Betsy focused on deconstructing racial and gender inequalities through research, writing, and facilitation. B.A. in Art History from Boston University and a certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.

Jill Jamieson is the CEO of Illuminati Infrastructure Advisors. She is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute. Ms. Jamieson has worked extensively throughout the United States, Latin America, Europe, and Asia for a wide range of public and private sector clients. She has advised on over US$35 billion worth of capital projects and pioneered many groundbreaking delivery structures across multiple sectors. Ms. Jamieson has testified as an independent expert before the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as well as state and local authorities, on policy and legislative issues relating to public infrastructure.

Executive Summary Brief

The US needs better infrastructure. Social and Physical. The current patchwork of repairs and replacements leaves roads, bridges, dams, sidewalks, and water systems unsafe, costly, and inequitable. Incorporating digital technology, sensors, and data into a smart infrastructure plan can not only address these issues but also mitigate risks and even improve our daily lives.

We can identify problems with the country’s roads, buildings, and bridges before they become serious by using data analysis and intelligent infrastructure. First, smart infrastructure systems can address decades of neglected maintenance, which has left many structures in jeopardy. They will then alert leaders to changes or issues before they pose a threat—and often before a human inspector can detect them.

Moreover, as climate change causes more extreme weather and natural disasters, the country’s infrastructure is in danger. This technology can identify and mitigate problems, saving money and lives.

Intelligent infrastructure can also be used to improve public health by monitoring sewer water for COVID-19 and other pathogens or installing smart sensors along dangerous highways to automatically reduce speed limits and accidents.
It can also be used to improve materials like concrete, lowering the project’s carbon footprint and improving health and environmental outcomes.

An intelligent infrastructure can also help address inequities. More pollution, toxic chemicals, and physical dangers for people of color in the US due to excessive car emissions, old water pipes, and bad roads. Construction of intelligent infrastructure projects must consider where and who harm has been done historically, and how rebuilding better can improve the lives of marginalized and vulnerable communities. Municipalities can also invest in comprehensive asset management systems and worker training to best utilize intelligent infrastructure data.

The report states that now, much of the country’s infrastructure requires urgent repair. America’s crumbling infrastructure is evident everywhere. Devastating failures like the 2021 Texas power grid crisis, the Flint water crisis, the 2017 Oroville Dam collapse, or the 2017 Interstate 85 bridge collapse in Atlanta make headlines, the public witnesses daily failures that are less dramatic.

It costs the US economy millions of dollars every year due to aging civil infrastructure, which includes water main breaks every two minutes and road congestion. Unmaintained roads, trains, and waterways endanger human safety while costing billions in lost economic output. In addition to “repair and replacement,” our infrastructure network as a whole must work seamlessly together.

They state that now that we are aware our physical and digital worlds are now permanently intertwined, the country must ensure timely maintenance and effective life-cycle asset management.

Data collection, analysis, and feedback loop maintenance are all part of intelligent infrastructure. Like semi-intelligent infrastructure, it integrates multiple assets or sub-system components at the system level. These smart sensors with embedded microprocessors and wireless communication links are changing how we monitor, control, and maintain civil infrastructure systems.

Eulois Cleckley, former executive director of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure in Denver, Colorado and new director of Transportation and Public Works for Miami-Dade County is quoted in the report, “Infrastructure is more than just roads and bridges—it’s the ability to leverage all pieces of infrastructure to help manage and maintain it.”

The report discusses smart pavement and concrete while also mentioning smart sensors. Sustainability, air quality and water quality are all important topics mentioned throughout the report.

The report concludes and recommends:

1. Federal Level:
• Mandate or incentivize the incorporation of intelligent infrastructure sensors and networks into all projects receiving federal grants or loans. This could be done simply by including intelligent infrastructure as a project evaluation criterion for federal grants and loans (e.g., FTA, AIP, WIFIA/TIFIA, FRA, PID, RRIF, INFRA, etc.).

• Provide federal grants for R&D to advance the performance of self-powered sensors and fortify cybersecurity around both federally and locally owned intelligent infrastructure.

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• Authorize and fund the United States Army Corps of Engineers, in coordination with the Bureau of Reclamation, to oversee the implementation of the DamWatch program for nationally owned and operated dams and evaluate the cost implications of its application to the
National Inventory of Dams.

• Authorize and fund a Special Experimental Program to evaluate the challenges and benefits of intelligent infrastructure across multiple sectors (e.g., airports, water systems, flood risk management, roads, pollution abatement, etc.).

• Provide direct grant funding for incorporation of smart sensors into existing assets to communities that commit to utilizing data-driven budget decisions to foster social justice.

• Provide guidance and funding to local authorities for enhanced cybersecurity that includes hardening of digital infrastructure, including protection against ransomware and malware attacks.

2. State and Local Level:
• Commit to life-cycle asset cost evaluation when making budget decisions around new infrastructure.

• Better, more long-lasting projects are built when a project is scoped with digital infrastructure included from the start.

• Aligning funding sources at the beginning of a new infrastructure project ensures that there is coverage for intelligent sensors, etc.

• Invest the time and resources in a comprehensive asset management system. This system should include an inventory of all infrastructure assets that are owned or under control of the state or local entity.

• At a minimum, the asset management system should include age, current condition, life expectancy, and a qualitative rating of community importance, data from sensors, and a system to continuously collect applicable information.

• Public and open records laws should require that sensor information on infrastructure conditions be layered on GIS maps visualized for the public. The public needs more visibility into the state of its assets. The Governmental Accounting Standards Board requires reporting of certain information concerning infrastructure, but those reports often do not reflect the true condition of the asset and are used more by bondholders than the public.83

• Sensors now located in trash trucks can measure pavement smoothness; connected devices at intersections can record dangerous conditions; vibration problems emanating from a bridge or wastewater pump can alert officials and local residents to issues.

• The state is in an optimal location between local and federal leaders to change policy and make funding decisions for smart infrastructure projects.

• Especially in regard to transportation, the state should lead funding allocations with digital infrastructure in mind, both by directing funding to projects that include smart city/IoT aspects and by requesting that as a part of transportation proposals.

• The state is also in a position to create incentives for local governments by removing their match requirements. They can also encourage public-private partnerships to incentivize these intelligent infrastructure projects.

• Local leaders have less flexibility and control over transportation projects that cut across multiple cities and counties. Therefore, states should be leaders in the identification andintegration of systems and technologies that facilitate easy data sharing and understanding across different cities, towns, and counties

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Toward a Smarter Future: Building Back Better with Intelligent Civil Infrastructure

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