Tien Offers a Prescription for Maximizing Investments in Nation’s Infrastructure

Thursday, 06 October 2022

The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act made headlines in late 2021 for its price tag of $1.2 trillion — by some measures, the largest infrastructure package ever enacted in United States history. The act is a massive investment in the nation’s physical infrastructure systems. Georgia Tech civil engineer Iris Tien says it’s also a long-term investment in communities.

To be successful, the nation should focus on “meaningful investments in infrastructure that will result in resilient, sustainable, and equitable systems in support of communities,” said Tien, who studies infrastructure networks, including building, water, power, gas, communications, and transportation systems in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Writing recently in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Journal of Infrastructure Systems, Tien identified areas in current infrastructure systems that inhibit progress and offered recommendations for more of those meaningful investments.

Here are her key suggestions:


Iris Tien

Use a forward-looking approach to investments

According to Tien, weak infrastructure plans make reactive investments that fix issues after they occur, like spending resources rebuilding areas regularly affected by floods or storms. That results in significant investment, but little progress.

“We can barely maintain what exists, and many areas require continued investment of resources without improvements in service,” said Tien, Williams Family Associate Professor.

Instead, Tien argued investments need to be made in anticipation of community needs, focusing on both efficiency and longevity of results. In the short term, that might look like moving resources out of flood zones or clearing flammable brush from wildfire-prone zones. For the long-term, Tien suggested investing in green infrastructure to mitigate the effects of climate change, for example.

Current infrastructure evaluation systems, according to Tien, devalue environmental and community impacts, and planning based on the fiscal year inherently diminishes incentives to plan for long-term investments and instead focuses policy on quick, short-term cost-benefit results. Tien suggested reframing infrastructure planning to account for long-term capital needs and the impacts of potential future system disruptions when considering initial investment costs.

For example, building battery backup systems may be costly upfront. In the event of a power outage, however, communities will quickly realize the benefit when system-wide effects are minimized as backups take on the load and expensive repairs are avoided.


Include cybersecurity risks in planning physical infrastructure systems

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $1.9 billion in cybersecurity funding, which Tien said is a critical element of infrastructure engineering that is often not prioritized.

Telecommunications, computer systems, and other technology have become increasingly important in infrastructure systems, playing key roles in operating power grids and detecting chemicals in water treatment plants, for example.

“The lack of mitigation strategies for cybersecurity threats leaves critical infrastructure increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks,” Tien said. “We need to expand the risk profile for critical infrastructure beyond traditional physical risks, such as breakage, leakage, and outage scenarios, and include cybersecurity risks and the potential for targeted attacks.”

The expansion of 5G networks will create new capabilities for smart infrastructure systems, she said. But those wireless communications also introduce new risks — which only will multiply as smart infrastructure continues to develop.

“We have the opportunity to address these risks now,” she wrote in her article, “before full systems are deployed and before the anticipated disruptions occur.”


Treat infrastructure as interdependent networks

Historically, infrastructure systems have been largely independent, Tien said.

“Water system managers oversee water treatment plants and water distribution systems. Power utilities manage and operate power grids,” she wrote. “Such an approach is no longer sufficient when it comes to describing the complex infrastructure ecosystem that now exists. Instead, infrastructure must be treated as interdependent networks in which multiple systems depend on each other to function.”

The solution to more resilient infrastructure, she said, is to encourage cross-sector collaboration, investing in infrastructure not in isolation but as an interdependent whole. She suggested creating joint evaluation boards that involve all parties with a stake in a community’s infrastructure in the planning process.

Tien pointed to a 2019 project with the city of Atlanta’s power and water networks that highlighted the interdependency of those physical systems not only with each other but with organizations and people as well. The study required working across traditional silos and rigorous information sharing across organizations involved in the networks, she said. Tien found that shift — from isolated operation to considering the interdependencies — produced more efficient systems for “repair, replacement, or reinforcement decisions.”

Tien said the nation’s infrastructure challenges are complex, but historic levels of federal funding present an opportunity to reimagine how the nation meets those challenges.

“Now is the time to act,” she said. “These recommendations will work together to increase the resilience, sustainability, and equity of our communities for the future.”