The Smart City Under Our Feet

By Luis Montestruque

Luis Montestruque, Ph.D. is President and CTO of EmNet, a Xylem brand.

Mar 4, 2019 | Infrastructure | 1 comment

A smart city starts eight feet below the ground and goes up from there. This is what Andy Shively, special assistant city manager for Kansas City, Missouri, tells others. Andy is talking about something that doesn’t always come to mind when thinking about smart cities: sewers.

Andy understands that sewers, which are indispensable for the well-being of the citizens of Kansas City and other cities around the globe, need attention. In the U.S. alone, more than 700 cities discharge close to a trillion gallons of untreated wastewater to water bodies. This has been an issue of particular concern in Kansas City, which faced a $4.5 Billion Consent Decree from the federal government to address sewer and stormwater problems and bring the City into compliance with the U.S. EPA. Serving a population of roughly 488,000 people, this meant the bill to fix its sewers would be more than $9,000 for every man, woman, and child in Kansas City. Clearly an unaffordable proposition for a problem that must be addressed.

 

The Water Utility Trilemma

Thousands of utilities across the country are confronted with similar competing issues: aging infrastructure with growing investment needs coming from ever diminishing resources. All this while maintaining the quality of what is one of the oldest and most essential services a city offers: water. Naturally, given the criticality of water services, utilities are reluctant to change. Surgical precision to insert innovation at minimal risk is needed to solve this trilemma.

 

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Leveraging Smart Infrastructure

Recent developments in technology have transformed many aspects of our daily lives. Less than 20 years ago it would have been difficult to imagine that today we would be holding in our hands a computer thousands of times more advanced than those in the space shuttle to ask a stranger to give us a ride. Or that the same handheld computer would provide suggestions on what to buy grandma for her birthday.

Cities have also taken advantage of these newly available technologies. The Internet of Things has enabled companies to scatter hundreds of bicycles and scooters throughout the city to make it easier for people to move from point A to point B. Intelligent parking solutions guide drivers to the nearest spot. Big data analytics are helping police officials reduce crime and increase citizen safety.

 

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But what about the infrastructure that lies under our feet and carries the precious liquid that makes a city livable? It too has seen a quiet technological revolution. We don’t hear about it often, but the smart water revolution disarms the utility trilemma by infusing with life and intelligence what had been merely an aging network of pipes.

Sensor networks collect information on the quantity and quality of water as well as pipe health. Intelligent systems enabled by machine learning are able to predict how weather, pipe age and material, and even the occasional football game, affects the operation of these water networks. Ultimately optimization algorithms help utilities decide how to operate and economically invest in the infrastructure. Water challenges may be escalating around the globe, but these new digital technologies are offering an unprecedented opportunity to transform water management – and make water more sustainable, safer, and affordable for all.

 

Business as Usual?

Smart infrastructure technologies bring the promise of revolutionizing the way utilities invest and operate their infrastructure. But some things never change, and one of those things is the Herculean effort of bringing clean water and sanitation to each house and business in the city.  There remains, and likely always will be, a dedicated group of professionals that make water their life mission. Smart water technologies must be planned, designed and implemented with these heroes at the center. This is only possible with a Glass Box Approach: a transparent process that enables the utility personnel to codesign these systems with smart water experts. Smart infrastructure is only truly smart if those interacting with it can directly engage it, understand it, and ultimately build upon it. This is accomplished by:

  • Understanding that every utility has a unique set of problems
  • Codesigning with those who will use the smart infrastructure
  • Utilizing open architecture standards that can connect with other systems
  • Leveraging the utility knowledge built over decades of experience

 

Getting Started!

As the smart infrastructure space gets more and more crowded, many utility leaders feel overwhelmed with the prospect of using these technologies. There is always one more thing to get accomplished before bringing in a smart infrastructure project. So, what should be considered when getting started?

Build a business case.

Smart infrastructure is not a panacea: it will cost time and money, but it can also offer exponential benefits. Make sure there is a clear return on the investment and an understanding of how smart infrastructure has worked for other municipalities facing similar issues.

It’s a partnership.

Take the time to explain the challenges your utility faces and similarly take the time to understand how the technology can be used.

Co-design it!

Complex problems require unique solutions that can only be solved in a collaborative environment.

Start somewhere.

Manage your risk by performing a feasibility study or doing a pilot project. Use this opportunity to verify your business case, understand how the technology works, but more importantly, develop trust in the process and people involved.

 

The Reward.

Back in Kansas City, Andy Shively took the courageous move in 2016 of issuing his $1 Billion Challenge to lower the cost of Kansas City’s sewer system upgrades. His bold call to action resulted in creative partnerships and innovation that helped produce one of the most comprehensive, and definitely the largest, smart sewer application in the U.S. – It’s an extensive sensor network that informs a self-learning hydraulic model, which in turn runs thousands of simulations in the cloud, helping the sewer system do things like redirect sewer overflows to avoid flooding and polluting local watersheds. Kansas City’s smart sewer system is constantly finding the most optimal combination of operational decisions and capital infrastructure that is helping solve the City’s problem at a fraction of the original cost. His challenge has paid off!

Discussion

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1 Comment

  1. Is there a meetup of congregation of minds for people interested in creating advancements in infrastructure?

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