From: 7Pillars Partners (partnersat_private)
Date: Mon Feb 16 1998 - 10:43:18 PST

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    Somehow, I suspect they don't get the point. --MW
    >From WiRED:
    NSF Sets Up Smart-Infrastructure Shop
     by Gene Koprowski 
     4:00am 16.Feb.98.PST
     What if roads were wired so they could email the
     state transportation department whenever a
     sinkhole started to emerge? And what if a water
     main, with an embedded operating system, could
     send a warning to a utility's computer before it was
     about to burst? 
     Such is the futuristic vision behind a new project
     just under way at the National Science Foundation
     (NSF) - one of the institutions that created the
     digital infrastructure that became the Net - in
     partnership with a group of top-flight universities. 
     Called the Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems
     (ICIS), and funded with a five-year, $5 million grant
     from the NSF, the organization aims to create a
     national network of interrelated, smart
     transportation, water supply, electric power, and
     communications systems. 
     "Civil infrastructure represents all the systems that
     are built, systems that engineers have designed
     and the construction industry have put in place
     which deliver service, and information," says
     Priscilla P. Nelson, acting senior engineering
     coordinator in the engineering directorate at the
     The technological think tank will link engineers
     and social scientists, to discuss the development
     of better infrastructure systems for the 21st
     century. The institute will be located at New York
     University. Other schools, like Cornell University,
     Polytechnic University of New York, and the
     University of Southern California, are partners in
     the project. 
     "We tend to forget about [infrastructure systems]
     until there is a water-main break, or an ice storm
     that topples over power lines," said Nelson. "But
     civil engineering has a period of evolution for itself.
     What we've created is a civil infrastructure which
     was a dumb infrastructure." 
     Nelson notes that a new infrastructure needs to be
     designed that can communicate with those who
     operate the system, and interface with other forms
     of infrastructure. In some developing countries, for
     example, the idea is emerging that infrastructure
     does not have to be designed to last forever, but
     for 20 years or so. Then, if the usage changes, the
     infrastructure can easily be modified. 
     "We're trying to bring time into the design
     approach that engineers will have in the future,"
     said Nelson. "And we can build smarter systems
     that can gauge their own performance. And that
     can be instrumented to anticipate failures, and in
     many instances can self-repair." 
     In the long term, these wired roadways and
     waterways would be like the self-healing
     Synchronous Optical Networks (SONET) rings and
     network infrastructure seen on many
     telecommunications networks. They may also be
     similar to the machine tools in many factories that
     warn manufacturing managers when the tools are
     breaking down. 
     "Building smarter systems and learning how they
     perform while they are in use, is a more risky, but
     very intelligent way of making the investment in
     infrastructure," said Nelson. "We can find out how
     much performance deteriorates over time, and find
     out how to deal with it." 
     The pattern of investing in infrastructure - pouring
     concrete, putting pipes in the ground and then
     forgetting about it all until a problem arises - has
     to change, said Richard Schuler, professor of
     economics at Cornell University, and one of the
     participants in the project. Schuler anticipates the
     eventual creation of an interlinked infrastructure,
     connected digitally around the nation. 
     "One of the remarkable things about infrastructure
     in the US is that it is fragmented. Different people
     at different levels of government or businesses
     provide infrastructure. There is an incredible
     institutional hodgepodge," said Schuler. "It
     wouldn't be bad if there weren't all these people
     digging holes and laying cables with the potential
     to disrupt other people's projects. There needs to
     be coordination, and an early warning system." 
     What will come in the near term from this
     technological think tank? 
     The project is just starting, but organizers expect
     to issue statements about digital infrastructure
     policy and priorities in the coming year, and work
     with the government and private companies to
     push the agenda. When the Clinton administration
     first came to power in early 1993, some of the
     policy aides that followed him to Washington, DC,
     wore T-shirts that boasted "Infrastructure is Sexy."
      Maybe not sexy, just yet, but at least smart. 

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