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A New Way of Thinking about Infrastructure

Symposium Panelists Talk Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure

Leila Darwiche | March 27, 2023
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When we think about infrastructure, often roads, bridges, dams and similar physical examples come to mind. But infrastructure can mean more than that and can be a part of our strategies to curb the effects of climate change and help stay below 1.5 degrees of warming.

Panelists during the “Envisioning Resilient and Sustainable Infrastructure” session at the Institute for Sustainability and Energy (ISEN) Annual Symposium approached infrastructure from many angles, discussing equity, policy, nature-based infrastructure, new innovations and business practices. The panel was moderated by Alessandro Rotta Loria, an Assistant Professor in Northwestern’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“When we look at the sustainability and resiliency of infrastructure...and future proofing for future usage, flexibility comes to mind,” said panelist Stacy Mahler (KSM ‘14), Head of Sustainability, Smart Infrastructure at Siemens. “And really the biggest enabler and accelerator of that is going to be digitalization.”

Mahler discussed the increasing collection and use of data as a way to inform infrastructure decisions and to quickly adapt when big changes occur. For example, data allowed many buildings to quickly shift office space energy utilization during the pandemic to accommodate decreased occupancy and has allowed for efficient resource management in the shift to hybrid work. The increasing prevalence of digitalization has also expanded jobs within infrastructure, with more opportunities in for computer science, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering backgrounds to support infrastructure advancement.

However, the flexibility panelists touched on went beyond the digitalization of infrastructure. Flexibility also meant transitioning from a time where infrastructure had a specific role to serve and goal to meet to a time where infrastructure can serve multiple functions and meet multiple goals. Infrastructure can serve both in a physical way, and also as a provider of energy or within a carbon removal capacity. The development of new technologies also contributes to this increased flexibility with materials that enable self-healing and adapting to surroundings.

“When we realize all of this, we can see how infrastructure systems can fundamentally contribute to sustainability goals and sustainability challenges with respect to resilience,” said Rotta Loria.

The other solutions discussed were less focused on new material and digital technologies but rather on restoring what already exists in nature. Panelist Tracy Farrell, a director at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, explained that nature-based infrastructure can be thought of as anything from soil to water, but focuses on the conservation and restoration of nature. That can mean restoring wetlands that help with water filtration or water storage, or planting mangroves that help curb the effects of flooding and erosion of coastal ecosystems.

In order for any of these solutions to be successful in implementation, panelists emphasized the need for political and business buy-in to the projects. “We need better understanding and better tools to deal with elected officials, decision makers and public workers that need to be behind these systems and that have buy-in and stick with them,” said panelist Amanda Stathopoulos, William Patterson Junior Professor in Northwestern’s Department. of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “That part is often quite overlooked in our studies.”

The two pillars of ISEN’s 2021-25 Strategic Plan are Climate and Energy Transition and Resilient Communities. They shaped the Symposium’s two days of panel presentations that brought together industry professionals and leaders, students, community members, and faculty from across more than twenty disciplines. The “Envisioning Resilient and Sustainable Infrastructure” panel was part of the Symposium’s Resilient Communities Track.