The 1990s was the era of reengineering the corporation. Technology helped leaders overhaul their operations–everything from sales to supply chains. Now the phenomenon has spread to cities. Across the globe, municipal leaders ares rethinking and redesigning how they do things.
One of their biggest headaches is infrastructure–their roads, bridges, sidewalks, water lines and sewer pipes. They used to fix things when they broke. These days, increasingly, the forward-thinkers among them aim to fix things before they have a chance to break. And they’re using technology to help them optimize the way they invest in infrastructure maintenance and renewal.
Cambridge, a small city in Ontario, Canada, is in the vanguard of getting this right. It has been working with IBM Research to develop a system for prioritizing the city’s investments in fixing or replacing physical infrastructure so they meet the public’s needs while making the most of their limited budget. “We look at how we can use technology and revised business practices to make the city work better,” says Mike Hausser, Cambridge’s director of asset management and support services.
Canadians got their wake up call about crumbling infrastructure a few years ago when a series of mishaps and mistakes led to the contamination of the water supply in tiny Walkerton, Ontario, by E. coli bacteria. Half of the city’s population of 5,000 became ill and seven people died. That incident and others led to development of Federal and Provincial regulations regarding asset management. Campbridge, in anticipation of those regulations, pro-actively created an Asset Management Division to comply with regulations and to better understand and manage its infrastructure debt and deficit. A few years later, after IBM announced its Smarter Planet agenda, the two organizations began working together on a capital investment management system that’s being tested in the city today.
The system, called PALM (for Planning Analytics for Asset Lifecycle Management), is integrated with Cambridge’s pre-existing asset management and logistics systems. Working together, the systems help managers answer a series of key questions: What do I need to do? How should I do it? What funding will support it? And how should I optimize my activities so I get the maximum return on investment?
The IBM Research team that designed PALM had just completed a major technology project in a similar vein for the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Dept. They conducted a series of meetings with Cambridge leaders in mid-2011 and then agreed to collaborate on a so-called First of a Kind (FOAK) project. “I’m a math guy sitting with a guy who has 30 years of experience in fixing roads and water pipes. He knows a whole lot more about that stuff than I do,” recalls Tarun Kumar, the researcher who heads the IBM team. “We didn’t have a lot in common on the surface, but we came up with something that’s unique–a common innovation agenda.”
The infrastructure investment project was high on Cambridge’s priority list. That’s because it’s facing a ticking infrastructure time bomb in the coming decades. The city of 135,000 went through growth spurts in the 1950s, the 1970s and the 1980s. In each case, new roads and water and sewer pipes were installed. Since then, the city has invested in basic maintenance, but it hasn’t yet taken on the more challenging task of replacing large chunks of infrastructure (road, water, and sewers) before they fail. And some of them are beginning to fail now.
For example, in the 1960s the city installed thin-wall cast iron water main pipes made from new metal alloys that were designed to save money and materials. Unfortunately, about half of the pipes are starting to break down–decades ahead of their original life expectancy.
When a city starts contemplating digging up a lot of water mains, it has to take into consideration the other stuff that’s nearby–including roads, sidewalk and sewer lines. This is where the analytics comes in. The IBMers gathered millions of discreet pieces of information about the city’s 250,000 critical transportation and public works assets drawn from the records of multiple city departments. That’s a lot of data to manage, but, adding to the complexity of the challenge, some vital information is missing. The city has only 10 years of asset management information, and, in many cases, it doesn’t know the condition of the pipes buried deep underground in specific locations.
The IBM Research team developed technology that is now enabling Cambridge’s leaders to make strategic and operational decisions. The researchers developed algorithms to predict which assets will fail and when. Those predictions feed into a needs-assessment engine that helps city planners to identify the options they should consider. Should a water pipe be relined or replaced? Should a road be repaved with a thin overlay or should it be reground and resurfaced? Each option comes with a cost-benefit analysis. In addition, the technology allows planners to consider other factors, including the effect that one repair would have on other nearby infrastructure. That way, the city managers hope to avoid situations like having to dig up a road to replace water pipes just a new months after the road has been repaved. Better to wait to repave after the digging is done.
The prescription options are then fed to an investment planning tool that helps planners choose the best funding sources for each project. The analysis tool considers factors such as criticality, risk and funding constraints. When planners put forth their investment proposals to elected officials, they can back them up with solid facts and rationales.
This kind of technology has potential not only in cities but in any industry that buys a lot of equipment and maintains a large physical infrastructure. Think oil and gas exploration and distribution companies, and electric utilities. They all need to better manage the stuff they own. “Companies need to listen to their assets so they can figure out what they need to do,” says Kumar.
Listen to your assets. That has a nice ring to it. In the era of big data, you can bet we’ll be doing a lot of listening.