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Smart Urban Infrastructure and Cities of the Future

Our cities, bridges and roads are crumbling. Congress and the Federal Highway Trust fund, a mainstay of funding for America’s roads and mass transit since 1956, has engaged in a tight balancing act of moving money from among federal accounts in order to keep the trust solvent and meet the demands of urban communities in need of money for repairs, expansion of transportation options and relief for natural disasters. The fund, which reports a closing balance of just more than $1.7 billion as of December 2015, may not have enough money to meet its obligations going forward past June 2016 without another stopgap funding measure.

A shift is occurring in scale of global urbanization. Cities around the world, according to future trends information provided by Oxford Economics account for 57% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014. By the year 2030 this amount will grow just over three-fifths (61%) of the world’s GDP. More demands on our roads, power grids, water ways and other infrastructure elements will require us to look to those technologies and methodologies being developed to meet and sustain this growth.

The Need for Smart Urbanization

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that although the U.S. spends more than other countries on its road infrastructure in terms of financial outlays, spending is only around 0.5% of its GDP. This percentage of GDP is lower than eight other countries including Russia, Japan and France. The OECD further cautions that an additional 2.7 billion urban dwellers by the year 2050, 90% of which will live in emerging or developing countries, will require greater attention to urban transport policies.

The rapid urbanization of our cities, both here in the United States and throughout the world, must bring into focus tools that not only accommodate this growth but accounts for the health risks associated with urban living in order to minimize their impact of the livelihood of future populations.

Technologies and Methodologies Used to Address Infrastructure Needs

The future of infrastructure may be as reliant on WiFi bridges as it is on physical bridges. The old model of investing billions in replacing older bridges and tunnels may not be the solution for the next generation. A shrinking in revenues from fuel excise taxes used to fund the Highway Trust Fund may be a signal to shift focus to funding an expansion of the information superhighway (e.g., high-bandwidth speed and Wi-Fi) instead of road projects. According to Kenneth Gronbach of The Age Curve, half of Millennials whose buying power and economic influence has surpassed the Baby Boomer and Gen X populations, do not have a driver’s license.

One effort is aimed at developing vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) autonomous driving in order to lower traffic congestion and fuel loss as well as carbon emissions. The U.S. Department of Transportation is taking an interest in V2V technology as a way to reduce 4.2 billion hours lost in traffic jams as well as 2.8 billion gallons of fuel impacting the environment. The cloud, resiliency planning in order to create sustainable infrastructures and 3D/4D printing for complex physical assets are also some of the ways being employed to responsibly meet the needs of the changing urban landscape.