We often talk about infrastructure – these days increasingly about smart infrastructure – but how often do we pause and think about what ‘infrastructure’ is for – or what ‘smart’ is? We think about roads and railways, energy, communications and water infrastructure as serving some purpose, such as moving traffic from A to B, or supplying sufficient energy to keep the lights on, but there is a more fundamental question: why do we need to do these things? Given the amount of money (that should be) invested in infrastructure, perhaps we should be asking such a fundamental question before we start proposing what should be built.
The whole point of infrastructure is to support society in progressing towards a better future with enhanced quality of life for everyone. That road project that segregates some communities while intending to join others, the airport expansion that induces noise and air pollution, the urban traffic system that generates more poisonous air – each of these is an example of infrastructure that creates pain as well as gain. And the greatest pain is that society fails its people as a result.
So smart infrastructure is about infrastructure that is indisputedly for people – everyone – now and in the future. Those future generations who will need to live in a clean, sustainable survivable environment need us to make smart infrastructure decisions today – so that their lives can happen, be of good quality, be in good health, be healthier for longer and that these benefits can be equitably distributed around the population. This means that to be ‘smart’, infrastructure must work well for, and create, a healthy sustainable environment for all species, for without the interdependencies that this affords, the future for people is bleak indeed.
Prof Tyler is Chadwick Chair of Civil Engineering within the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, Faculty of Engineering Science at University College London. He is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee at SMART Infrastructure Facility, University of Wollongong.