According to the Rockefeller Foundation, in 19 years, about 75 percent of the built environment will either be new or renovated. There’s no question that the nation’s infrastructure needs to be rebuilt and expanded. The bigger question is how we are going to get there. How exactly do we rebuild and expand the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities — such as transportation, communication, sewage, water, and electric systems — needed for our nation to function properly?
I recently had the pleasure of discussing this topic at the Bloomberg Next summit, a week of briefings and events in Washington, D.C., to inform, inspire, and provide a catalyst for innovation. As a panelist in the discussion, “Smart. Safe. Sustainable. The Future of Infrastructure,” I had the opportunity to provide my perspective as an implementation partner to communities looking to meet emerging needs and define infrastructure priorities in the 21st Century. With 70 years of experience taking projects from concept through construction, Parsons understands that the basic needs of civilization remain the same, but if we want to be able to meet those needs in a world of decreasing resources and increasing innovation, we need to help cities become Smart Cities.
So what does it mean to be smart about infrastructure? Being smart isn’t about knowing what brand of autonomous vehicle or which disruptive tech firm is going to be the leader 10 years from now; it’s about having a strategy in place that allows cities to recognize opportunities and have the people, the partners, and the systems in place to take advantage of them. The strategy of a Smart City is built on three basic tenets:
Be connected — My experience has been that the cities most successful at implementing Smart City solutions are those that develop the tools and capabilities to connect agencies, citizens, and private partners with one another, so everyone can benefit from the information each partner can bring to the table. An excellent example of this is in Southern California, where Parsons has been selected to modernize the Regional Integration of Intelligent Transportation System (www.riits.net). Our work will facilitate and encourage near-real-time transportation data exchanges between more than 125 agencies in the region.
Being connected is also about understanding how to leverage the power of mobile communications to empower people on the ground — the engineers, field crews, and citizens who interact every day with the infrastructure we build and maintain. That’s why Parsons recently consolidated its Industrial and Infrastructure business units. This consolidation allows our civil and structural engineers to take advantage of the mobile applications and innovative solutions that our telecommunications, asset management, and software engineers can provide to empower our people and our customers as they implement and maintain complex infrastructure. Giving people on the ground the tools to communicate issues and ideas empowers the workforce, encourages two-way communication, and allows new ideas to rise up to benefit us all.
Be responsive — In an age of radical, disruptive innovations, it is critical for municipal agencies to be flexible enough to respond to change rather than be locked into any one technical solution. This responsiveness can take many forms. At a tactical level, it can mean taking advantage of an immediate situation to promote long-term stability, such as when New York City Transit had Parsons and other firms consider how to build resiliency measures into the tunnels being brought back online after Superstorm Sandy.
At a strategic level, responsiveness can be encouraged by providing contracting partners with performance-based specifications, allowing them to upgrade technologies and adjust delivery strategies to take advantage of efficiencies brought about by new products and services coming to market. In an era where solar power, electric batteries, and the computational power of systems is getting greater by the day, we see this as the best way to give our customers and their customers the service excellence and cost-effectiveness they expect out of modern infrastructure.
At Parsons, we have taken a cue from agencies such as the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Houston, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority by designating a director of Innovation, Gibran Hadj-Chikh, with whom technology providers and implementation partners can work to develop new solutions for our infrastructure customers. Gibran is actively working with Parsons’ engineers, systems integrators, and cybersecurity experts to develop new strategies for integrating autonomous vehicles, commercial drone applications, and data analytic capabilities into our delivery strategies for civil and structural engineering problems. By recognizing the need for innovation, we are making ourselves and our industry more responsive to the opportunities that lie ahead.
Be secure — While our industry can make excellent use of the internet of things (IoT) to improve our ability to monitor and maintain infrastructure, we have to be cognizant of how such technologies may open up our customers and their customers to threats from around the globe. As we become more receptive to autonomous vehicles, electronic payment systems, and automated control systems, we leave ourselves vulnerable to new threats with a very real potential for loss of life and financial damages.
That’s why it’s important for us to consider the risks of every infrastructure project from its earliest inception through its complete life cycle. Risk management is integral to all the work we do, but Parsons is now taking its approach to the next level by integrating our cybersecurity capabilities into our Smart City solutions.
Through our work with customers such as Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Denver Rapid Transportation District, and Chicago Metra, we understand the operational considerations that must be taken into account when developing a cybersecurity strategy for public infrastructure. Because we understand the systems, users, and services with which our work interfaces, we can develop realistic threat analyses that provide security to our customers and their customers.
The thing I most enjoy about my work is that I’ve seen firsthand how the people I work with have taken these tenets to heart and developed Smart City solutions that make a practical difference in how our customers serve their constituents:
- Parsons deployed Los Angeles’ Automated Transportation Management System, which monitors and controls 12,000 roadway sensors, 1,020 ramp meters, 525 closed-circuit television cameras, and 120 dynamic message signs.
- We assisted with the Los Angeles Express Park System and the smart parking guidance software.
- Parsons’ work in Positive Train Control is improving the safety of operations for 1,500 route miles of passenger rail service, including Metra, Southern California’s Metrolink, and Caltrain.
- Parsons served as the systems integrator for the I-80 SMART Corridor project, one of the most sophisticated Intelligent Transportation Systems in California. The project consisted of implementing a network of integrated electronic signs, ramp meters, and other state-of-the-art elements in Northern California, between the Carquinez Bridge and the Bay Bridge, to enhance motorist safety, improve travel time reliability, and reduce accidents and associated congestion.
- Parsons was recently awarded a five-year contract to provide a Maintenance Decision Support System (MDSS) and automatic vehicle location system and services on 650 snowplows throughout Nebraska using MDSS informatics technology developed by Iteris.
Our industry has always served as a steward to people as well as to the cities we work in, and we should embrace the opportunities being made possible in this time of disruptive innovation. By connecting our customers to one another and the people they serve, advocating for more responsive delivery strategies, and making security central to everything we do, we will usher in a new generation of Smart Cities, both at home and abroad.
Headquarters: Pasadena, Calif.
Size: Nearly 14,000 employees working from more than 100 locations worldwide
Ownership: 100 percent owned by the Employee Stock Ownership Trust
Primary services: Asset management; commissioning, qualifications, validation; condition assessments; construction; cybersecurity; design; disaster response; information technology; intelligence/security; operations and services; planning; program/construction management
Michael W. Johnson serves as president of Parsons Corporation’s Infrastructure business unit, providing full-service engineering, management, and technical services in the North American transportation, infrastructure, oil and gas, water, and wastewater markets. He has more than 25 years of experience with Parsons and has held a succession of positions with increasing responsibilities in each of the corporation’s market lines.