Intelligent Infrastructure and Water

By Dr. Leo T. Kenny

Dr. Leo T. Kenny is a Senior Sustainability and Environmental Technologist, at Planet Singular, serving in an advisory role to several industry and research consortia. Previously, he held a senior role in Materials Technology Development for Intel Corporation, based in Santa Clara, where he oversaw Intel’s programs for green chemistry and alternative assessment methodology development.

Nov 29, 2017 | Resources, Smart Cities | 1 comment

In December 2015, I was invited to give a presentation at a sensor conference, where the theme centered on how innovative technologies could exponentially enable a state of global abundance, as described by Peter Diamindis in his book by that name. The premise is that we can achieve a sustainable and abundant existence globally within a generation by applying emerging technologies to address these challenges. There are four key elements, or pillars, that underpin this concept of abundance: universal health, clean energy, a safe environment and sustainable food supply. The vehicle by which this aspirational (and admittedly utopian) goal can be realized is in the proliferation of novel and inexpensive sensors, which in turn would catalyze the growth of the Internet of Things and truly drive an intelligent infrastructure. Ubiquitous measurement presumably would enable a much deeper understanding of complex systems. In turn, this information would drive actionable real time management of our resources, efficiency improvement, and lead to new markets and capabilities for attaining those key pillars. Implementing this vision would then usher in this new age of abundance.

By many accounts, the potential revenue for this endeavor is vast. Some forecasts have projected growth in these sensor devices from an estimated baseline of ~$1B in 2015 to $50B in 2020 and $3.8T by 2025. Along with the commensurate explosion of ‘big data’ that would result from deployment of such vast arrays of sensors would come the associated information processing, data storage, hardware fabrication demand, communication infrastructure, user revenue adoption (companies, utilities, individuals and communities, government), and edge analytic capabilities, representing an exciting wave of novel opportunities. However, while the application of sensors and connected devices is comparatively straightforward for a clearly defined focus (buildings, factories and vehicles, etc.), it is generally less clear how to make the business case for the much broader application to creating ‘smart’ infrastructure (water and energy management, air quality, transportation, etc.). This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the expansive scope of these issues, and the many stakeholders and constituencies involved. Ultimately, achieving long term global sustainability will depend on how quickly and effectively we attain a ‘smart infrastructure’.

These were some of the thoughts that came to mind as I began to develop my presentation for this conference. The question at hand for the sensor and MEMS industry, however, centered on what key factors and needs would drive sensor growth, and what the IoT infrastructure landscape would look like in 10 years. Unlike the other speakers, I decided not to talk about one of the aforementioned ‘abundance pillars’ (health, energy, food, and environment), but rather to focus on our most basic resource: water, on which everything else depends. However, the omnipresent nature of our most common solvent (we are >60%, and the Earth is >70%) also presents an intractable problem. Since water literally permeates everything we do, it’s often difficult to think of it as a critical resource and equally challenging to choose which areas to prioritize. Let’s face it, it’s difficult enough to think long term about how we address key elements known to be scarce or difficult to obtain, never mind a resource such as water that we often take for granted. So, while there is an instinctive understanding that life itself is impossible without water, we often struggle to find a way to manage our water resources in a way that doesn’t adversely affect the long term health of our planetary ecosystems. Today, the inherent complexities of our water cycle have been compounded by the global implications of climate change, contributing to significant uncertainties in weather patterns, such as the collateral impacts of sea level rise and ocean warming. With aging infrastructure, an archaic and piecemeal array of constituents and interests, increasing population, energy usage, security concerns, and significant environmental and health impacts, water is a most fitting topic for defining and driving a long term vision and plan, using novel sensors and emerging technologies.

The well-known former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill famously quipped that ‘all politics is local’ and the same is true for the environment. The additional challenge here is to connect local efforts to the broader global efforts in an effective way. The proliferation of a broad array of sensor networks could enable us to understand these complex systems and better drive our actions. This essentially reflects the old chemist’s adage that you can’t control what you cannot measure. So, thinking local, I focused the talk on my own ‘neighborhood’, the San Francisco Bay. I then added the Delta to the scope of my examination, so as to consider the entire watershed. The advantage of thinking about a well-defined geographic area allows for a holistic evaluation of all the factors involved. In examining all the unique and diverse natural attributes of this watershed, the complexity involved is readily apparent. Not surprisingly, there is a correspondingly wide array of activities that are being employed in managing and monitoring our water resources. Unfortunately, our efforts to address water management have primarily evolved over time, each developing as specific problems arose. Until recently, this sequential and piecemeal approach to solving large scale environmental and natural resource management challenges was nominally successful, but unprecedented population growth and conflicting needs and priorities have rendered this untenable.

Therefore, as we considered how to establish a comprehensive water management system for the Bay Area and Delta by employing emerging IoT and sensor technologies, it became clear that a new and much different approach was needed to achieve an effective long term solution. A quick scan of all the stakeholders involved in water management, including the many different elements, drivers and associated factors involved, rivals the complexity of many natural elements that comprise the Bay Area and Delta watershed itself. Faced with finite resources and a number of critical challenges, not only for water itself, but also for energy usage, environmental impacts, agricultural viability, and supporting the needs for future population growth, we must be more efficient and focused.

By considering the entire regional watershed holistically, we can collectively review all the various efforts and begin to prioritize and coordinate ongoing initiatives, to drive integrated solutions. Such systems thinking and LEAN analyses, coupled with long term strategic planning and visioning are essential in developing a comprehensive water management system. Moreover, adopting regional management, control and coordination for the entire watershed will match the natural system itself. So, while cities can serve as key vehicles for hosting specific research projects to prove concepts and ultimately will serve as critical end users of working solutions, they cannot drive progress by themselves. Likewise, at a federal level, there are several key government agencies that can provide essential support, but technical leadership in terms of integrating efforts and strategic direction must come from the state level. This is especially critical where scaling up and building on successful research at the technology development stage must be done in an integrated way to comprehensively manage the broad water infrastructure of a regional watershed.

With this in mind, one can then imagine what a mature water management system would look like, from an ability to manage water needs and flows regionally, employ energy resources as needed, to ongoing monitoring of drinking water quality. Defining future sensor and IoT system requirements would evolve in a framework process that includes a technology roadmap, collaborative research engagement between local academic, government and industry partners, as well as communities. Taking this approach would require proactive engagement by all key stakeholders on an ongoing basis. This would enable future regulatory requirements that could promote forward looking and voluntary improvement by industry that saves money, creates jobs, and encourages better targeted academic research. It would also allow for collateral development of industry standards as the technology is developed.

As to the final presentation itself, I did actually speculate on future sensor development needs, in terms of type and numbers, but I’m not really sanguine about the accuracy 10 years out. I am certain, however, that the value of HOW we approach the environmental, sustainability, and natural resource management aspects of our water resource, as well as keeping focused on WHY in terms of our long term goal, is essential to being successful. Today, we are consumed by the WHAT–the multitude of efforts, initiatives, and decision makers–but systems integration and long term strategic vision is lacking. While this might have worked 40 years ago, it won’t get us to the sustainable and stable state we must achieve, especially as the climate continues to change and natural resources become even more scarce.

Luckily, over many decades, the semiconductor industry has developed proven strategies, systems, and processes which can address these challenges. Coincidentally a large semiconductor technology development fab is in many ways analogous to a city or a regional watershed. The lessons learned to manage EHS/S and natural resource challenges in a factory which makes the most advanced devices in the world can be leveraged to effectively address the 10 objectives listed in the Governor’s water plan here in California.

In summary, there are some big picture challenges we need to internalize. The real challenge here (and for successfully addressing EHS/S issues in general) is not a question of funding or even development of new technology, despite the obvious difficulties. After all, Magellan’s expedition sailed around the world without the benefit of a GPS, and NASA successfully landed men on the moon before the IC industry really got started. It turns out the challenges haven’t changed much at all over the years. Our level of success in solving these big challenges is really no different than it’s ever been. We have many examples of overcoming these, in our ability to work together and in looking over the horizon to anticipate problems we may not see. I leave the last word to the master of bringing the human condition into focus, William Shakespeare. In Julius Caesar, the character Cassius reminds us that ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves’.


This article was originally published by Meeting of the Minds on May 16, 2016.


Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.

1 Comment

  1. We must consider fresh water on a continent by continent basis so that we control this vast resource to our benefit. The Mississippi River dumps a spare 511 million acre feet into the salty Gulf of Mexico causing damage to the ecosystem in the Gulf from too much fresh water. Shifting that vast water to the West is a transportation task where advanced engineering designs combined with solar farm built underneath the infrastructure can solve San Francisco’s looming water scarcity. Rather than convince the public that a desert lawn is great (worldometer says this year the world gained 10,926,258 hectors of desert- a very bad trend) moving abundant water always from rainy to dry regions is sustainable and would buck the desertification trend. We have a transportation solution that would be self-supporting for energy, provide pristine surface water and be less expensive than scarce water in California suburbs where they employ punitive measures to discourage abundant use of fresh water.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more from

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

City Digitization Strategies During the Pandemic

I spoke recently with Jacques Beltran from Dassault Systemes about how the crisis has been an accelerator for cities and public agencies to implement digitization strategies. He’s an experienced public servant now working with cities to address their data needs. He shares some relevant examples of how cities in Europe were lagging one to two months behind what was really occurring on the ground. I am particularly impressed by their work to build a virtual twin of the city’s concert hall to simulate coughing, masks, and other conditions to plan a safe reopening. They found some very surprising findings. They also worked at a regional scale to predict and visualize viral spread to anticipate hospital capacity a month ahead – a key tool for regional officials. The use of virtual twins are extensive for cities.

Engaging Historically Marginalized Communities During COVID-19

Engaging Historically Marginalized Communities During COVID-19

Since historically marginalized communities are already being disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I am frustrated to see these communities also negatively impacted by the lack of on-the-ground public engagement. While I realize the threat of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions make conducting on-the-ground public engagement challenging, I want to encourage fellow planners to think more creatively. I will admit that I struggled to think creatively when I first heard that Clackamas Community College (CCC) would continue having mostly online classes in Spring Term 2021. CCC has had mostly online classes since the end of Winter Term 2020 when COVID-19 first started impacting Oregon. CCC’s decision about Spring Term 2021 became more stressful when Clackamas County staff told me that public outreach for their new shuttles could not be delayed until next summer.

The Future of Cities

Mayors, planners, futurists, technologists, executives and advocates — hundreds of urban thought leaders publish on Meeting of the Minds. Sign up below to follow the future of cities.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This