One of the big emerging trends over the next few decades will be the marriage of information technology and infrastructure. We’re going to start seeing a lot more “smart” everything — smart grids, smart roads, smart factories, smart trains, smart cities, etc. The increasing use of sensors, lightweight communications networks, and sophisticated computer models to anticipate and react to changing circumstances should enable far greater resource efficiency than we can achieve today.
* A demonstration smart grid project in Washington state showed that peak electricity loads could be trimmed by 15%, equivalent on a national scale to eliminating 30 coal-fired power plants.
* Smarter shipping algorithms allowed a Chinese firm to consolidate 100 distribution centers to 40, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 15%.
* By calibrating water flows and temperatures, a microchip manufacturing plant cut water use by 20 million gallons per year, even as production increased by 30%.
* The city of Stockholm cut greenhouse gas emissions by 12% and traffic by 20% by instituting a congestion pricing scheme. The city’s public transportation system has added 40,000 daily riders.
* New trains — “computers on rails” — allow engineers to obtain higher speeds on existing rail networks. Every mile per hour increase translates into $100 million in savings.
This vision of a wired world isn’t exactly new. Nerds have been dreaming of the day that the internet would slip it’s personal computing bonds for a few decades now. As costs come down and standards develop, technical hurdles start to drop away. What’s needed now is a compelling business driver. Climate change, population growth, and resource scarcity ensure a bright future for these technologies.