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Digital Infrastructure Should Be a Part of Any New U.S. Project, Experts Say

Civic innovation leaders discussed how to work technology into the nation's new and existing physical infrastructure during the Digitizing Infrastructure: Building a Smart Future symposium in Washington, D.C., Nov. 14.

New and refurbished infrastructure — whether it’s a road, a bridge, a rail line — should be developed with a vision for the future, one that includes multiple layers of smart cities technologies, say public and industry experts.
“If you’re going to rebuild the street, put the right sensors in it so we can make better decisions later. We need to build infrastructure for the future, for the next 50 years, not for the last 20,” said Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations and infrastructure with the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“Any piece of infrastructure that is going to be incentivized at the local or state level from the feds should include the word ‘smart’ in it,” agreed Bob Bennett, chief innovation officer for Kansas City, Mo., speaking on a panel discussion during the Digitizing Infrastructure: Building a Smart Future symposium in Washington, D.C., Nov. 14. 
The talk also brought together policymakers like Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R–W.V., and Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D–U.S. Virgin Islands, and centered on the state of outdated American infrastructure and how innovation should play a part in what is believed to be a nearly $2 trillion maintenance backlog.
Innovation should be top-of-mind not only for the technology itself, but how infrastructure projects are envisioned and designed. That means thinking creatively, and forming public-private partnerships, said Bennett.
“Given the fact that any investment we make in a city has to live as long as the bond which supports it. You’re not going to do that with digital infrastructure for a 20-year bond. So, we have to do it with a public-private partnership, in order to meet that 18-month, 36-month exchange point,” Bennett said.
Kansas City is a leader in the nation when it comes to weaving smart technologies throughout the city’s fabric. It boasts “the smartest 54 blocks in the United States,” consisting of an area from about the riverfront to downtown’s Union Station. This $20 million project is largely a digital infrastructure project formed through a partnership with Cisco and Sprint.
“Everything is sensored in that particular space,” said Bennett.  
“We do traffic monitoring. We do pedestrian monitoring to influence our development efforts,” he explained. “And then we’ve got an analysis platform on top of that, which helps us synchronize city operations.”
Bennett and others on the panel say the federal government could incentive more innovation projects, in part, by “lessening maybe some regulations,” said Pallasch.
“But the reality is the federal government has not come to the table with enough money for about a generation of infrastructure building,” said Pallasch, who seemed to echo the collective sentiment when thinking of the hurdles to digital infrastructure.
But the federal government’s leadership in innovation infrastructure doesn’t have to be just money. The government can set standards, which can then be multiplied over in cities across the country.
“We can all play on the same playing field, in terms of what data we’re going to collect at the macro-level, so that industry can come to us with sensors or technologies that apply not just to Kansas City, but to also to St. Louis, also to Louisville, also to Birmingham, also to San Diego, Austin and New York, would be incredibly helpful,” said Bennett.
“The other thing they can do is invest in a lot of these technologies that connect us physically,” Bennett said, offering examples like taking the time, effort and money to install fiber on a rail line from Chicago to Dallas.
Elected officials still need to buy-in to smart cities infrastructure, said Pallasch, offering another sometimes challenge.
“I think with a lot of this kind of infrastructure, there’s a kind of ‘fear factor’ a little bit, from a local government standpoint,” Pallasch added, offering up images of some of the antipathy the public has about sharing their data.
Another hurdle may lie in an unwillingness on the part of local governments to partner outside of their own silos.
“The politicization of innovation is probably the biggest impediment to making progress,” said Bennett. “When we came up with the public-private partnership, the city was absolutely the minority partner, to these 54 blocks."
“There were folks at the local level and the state level who didn’t want the city to be that far out on the edge,” he added. “That is something where it takes a mindset change, where the city seems itself as part of the ecosystem, and not defining the ecosystem.”
And finally, the federal government needs to know when to stay out of the way.
“Now, the one thing I would ask the federal government not to do is, please don’t pre-empt us,” said Bennett. “We have folks that come and tell us how much to charge vendors to use our (utility) poles  … Please, federal government, get out of my city, when it comes to telling us how to run it. We got this.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.