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Participants in Ottawa and Vancouver (on screen) talk to those seated at the Toronto location. Credits: Kerry Freek

Virtual Reality

The technology of the future actually exists today—but how will industry use it? A diverse group joined us from Cisco offices across Canada to discuss what “smart and connected” really means.

Posted on February 23, 2011

In the near future, mountains of data will flow. While communicating and sharing this information isn’t difficult (witness the popularity of applications such as Facebook and foursquare), it’s the management of this information that poses a challenge. The participants in ReNew Canada and Cisco’s exclusive roundtable on connected communities, speaking to each other via Cisco TelePresence technology, agreed that managing this data is one of the key issues facing future cities.

Robyn Bews manages the WORKshift program at Calgary Economic Development. The program’s objective is to work with the business community to demonstrate the value of embracing virtualization and influence cultural change. During the panel, Bews used Linux—an operating system that can be installed on a wide variety of hardware, ranging from mobile phones to supercomputers—as an example of the kind of free and open-source software collaboration that’s become commonplace. Its underlying source code can be used, freely modified, and redistributed, both commercially and non-commercially, by anyone under certain licenses.

“ We’re blatantly wasteful with energy, so let’s address that first.” —Ted Maulucci

“Smart people, on their own time, are creating systems that can be used freely by everybody,” said Bews. “How are we going to embrace those technologies?”

There’s no limit to the potential applications of not just new technologies, but new ways of thinking for the infrastructure industry. For one thing, already available GPS and smartphone tech can be used to create efficiencies from planning to the jobsite—something that Michael Snow with Golder Associates believes is currently is lacking.

“A lot of infrastructure is being developed and planned in a very disconnected fashion,” he said.

These technologies can also be used to help solve problems like congestion—data can’t build a new highway, but it can take cars off the existing ones.

Cisco’s Paul McDevitt, who was listening in at the company’s Toronto office, works from a home office a few days a week and, if needed, connects with his colleagues via TelePresence. He said some regions are working doggedly to provide more transit or highway lanes, or creating HOV lanes to reduce traffic, when maybe the focus should be helping people work from home when possible.

As Penny Burns said in her keynote address at January’s National Infrastructure Summit in Regina, “Innovation isn’t always something new; it can be looking at something old in a new way.”

Snow said there are some good examples of successful integrated planning across Canada, but no consistent change in our approach. He said the change will come, in part, from changes to governance structures, but industry also has a role. “As civil engineers we have a lot of responsibility and, to a certain extent, shortcomings in our education. How do we build something with very little consideration of how it impacts other systems and infrastructure?”

“ Smart people, on their own time, are creating systems that can be used freely by everybody. How are we going to embrace those technologies?” —Robyn M. Bews

Partly, that happens because of a basic lack of communication.

Michael Driedger with Busby Perkin+Will said, “Engineers are still learning how to design massive pipes rather than learning how to mimic how nature moves water. What’s needed is a redesign of our schools and how people interact.”

Nancy Sherman, dean of George Brown College’s Centre for Construction and Engineering Technologies, disagreed. She provided some on-the-ground feedback about how schools are starting to train young professionals to look at things through a different lens. “In general, colleges in Ontario and other provinces are very recently becoming involved in applied commercial research in partnership with industry.” Colleges teach a range of disciplines, and from trades to construction management, at a project level, students are working together in teams, she explained.

“This emphasis on applied research is a game changer,” she said. “It allows us to graduate students with innovation literacy.”

Beyond the classroom, it’s a struggle to create that level of integration. Marc McArthur is with Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, which recently brought several public and private sector organisations together at the first annual Canadian Cleantech Summit in April 2010. “It’s a painful process but it’s necessary. You can’t move one piece ahead of the other,” he said.

“It’s that cultural piece that we need to address,” said Bews, who would like to see municipalities and organizations start embracing technologies that help reduce unnecessary commutes. “In many cases, the technology exists and people know how to use it, but there’s a push against accepting it. We’re still having difficult conversations with business leaders who would rather have their staff to spend two hours in traffic and then chit chat around the water cooler.” Delta Controls’ Bill MacGowan agreed. “The Tim Hortons drive-thru is driving our culture.”

Bews quoted a Maclean’s story that claimed Canadians are married to their steering wheels. “I don’t think that’s true,” she said. “I think we’re married to our paycheques. If our employers insist we’re going to make the drive, we’re going to make the drive. I have developers call me and say, ‘We’re looking at smart developments; we want to create a new community further out with a work/live arrangement.’ I tell them, based on my conversations with employers, I don’t think if you build it they will come—yet. Until some sort of [financial incentive] forces change, those developments won’t be economically viable.”

“ The market out there is clearly engaged and wants to have the input—that’s key to new technologies being accepted into the market.” —David Bromley

Show me the money

Tridel’s Ted Maulucci said, “Money—through sound business cases—will drive [adoption of new technologies] and people will start following.”

In the meantime, he said, building owners can start by focusing on changes that cost almost nothing, yet have a huge financial impact. Building owners can see a significant return on investment just by, for example, installing a $25 sensor in a parking garage. “We’re blatantly wasteful with energy, so let’s address that first,” said Maulucci.

Francisca Quinn of Loop Initiatives said she already sees change around management in some organizations. Many are starting to embrace performance indicators or metrics beyond financial ones. She works on corporate social responsibility strategies with companies like Delta Hotels, Halsall, and Ontario’s LCBO. “Culture will change when you start to focus beyond financials.”

Driedger said some of that “beyond financial” thinking has already started. “We see a lot of stats regarding homeowners’ willingness to pay more for a new home. Of course, it varies by market, but in almost all markets there is some willingness to pay more for green features.”

That may be the case for residential and commercial buildings, but it’s difficult to transfer that willingness to increased spending to major infrastructure projects. Incorporating smart tech would be a massive cost to cities already facing infrastructure gaps. “How are governments going to pay to replace all these old legacy systems?” asked one participant, who stressed the enormity of the task of updating legacy systems that are in place.

With infrastructure coming to the end of its useful service life—the City of Calgary alone owns $61-billion in infrastructure assets, much of which was built in the 1960s—there is a need to rebuild now with an eye toward the not so distant future. When the time comes, Wyton asked, “How do we adapt that infrastructure to new world thinking?”

Flexibility

Adapting all existing infrastructure may be an impossible challenge, but planners can certainly build new structures with new technologies in mind—even if they can’t afford to incorporate them into the initial construction. If, for example, the goal is to run fibre-optic networks along a highway, that new highway should be built to include the fittings to later accommodate that infrastructure. The same can be said for new buildings—they can be built to accommodate new technologies that are perhaps too expensive or difficult to install today.

Cisco’s Rick Huijbregts pointed to Boston’s mega-project, the Big Dig (see link below), as a missed opportunity to implement this forward-thinking flexibility. “Twenty-billion dollars later, it’s obsolete again because [project managers] couldn’t anticipate the increase in traffic behaviour,” said Huijbregts. “With everything that we do, we need to be resilient, flexible, and future-ready. Technology can provide such transformation platform.”

Snow said industry should adapt some of the flexibility built into new technologies—like those constantly upgraded smartphones—into decisions we’re currently making. Infrastructure built today needs to have the capacity to incorporate new technologies down the road.

Huijbregts said Cisco is, in fact, looking to partner with companies like Tridel, EllisDon, and other firms in the construction and real estate industry to bring smart technology together with their worlds and together figure out how to accommodate some of these changes. “A platform of innovation and partnering is needed,” he said.

Wikinomics

That platform is, essentially, the internet.

“The internet can facilitate a lot of brains working together on problems toward innovation,” said Sherman.

David Bromley with Rampart Avenir Communities agreed that access to data, and the ability for people to provide input and collaborate, is a big part of what “smart and connected” means. He said, “The market out there is clearly engaged and wants to have the input—that’s key to new technologies being accepted into the market.”

“As a company, Cisco lives by that,” said Huijbregts. “We thrive on collaboration, innovation, and employee and stakeholder engagement. For instance, we use crowd sourcing to tap into the collective intellect of our entire company to come up with the ideas that help us expand our markets and grow our company. The last few products we came out with in the utilities space came out of that building off of each others’ ideas.”

“ We seem to be getting very specific about what these terms mean and I’d like to consider expanding ‘connected’ to include what is this infrastructure connected to in terms of environmental or social structures.”—Marc McArthur

That’s not a process inherent in construction, real estate, or infrastructure industry. But our participants agreed the industry had better adapt. “Collaboration is huge,” said Maulucci. “It’s no longer me; it’s us.”

Delta Controls, for example, is embracing open standards. Adopting open standards allows a company to spend more time developing solutions and less time protecting proprietary protocols. In the past, companies worked in silos and proprietary communication standards were seen as a way of keep competitors out. By collaborating and agreeing, companies will create far better solutions that will deliver more value to the end consumers.

The key to all of this connection is broadband service. Like any utility, broadband is currently billed back to the customer. But, Huijbregts said, “We’re trying to monetize it the wrong way. The industry is looking at fibre and connectivity as a goal—but it is the services that we deliver over it that provides us with new business models that create revenue opportunities for everyone that is involved. The bandwidth is the means to that end, and consequently is the next building utility that makes all of this happen.”

Quinn said broadband should be available everywhere, and it should be an essential service. She also took a small dig at Toronto’s subway system, saying she couldn’t get internet access while she was riding underground. “Let’s go,” she said. “Let’s get everyone connected everywhere for free.”

“That’s where this technology is going anyways,” said Bews.

In first year of the Obama administration, the U.S. president’s office passed an open data policy as part of its Government 2.0 strategy. Data sets were made available for public use.

“We need to get more data sets out there,” said one participant, who thinks Canada should follow that lead—and we are. Canada has a Digital Economy strategy under development. The federal government has begun a consultation process. The ideas discussed include open access to Canada’s public sector information and data, and improved access to publicly funded data. The quality of data that will eventually be available can be used to create much more accurate models when designing and planning infrastructure.

The quality of data that will eventually be available can be used to create much more accurate models when designing and planning infrastructure. “We will have a lot more real data and much less assumed data,” said one participant.

If information ranging from the arrival times of buses, or how many cars were on a certain expressway is publicly available—for free—that creates an opportunity for innovative and entrepreneurial citizens to use it to come up with the next big solution. Some may also design fun iPhone apps, but that’s just a by-product of the new digital economy.

The real shift in thinking will come when people start to consider some of these new technologies as worthwhile investments—to be considered as a potential solution to a city’s transportation or energy issues, much like hard infrastructure.

“As an asset manager, I’ve noticed that we try to resort to physical answers to the question, without asking what is the underlying problem we’re trying to solve,” said Wyton. At Calgary’s capital budget deliberations a few years ago, there was a request for social housing investment. Wyton noted that one of the councillors asked questions that have influenced him since: “Why are we building infrastructure? Are we building a solution because we’ve done so in the past? Do we need to design and build this?”

Wyton said that while continued investment is definitely required for social housing, it’s only part of the overall solution. Municipalities must also invest in social programs or social infrastructure to mitigate the burden on that physical infrastructure. “In the past, our [Canadian] engineers have looked at infrastructure as the end. They’re really realizing now that it’s only the means to the end.”

As Huijbregts observed, “We can put an extra lane on every road, but people will have same problem. We need to change behaviour instead. And for that we need engagement.”

One Response to “Virtual Reality”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by nineearthten, virtuzone. virtuzone said: ReNew Canada | Virtual Reality: Virtual Reality. The technology of the future actually exists today—but how will… http://bit.ly/guQs3Y [...]

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