In the media: Digital infrastructure is the new frontier – Faculty of Engineering

In the media: Digital infrastructure is the new frontier

We need today’s sporadic initiatives to be more interoperable, cohesive, and national. This can start with the federal government, in collaboration with the provinces and private partners, says Saiedeh Razavi.

A city street at night with a light effect showing lines of red light going down the street
Photo courtesy of Marc Oliver (Unsplash).

The following piece was originally published in The Hill Times’ special issue on infrastructure.

Generations ago, Canada was built through major investments in critical infrastructure that improved the quality of life and created opportunities to grow. The Canadian Pacific Railway, Canadian National Railway, Trans-Canada Highway, TransCanada Pipeline, and St. Lawrence Seaway are examples of historic, impactful infrastructure investments that were designed with Canada’s future in mind.

More recently, governments have used infrastructure investment to stimulate the economy and to spur employment in times of economic recession.

But this time it’s different.

Information from cameras, satellites, and digital sensors and the power of artificial intelligence are already changing our lives by driving decisions in the private and public sectors. Sensors in our cars tell insurers what kind of drivers we are, so we can earn a break on our rates— or not.

Our cars themselves are changing, with increasing automation and connectivity with other vehicles and infrastructure. Intersections are getting smarter and more adaptive to the real-time traffic information. Drivers use apps to predict how long their trip will take and to navigate their commutes around obstacles on their way.

On a commercial scale, a network of regional supply-chain visibility platforms has been established across Canada’s major port cities to enhance collaboration in planning, optimizing, and making the best use of their infrastructure and assets.

The effort includes a new partnership between the McMaster Institute for Transportation and Logistics (MITL), the Hamilton-Oshawa Port Authority (HOPA) and Transport Canada. The HOPA-McMaster hub will be the first in Canada to partner with an academic institution.

Canada’s digital infrastructure is powerful and growing, and is as critical to the future success of our country as our physical infrastructure such roads, rails, waterways, airports, municipal infrastructure, and others.

Now is the time to invest in the new frontier: digital infrastructure that can optimize the utilization and performance of our existing infrastructure and prepare for future opportunities and demands.

How we plan, design, use, and maintain our digital infrastructure impacts many critical aspects of life in Canada, including the environment, accessibility and independence, economic prosperity, safety, and resilience to unforeseeable events such as pandemics.

As it exists, Canada’s long-term infrastructure plan supports building modern, resilient, and green communities for Canadians with five priority areas: public transit, green infrastructure, social infrastructure, infrastructure for rural and northern communities, and trade and transport.

For these to work well, the critical importance of Canada’s digital infrastructure needs to be recognized. This requires governments, research institutes, and the private sector to work together to generate strategic plans and policies—to develop Canada’s digital infrastructure to be as efficient, fair, transparent, and useful as possible.

We need today’s sporadic initiatives to be more interoperable, cohesive, and national. This can start with the federal government, in collaboration with the provinces and private partners.

This represents a challenge to the way governments approach infrastructure priorities, to harvest and analyze insightful and useful knowledge from data and to facilitate an exchange of information among citizens, governments and stakeholders.

Canadians stand to benefit from making sure decisions about our infrastructure are based on the best-available evidence, and from being able to see what these largely invisible investments mean for them.

Imagine: an emergency call comes in reporting a major fire. To guide the response, dispatchers and commanders instantly access real-time information showing how many people are likely to be in the building and where they are concentrated. Using data from connected vehicles and traffic sensors, software directs emergency-response vehicles along the least congested routes, saving time, reducing property damage and possibly saving lives.

A municipal traffic engineer uses the “digital twin” of a community and uses the data-rich computer model to test variables such as signal timing, speed limits and roadway configurations to measure how different innovative solutions and scenarios will play out before implementing them, allowing the city to make the streets safer and more efficient, based on reliable evidence.

Such scenarios are increasingly being made possible by digital frameworks that inform the use, maintenance and improvement of our infrastructure to move people and goods and provide services across our huge country.

These investments not only make our infrastructure ready for the future but also represent the opportunity for our country to lead the next industrial revolution.

Saiedeh Razavi is an associate professor of civil engineering at McMaster University, where she holds the chair in heavy construction and directs the McMaster Institute for Transportation and Logistics.