Think ‘smart’ when designing Trump’s massive public works project

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Water flows down a damaged spillway at Oroville Dam, in Oroville, Calif. Raging floodwaters in February gouged a gap the size of a football field in the dam’s main water-release spillway. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Early this year, more than 180,000 Californians were evacuated when the Oroville Dam’s cement buckled.

Here’s why the dam’s life-threatening flaws were not caught earlier: The most recent inspection involved only a visual check from a distance. Even a dramatic crater in the dam wasn’t discovered until operators slowed the flow of water to find the source of the irregularities that they, again, had observed only from afar.


Infrastructure failures are not relics of a bygone era. In 2007, 13 people died when a bridge over the Mississippi River bridge collapsed in Minnesota. In 2015, eight people died when an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia — a disaster that could have been avoided had the train employed “positive train control,” which can override the actions of a distracted driver when speeds become dangerously high.

The Oroville Dam incident occurred only within the last few weeks, and its effects continue as downstream riverbanks collapse and a nearby hydroelectric power plant operates at a fifth of its capacity.

The solution is more infrastructure investment powered by smarter technologies.

We have to think beyond concrete to include sensors, cloud computing and data analytics. To get the greatest impact from a trillion-dollar infrastructure investment plan (including $200 billion in public investment) proposed by President Trump, we also need to move beyond the traditional process for government bidding.

As a nation, we are failing at maintaining and modernizing our infrastructure, but we can learn from our mistakes as well as from methods that have worked in other parts of the globe.

  1. Bring a diverse group of stakeholders to the table – at the beginning. Many expansive and groundbreaking investments have originated within government. But we have a greater chance at succeeding if government, large industry, startups and universities work together to design the solution through public-private partnerships.
  2. Look beyond tolls for return on investment. The President’s proposal is meant to encourage private spending on infrastructure, which can be recouped through usage fees. The obvious strategy is to charge tolls, which most Americans don’t want. Instead, new, “smart” infrastructure systems would generate data that can be packaged and sold, thereby creating novel payback options for investors. For example, parking meter data could be made available to nearby retailers, allowing them to offer special coupons to customers as they are approaching.
  3. Experiment more. Testing new approaches, such as new landscaping materials to reduce flooding, involves some uncertainty, but data-gathering and evaluation of new ideas can determine whether money should continue to be spent the old way or diverted to the new way. Bipartisan experts recommend this evidence-based approach to governing, particularly as the new White House Office of American Innovation takes on the mammoth task of reforming government processes. We’ve missed opportunities in the past. For instance, the Recovery Act of 2009 emphasized “shovel-ready” projects, which spurred activity quickly but didn’t lay the groundwork to monitor their efficacy or quality. Every construction project is an opportunity to get new information to guide future investments.
  4. Consider the big picture. The United Kingdom has determined that smart cities will be a $400 billion market by 2020, and is investing hundreds of millions of dollars per year with an aim to gain 10 percent of that market. Through its Future Cities Catapult, the UK has dozens of data scientists, economists and planners working on projects that range from decreasing the time for ambulances to reach the scene of an emergency to improving the navigability of cities for the visually impaired.

The big picture extends beyond economic development. It includes the imperative to keep our residents and visitors safe.

Installing smart controls on public transit to handle sudden illness or injury experienced by an operator is essential if we are to prevent repeated catastrophe. Sensors on bridges and dams can detect structural deficiencies long before cracks are visible to inspectors.

Illinois has the third highest bridge inventory in the nation, and 16 percent are deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Chicago is the largest rail hub in the country, with rail freight volume expected to double by 2025, compared to 2014.

The problem is national, but the next bridge collapse or major train derailment could be in our backyard. Changing our approach to infrastructure — specifically, using data analytics and sensors — is essential to keeping our economy productive and our residents safe.

Nothing should be left to our eyes alone.

Caralynn Nowinski Collens is the CEO of UI LABS, which works on massive manufacturing and infrastructure challenges with hundreds of companies, startups, universities and government partners.

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