What It Takes to Be a “Smart Infrastructure” Builder

It was early in my career, and I had just been assigned to do some systems design and programming for a system known at that time as VTC (vehicular traffic control). For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine why we were developing what I initially envisioned as a traffic light control system. After all our company had, for well over a 100 years, made its livelihood in developing equipment and technology for the American Railroad industry. Boy, was I ever wrong about that!

Within a matter of weeks, I found myself immersed in queuing theory, creating simulations using GPSS (general purpose simulation system) and creating components of a multi-layered technical architecture.

Decades later, we are engaged in the exciting world of “smart infrastructure” and based upon the current conversations and initiatives in this area, I am seeing the same kind of architectural model come into view.

We can’t talk about smart infrastructure in limited terms because it is the framework that will enable the smart cities to emerge. It must embrace an overarching design that connects the physical infrastructure, the information-technology infrastructure, the social infrastructure, and the business infrastructure to leverage the collective intelligence of these smart cities. As infrastructure builders, what does this mean for us?

Aside from the material and methods we’ve worked with for generations, building smart infrastructure will mean that we’ll be installing, and in some cases maintaining, technologies we’ve seldom had to deal with before.

The design teams we deal with in this new space are now starting to work and speak differently too, so we need to learn new concepts and language.  Are you ready to get into a design review where the team will be discussing the sensing layer of the architecture, which could include the sensor gateway, control gateway, home network, M2M endpoints, vehicle endpoints, and RFID (radio-frequency identification) reading and writing?

We need not only to understand these smart infrastructure elements but have a working understanding of the entire multi-layer architecture model and how (and under what circumstances) the components interact with other layers and components of it.

Additionally, expect a new set of players that creates these frameworks, which will ultimately require standardization. Several architectural frameworks exist today—some play well with others, some don’t.

All of this new complexity needs to be managed, so smart infrastructure builders also will be exposed to control layers in the architecture, which include things like capacity management, resource abstraction, operational controls, business support, and the like.

Smart infrastructure may also cause us to rethink the business we want to be in. In the past, years of success may have defined our firms with a predominant project delivery model. We need to seriously consider, in the world of smart infrastructure whether we possess the breadth of technical capability to operate as we’ve done in the past. Firms that can handle complex smart infrastructure work may have new opportunities.

Getting into the smart infrastructure game can be a game changer if you understand the breadth of the technology involved. If not, there will still be work available, but you won’t get as many headlines from it.