How smart is your infrastructure?

Blake Hansen, Civil Engineer

January 14, 2018


Lately, it seems it’s all about being “smart.” Smart phones, smart homes, smart cars, and even entire smart cities. But what does it really mean to be “smart”? The smart movement was sparked by the rapid advancement and convergence of three key elements:

  • Sensor technology
  • Computing capability
  • Communications

What does it mean to be Smart?
While the definition of “smart” seems to vary based on the gizmo being sold, there is a better, more generalized definition we can use.

Smart: Using technology to improve effectiveness and make better decisions
By this definition, we humans have been smart for a long time. For me, the keywords to take from the definition are “improve” and “better.” To truly be smart, we need to continually look for ways to improve our effectiveness by using technology to gather better information, increase our efficiency, and achieve better results. In truth, our customers and our organizations have always demanded this of us.

In terms of infrastructure, smart technology can be broken down into the following four levels: 

Monitoring – Sensors are placed throughout the infrastructure to provide real-time status, while communications systems gather the data into a central location.

Computing – Sensor data is analyzed and stored. Some sophisticated systems can also recommend specific actions to help optimize operations. 

Control – In many cases, automatic or manual control systems allow changes to be made that improve system operations.

Decision Support – The data gathered from the system can be further analyzed and used to identify and prioritize higher level actions, such as identifying needed system changes.

Don’t Wait It Out

If we’re not careful, the siren song of new technology “just around the corner” can make us think it is a good idea to wait. Technology is constantly evolving, and with every new system or new device that is released, the next big thing will always be just over the horizon. But, the newest is not always the best, and there is a fine and painful line between the “leading edge” and the “bleeding edge.” Because of this, we recommend starting now to improve your current system with current technology.

Choosing and Prioritizing Smart Technology Projects
Sometimes, we pursue technology because it is exciting and new. However, technology acquired in this way may not line up well with our goals, and the benefits can make a small or even a negative impact. When this happens, an organization can become overly conservative and hesitant to make needed technology investments.

A better way is to approach each technology decision strategically is by looking at the organization’s overall vision and goals, and layering in customer needs and expectations. Some logical questions should then be asked: How will this new technology move us toward our goals? Will this help us satisfy our customers? Are there other technologies that would have a bigger impact? What are the risks? 

A technology roadmap, or strategic technology plan can help answer these questions and provide the information you need to make solid technology decisions. The plan should begin by refocusing on the organization’s goals, and by determining specific technology initiatives and projects. These initiatives should then be prioritized by their relative impact. Typically, some variation on the following criteria are used to identify the highest impact initiatives:

  • They help you meet your organizations fundamental goals and objectives
  • They strengthen areas of weakness
  • They have a short payback period
  • They have a tolerable risk level


Look for Collaboration Opportunities
With smart infrastructure projects, organizations can often benefit from collaborative partnerships. There are many examples, but a primary one is when  public agencies partner with other public or private organizations to share communications infrastructure. There is a lot of value in looking for and capitalizing on such opportunities within and outside of  your organization. 

One great example of this is a project Olsson recently completed for the City of Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City combined their own infrastructure with a local telecommunications company, and in partnership they will develop three large fiber optic rings. This new infrastructure will provide reliable, high-bandwidth communications to more than 60 city facilities along with many other public works assets such as traffic signals and pump stations. Once implemented, this project will save the city several hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in leased communications costs.



The Future is Bright

 As technology continues to evolve at an ever-increasing pace, we are confident that it will provide us with the tools and means to constantly improve. It is sure to benefit the design, implementation, and operation of infrastructure of all types. By extension, it will provide the foundation for a quality of life for our customers and those we serve.

Olsson has many years of experience with the planning, selection, and implementation of smart infrastructure projects. Whether your organization works with public or private infrastructure, we can be your trusted partner in planning, designing, and implementing technology projects that will have the biggest impact for you and your customers. Olsson can help you avoid pitfalls, and still meet your goals. If you have any questions, call me at 913.748.2593 or email



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