Developing a New Sustainable Framework for Critical Infrastructure Systems — Part 1

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By Greg Baird

The term sustainable is used so freely that its true meaning is not always clear. This occurs specifically when applied to sustainable infrastructure. It is important to clearly communicate on sustainable infrastructure issues and approaches in order to achieve meaningful progress towards the sustainability of utility operations. This paper explores a new framework for addressing the integration of complex infrastructure systems and software technologies which should be applied when evaluating sustainable approaches and infrastructure investment decision making.

Critical Infrastructure and Sustainability

The definitions of critical infrastructure and sustainability are different, but take on additional significance when combined. The National Research Council refers to critical infrastructure as the water, wastewater, power, transportation and telecommunications systems — sometimes called “lifeline systems” — without which buildings, emergency response systems, dams and other infrastructure cannot operate as intended, impacting the financial sector, education and public health.

The Department of Homeland Security’s National Infrastructure Protection Plan identifies 18 types of infrastructure (DHS, 2009) and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” identifies 15 types of infrastructure. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) in conjunction with the WateReuse Association focuses on a “Total Water Solutions” framework which includes 12 types of water/wastewater/reuse related infrastructure (Mercer, 2016).

Sustainability is broadly defined to refer to systems that are able to meet the needs of current and future generations by being physically resilient, cost-effective, environmentally viable and socially equitable.

The concept of sustainable infrastructure applies to maintaining, repairing and upgrading the infrastructure that sustains our quality of life. While the focus on sustainable issues will normally apply at the local level on a single component of urban infrastructure, there is a growing need to expand sustainability planning efforts beyond a single infrastructure system.

The U.S. Lacks an Overall Infrastructure Renewal Strategy

Regardless of the number of infrastructure systems, the United States does not have a vision or stated objectives for the future configuration, level of performance or level of services that critical infrastructure systems should provide to its citizens. “Current local, regional and national policies, processes and practices are structured to treat these systems as stand-alone entities even though they are interdependent and the solutions chosen to “fix” one system will affect the others. Lacking an overall strategy for infrastructure renewal and focusing on one system, one issue, or one problem at a time, the nation runs the risk of wasting increasingly scarce resources and of creating new problems for future generations” (NCR, 2009). Like many other forms of public infrastructure in America, water and wastewater suffer from the lack of a coordinated and integrated national strategy (U.S. Mayors, 2010).

Sustainable Water Infrastructure

Each infrastructure sector needs to build its sustainability framework to then integrate with each other. In order to address the water sector’s understanding of sustainable water infrastructure, the AWWA’s Sustainable Infrastructure committee seeks to advance and disseminate knowledge of sustainable practices, procedures, equipment and materials related to the design, engineering, and construction of water utility facilities. The committee also maintains communications with technical and professional associations for the purpose of exchanging knowledge and information as well as looking for collaborative efforts to combine the water focus with other sustainable infrastructure efforts. AWWA’s newest conference, its Water Infrastructure Conference (AWWA, 2016) is focused on water infrastructure planning and reinvestment strategies, critical infrastructure protection through comprehensive emergency preparedness efforts and enhanced security measures. The Water Finance Conference, hosted each year by Water Finance & Management, focuses on innovative funding strategies from a broad spectrum of water and financial experts including investors, banks, engineering firms, water utility financial firms, water lawyers, financial advisors, credit agencies and the top water associations and non-profit organizations.

The Decline of Critical Infrastructure

Large segments and components of all of the nation’s critical infrastructure systems are now 50 to 100 years old, according to AWWA. Their performance and condition are deteriorating, as evidenced by transportation congestion, air and water pollution, and increasing instances of power and other service disruptions (ASCE, 2009; Amin, 2008). The water, wastewater, power, transportation and telecommunications systems also account for 69 percent of the nation’s total energy use and for more than 50 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions linked to global climate change (EIA, 2008).

Renewing and restructuring the nation’s critical infrastructure systems is not the same as the post-World War II boom from which urban sprawl had wide open landscapes of development. Today, in a highly urbanized and complex intermixing of infrastructure, everything is more intense, expensive and with interrelated catastrophic failure potential.

Infrastructure is the key to economic competitiveness, emergency response and recovery, climate change mitigation and quality of life, yet our society blissfully goes about their daily agendas taking historical investments for granted. We see with the Flint, Mich., crisis that water quality issues have been raised into the national consciousness which now drives home how important our source water, water treatment plant processes, distribution system water quality (treated water conveyance) and underground infrastructure renewal and pipe material selections are to protecting the public’s health.

Progress and Solutions for Infrastructure Management

Our national report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers on our infrastructure and numerous other reports and studies all agree that the level of investment has not been adequate, as evidenced by the deteriorating condition of these systems. Utilities need to allocate the resources to develop practical, cost-effective solutions to complex challenges and to meet the needs of future generations in a sustainable format.

Asset-Esri GIS-Centric Technologies

There are several obstacles in aligning and fixing our critical infrastructure systems (political, legal, financial, lack of integrated planning and cooperation), yet many of these historical gaps can now be filled through asset-Esri GIS-centric technologies which combine asset data, location and performance. In fact, the advancement of infrastructure asset management practices across all major infrastructure sectors, combined with the revolution in data-rich analytical GIS spatial computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS), performance and cost expectations can be quantified, compared and communicated to make “larger” integrated decisions.

Brian Haslam, president and CEO at Cityworks-Azteca Systems, Inc., and one of the original founders of the asset-GIS-centric movement in the United States dealing with all sectors of public infrastructure, explains, “Geographic information system (GIS) mapping software has grown from workgroup and departmental deployment to pervasive, organization-wide technology for analysis and decision making. This evolutionary process will only continue to grow and be accelerated by a modern GIS web development framework. Local governments have traditionally used GIS to produce and analyze maps, but now with the increase in GIS knowledge and skills, this important technology investment is being applied to managing public assets. GIS is the perfect platform for local governments to design and create an integrated GIS-centric public asset management system using spatial relationships as a way to manage, coordinate, and analyze all public assets and work activities.”

This type of technology and the GIS-centric model can help jurisdictions use asset management to maximize the value of their infrastructure assets like computers, water and wastewater systems, streets and sidewalks, trees and parks, electric power systems, airports, natural gas distribution, buildings and treatment plants. Life-cycle cost principals which improve performance and extend asset life can also be applied across all critical infrastructure types (water, wastewater, power, transportation and telecommunications systems) for any level of government or type of public/private organization (Cityworks, 2016).

Infrastructure asset management technologies with data analytics, performance reporting and condition monitoring improves financial decision making when taking into consideration all of the interdependencies of the tangible assets. A greater integrated approach of interdependent infrastructure systems creates larger economies of scale for increased cost savings and sustainable environmental decision making.

Haslam continues, “In addition to managing infrastructure assets, governments provide services in conjunction with properties and businesses. As an example, planning and enforcement responsibilities within their jurisdiction include permits, licenses, planning and engineering activities, and code enforcement cases. These land-based, location-specific activities have been very difficult to manage and coordinate with other business processes. Because they have a specific location, cost and life cycle, they essentially act as assets to the organization. Combining infrastructure asset management with land-focused asset management enables an organization to establish an enterprise “public” asset management (E”P”AM) model while tracking KPIs, which creates a process of sustainability for both tangible public assets and services. This type of framework can be used at a regional or state level also.”

Esri GIS-centric public asset management is a system design and IT platform approach for managing public assets that leverages the investment governments continue to make in GIS and provides a common framework for sharing useful data from disparate systems. Advanced asset management software and integrated technologies such as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) can also develop current levels of service which provide a baseline from which infrastructure investments can then be measured to evaluate the effectiveness, reliability and cost of infrastructure in a transparent format to sustain public trust.

A best practice implementation process of a GIS-centric asset management system develops the overall hierarchy of all assets, then focuses on the details of a specific network or system then proceeds to the next system. As an example, municipalities, counties and states each maintain a great amount of diverse assets and services. At the local municipal level, a GIS-centric approach would normally start with all water assets, and then move to sewer, then to storm and on to streets, fleet, signs, facilities and even services. The big data analysis available with a GIS-centric approach can support cost-effective decision making specific for all water infrastructure or across many different infrastructure types depending on common funding sources. While funding sources take the form of various types of rates, charges, fees and local, state and federal taxes, the original source is still the tax-paying citizen.

This type of GIS-centric technology platform and approach if applied to all water-related assets or at an even greater level to all major infrastructure types, helps overcome mismatched priorities in existing institutional arrangements and governance models. A lack of alignment of critical infrastructure organized in a sustainable format degrades cost-effective decision-making processes which further inhibit effective thinking about the interactions among various infrastructure systems and their overall performance in delivering affordable services. These critical infrastructure assets not only have annual operating and maintenance costs but also significant long-term financial and sustainable implications over their 50- to 100-year life span. “Shifting the public dialogue to focus on essential services, the regional nature of infrastructure systems, and their interdependencies will provide opportunities to bring together stakeholders from a range of infrastructure-related organizations to discuss issues that cut across institutional, jurisdictional and political boundaries” (NRC, 2009).

It is imperative to embrace integrated technologies in order to protect and manage our resources in order to optimize investments and identify priorities over a multi-infrastructure framework approach.


Greg Baird

Greg Baird is director of enterprise strategies for Cityworks Azteca Systems LLC and president of the Water Finance Research Foundation. Baird specializes in long-term utility planning, infrastructure asset management and capital funding strategies for municipal utilities in the United States. He has served as a municipal finance officer in California with rate design and implementation experience and as the CFO of Colorado’s third largest utility. He is widely published and presents on utility infrastructure asset management and integrated water finance issues.

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