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Examining the Concept of Informed Infrastructure

Examining the Concept of Informed Infrastructure was originally published in the online magazine Informed Infrastructure on October 18, 2012.

While later columns will most often look at the details, I thought this first column should be devoted to the variety of concepts that might be attributed to Informed Infrastructure. Clearly it goes beyond the site’s byline of “Extending design to include impacts,” although this has a wonderfully vague quality that could support a variety of notions.

To start with, informed infrastructure can be informed about its contents, be that people in a room, cars on a highway, water in a water main, or bitumen slurry in an oil pipeline. “ Informed infrastructure” in this sense “knows” about the state of its contents (“e.g. is the water safe to drink”).

Informed Infrastructure might also be informed about its own state (e.g. are there leaks in the water main), be that in the present or at some future time based on present conditions. For example, metallic or concrete structures might be informed of their rate of corrosion or their rate of settling or deformation.

Informed Infrastructure might be aware of the environment outside and around it. The solar flux on a wall or roof surface, or the fact that a pipeline is passing under or over a sensitive wetland, being just two examples.

Some types of informed infrastructure may be able to inform us of our impact on the infrastructure itself. Think of your house or hotel room that tells you the manner in which your actions are impacting the consumption of water, gas and electricity, and not merely telling you the current temperature.

This idea could be taken further still. Informed infrastructures could be aware of, and communicate with one another, and provide social feedback, not only about the impact of your actions, but of those in your community, and compare your “performance” to that of your neighbours.

In all of these cases, informed infrastructures, regardless of what they are informed about, are designed to use information to enable them to better perform their function. Furthermore these information components are just as intrinsic to their performance as their mechanical components. The use of numerical simulation for the analysis of reflected acoustic pulses, and hence the detection of leaks, can contribute just as much to the net volume flow through a pipe as selecting the appropriate pipe diameter, wall thickness and surface roughness. If you consider that in some regions of Canada, 25-30% of the water leaving the treatment plant never makes it to our homes, offices or industrial sites, and you will understand what I am talking about.

It goes without saying, that informed infrastructure depends on sensing; sensors to measure character and behaviour of the “contents”, sensors to measure the state and behaviour of the infrastructure itself, and sensors to characterize the environment around it. To be informed, however, requires more than sensing, it also require knowledge of the functions and objectives of the content, the infrastructure and the world around it. Informed infrastructure must also be aware infrastructure, actively imbued with “intent” and “purpose”. Only in this way can it respond to what it senses in the appropriate manner.

To achieve awareness at some level is very straightforward. It simply informs us. At the most basic level, it simply provides us with values of the directly sensed quantities, like the temperature in the room or the speed of our car on the highway. In more complex cases, it can incorporate simulation and decision logic, and inform us of the expected lifetime of a concrete highway beam, or the expected time of failure of a bridge or water main.

Think of the famous scene in the film “2001, A Space Odyssey”, when HAL reports on the imminent failure of the AE-35 communication unit, but embed the intelligence in the unit itself to get the idea of where we are going. Hopefully the outcome will be more satisfactory.