Support for InfrastructureUSA.org
has been provided by these organizations and individuals:

John Hennessy III,
P.E.

A Policymaker’s Guide to Digital Infrastructure

Posted by Content Coordinator on Friday, May 20th, 2016

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATION FOUNDATION (ITIF)

By Robert D. Atkinson, Daniel Castro, Stephen Ezell, Alan McQuinn, and Joshua New

Infrastructure has always been important to nations’ economic growth and success, but the infrastructure needed for today’s economy is rapidly changing with advances in information and communications technology (ICT). This new infrastructure—some of it hybrid infrastructure that integrates both physical and digital aspects, some of it pure digital infrastructure—is critical to delivering the next wave of innovation and economic growth to all but the very poorest of nations.

Some have argued that there is little innovation in infrastructure because—just like 50 or even 100 years ago—cars still drive on roads; planes fly in the air; and trains run on tracks. And while there may be innovations in physical infrastructures (e.g., self-healing concrete), many of today’s opportunities for improvement depend on embedding digital technologies in physical infrastructures

Successfully building out digital infrastructure (hybrid and purely digital) across all types of infrastructure will unlock new economic opportunities, job creation, and better quality of life. Nations stand to benefit from digital infrastructure in the following areas:

  • Capacity expansion: increased use of both existing and new infrastructures;
  • Time savings and convenience: reduce congestion, simplify operations, and enable more informed decisionmaking;
  • Cost savings: minimize waste, boost efficiency, and create more flexibility in the provision of key services;
  • Improved reliability: reduce unpredictability and interruptions in the provision of key services; and
  • Enhanced safety: improve resiliency to threats and interruptions.

However, there are numerous barriers to realizing the economic and societal benefits of digital infrastructure. These include costly and outdated regulatory policies, a lack of public funding for investment, a scarce talent pool of individuals trained in ICT skills, and largely ill-founded fears about the privacy and security of data.

Given these barriers, governments and the private sector should work together to develop comprehensive national strategies to facilitate more rapid development and deployment of digital infrastructures. In part this will also mean increasing public investment in digital infrastructure and reforming regulatory policies to create a friendlier environment for digital infrastructure. Finally, policymakers will need to prevent overwrought privacy concerns from slowing progress. These technologies can be deployed in ways that protect users’ privacy, despite the often shrill warnings of privacy advocates to the contrary.

What is Digital Infrastructure?

Infrastructure can refer to a wide array of physical assets. One definition is “essential facilities, services, and organizational structures for cities and communities,” and this includes not only roads and rails, but also fire stations, prisons, dams, roads, etc.1 But this definition, while inclusive, is too broad not just for the purposes of this report but also for well-considered policy deliberations. For the purpose of this report, infrastructure refers to systems that societies use to transport goods, people, or information. This includes roads, pipes, wires, canals, and other parts of the built environment that facilitate transport. It does not include nodes, such as airports, oil terminals, and electric generating stations. Nor is cloud computing an infrastructure, as it refers to a broader system of nodes (server farms, software and communication protocols governing the movement and storage of bits, and the actual underlying communications layer, usually fiber optic cable). Infrastructure also does not encompass the items being transported, such as cars, trains, drones, and airplanes.

Digital refers to information technology systems that electronically collect, process, and transmit information. Therefore, digital infrastructures are those where at least a portion contains information technology. As such, there are two kinds of digital infrastructures, hybrid and dedicated. Hybrid infrastructures are traditional physical infrastructures that include added digital components. For example, traditional water mains would be infrastructure. But if the water mains are embedded with sensors to detect and transmit information on leaks, they become hybrid infrastructure. Dedicated digital infrastructure is that whose very nature is digital. Fiber optic cable to transfer digital Internet packets would be an example.

In some cases, infrastructures can gain intelligence by embedding digital capacities in the units traveling over the infrastructure. For example, digitally connected vehicles can bring intelligence to the surface transportation system even if the actual infrastructure does not include digital components.

Examples of and Opportunities for Digital Infrastructure

One way to categorize infrastructure is by what it transports. Table 1 classifies various types of infrastructure according to the links or pathways in the respective networks; the nodes where those links either terminate, come together, or cross; and the thing that is transported (whether goods, people, or information). This report examines digital infrastructure for each of these.

Digital refers to information technology systems that electronically collect, process, and transmit information. Therefore, digital infrastructures are those where at least a portion contains information technology. As such, there are two kinds of digital infrastructures, hybrid and dedicated. Hybrid infrastructures are traditional physical infrastructures that include added digital components. For example, traditional water mains would be infrastructure. But if the water mains are embedded with sensors to detect and transmit information on leaks, they become hybrid infrastructure. Dedicated digital infrastructure is that whose very nature is digital. Fiber optic cable to transfer digital Internet packets would be an example.

In some cases, infrastructures can gain intelligence by embedding digital capacities in the units traveling over the infrastructure. For example, digitally connected vehicles can bring intelligence to the surface transportation system even if the actual infrastructure does not include digital components.

Examples of and Opportunities for Digital Infrastructure

One way to categorize infrastructure is by what it transports. Table 1 classifies various types of infrastructure according to the links or pathways in the respective networks; the nodes where those links either terminate, come together, or cross; and the thing that is transported (whether goods, people, or information). This report examines digital infrastructure for each of these.

Table 1: Typology of Transportation Infrastructure
Download full version (PDF): A Policymaker’s Guide to Digital Infrastructure

About the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF)
itif.org
As powerful waves of technological innovation drive profound change throughout the global economy and society, policymakers often lack the specialized knowledge and informed perspective necessary to evaluate and respond to fast-moving issues and circumstances. What should they do to capitalize on new opportunities, overcome challenges, and avoid potential pitfalls? The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) exists to provide answers and point the way forward.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comment

Receive Infra Update, our email newsletter.

Follow InfraUSA on Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr
Show us your infra! Show us your infra!

Video, stills and tales. Share images of the Infra in your community that demands attention. Post your ideas about national Infra issues. Go ahead. Show Us Your Infra!  Upload and instantly share your message.

Polls Polls

Is the administration moving fast enough on Infra issues? Are Americans prepared to pay more taxes for repairs? Should job creation be the guiding determination? Vote now!

Views

What do the experts think? This is where the nation's public policy organizations, trade associations and think tanks weigh in with analysis on Infra issues. Tell them what you think.  Ask questions.  Share a different view.

Blog

The Infra Blog offers cutting edge perspective on a broad spectrum of Infra topics. Frequent updates and provocative posts highlight hot button topics -- essential ingredients of a national Infra dialogue.