4 ways to make sure your connected-infrastructure technology program is … well, connected
May 18, 2022
May 18, 2022
It’s critical to make connected technology acquisition part of an end-to-end solution
Connected infrastructure is on the rise. Whether it’s an Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) to optimize traffic flow, movement sensors, or technology to enable autonomous vehicles (AV), how to plan for and procure these breakthrough technologies most effectively is a big question. But it doesn’t have to be one that causes a big headache.
Let’s start with a story from the real world. A county transit agency decided to procure software that allows its transit vehicles to have priority passage through controllable intersections (known as “preemption”). The plan is to better manage operations now, with an eye to invest in more connected-infrastructure technology down the road. At the same time, both the county’s traffic management authority and its emergency services department had the same idea.
Unfortunately, they each used their own procurement process resulting in the purchase of three software packages. Now, three agencies with critical functions for the same county face the challenge of making these disparate software systems work together—a heroic task that may never reach a seamless solution.
As our transportation systems move toward greater connectivity, situations like the one described above will become ever more prevalent. When it comes to connected operations, local agencies—and even departments within an agency—may believe they are communicating. But many times, strict adherence to traditional procurement approaches don’t account for the integrated nature of next generation technologies. As a result, the full capabilities of these technologies cannot be realized, meaning public money is wasted while safety and efficiency opportunities are lost.
Due to the varied components of connected technology projects, public agencies can be involved with various roles and different focuses. It leads to this lack of coordination. So how can public entities make sure they avoid this tangible risk and start out on the right foot to create an authentic end-to-end solution?
If we could sum it up in a sound bite, we would say it’s all about keeping your “I” (or eye) on implementation. Here’s how.
It takes a village of agencies to make a connected infrastructure program work. The transit agency or department of transportation (DOT) is often the sponsor for a funding grant, while other agencies and/or various departments of the local municipality(ies)—the ITS/traffic group, emergency response, and others, will have a role to play.
The key to success is identifying a lead agency, while creating a dotted line of communication and collaboration to all other relevant agencies and departments. That includes common situations where a transit agency covers multiple municipalities. And where connected systems are involved, the impacts extend across other local public entities like fire districts. That group can then map out the common vision that will guide the technology-procurement process.
One interesting example is the AvCo Program in Colorado, a unique setup that sidesteps some governance challenges. Developed as a public-private partnership (P3) led by a smart cities nonprofit, it acts as the facilitator between municipalities, transit agencies, and the DOT to create the necessary collaboration, as their focus is solely on creating a workable project. This isn’t your typical P3—it’s a bottoms-up creation of a project through partnership, rather than a public agency procuring their private partner through a formal process. The unique makeup of the project has benefits that can cut through procurement challenges.
It takes a village of agencies to make a connected infrastructure program work.
The funding source for the program will drive the decisions around technology choices. Grants, for example, can bring requirements (e.g., Buy America) that drive critical elements of the program. It is important to fully understand the priorities of each type of grant. What are the critical elements that must be stressed in preparing the applications? What are the associated requirements for how the project is delivered and reported? And what are the accompanying costs? There are also plans that must be prepared, submitted, and monitored.
There are a variety of contracting options for projects and understanding the full range of options allows us to provide critical support to our clients. This might be a traditional design-bid-build approach where the client clearly understands exactly what they need and we can provide a complete technology design before procuring a contractor to complete the work. But often technology projects are procured on a design-build approach where the critical performance requirements are set up front and a best value approach is employed. It is important that these procurements allow for the selected partners to bring innovation and new strategies to the table to the benefit of the project. The support we provided to the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada for their GoMed project encompassed both approaches—a more complete design for the connected and smart transit portions with a requirement-based approach for the AVs.
Existing technology gaps in the system also need to be evaluated and documented ahead of any new procurement. For example, does the local area have a fiber network? Having the right communications infrastructure like 5G or Wi-Fi (or both) in place is required to create a seamless system. Have data management and cybersecurity issues been addressed? To move forward with an advanced technology approach, it is essential that a comprehensive data-management strategy is developed alongside systems to provide the necessary cybersecurity such as security credential management systems.
It’s important not to become overly enamored with any specific technology. Ask yourself: what is necessary to practically realize the project’s vision? There are enough complexities in these systems without overreaching for functionality that doesn’t provide meaningful value. Keep things simple when possible. It’s like getting the flexible Bose speaker that will work in any room instead of the fancy custom built-in speakers that will be difficult to upgrade down the line.
Focus on the results you want to achieve—without prescribing how to achieve them. Let the private sector bring innovation to the table but have an accompanying set of key performance indicators that must be delivered.
Getting back to implementation, understanding what technology can and can’t do and what makes it work for the project’s vision is essential before you move to the procurement stage. Your consultant can play a strong role here by knowing the options and assisting in developing a strategy that will deliver the best performance for you.
The importance of making a realistic budget can’t be overstated. It’s important to plan the project architecture from the beginning, building frameworks and following strict discipline. We recommend designing budgets around five-year block commitments.
While making sure the funds are in place to make the project a reality, there are creative approaches to get the most out of a budget. It starts with being smart about leveraging local assets to provide a match for other funding opportunities. Sweat equity, for example, is often eligible for fund matching. But other than time and effort, what are other assets that would be appropriate?
Getting creative with P3s is one example. Land in the form of easements for infrastructure, public use, right of way access—all of these have quantifiable value.
Regarding specific technology acquisition, as we indicated above, there is a trade-off between seeking out “cutting-edge” technology versus more proven or available options. Here’s a common example. If we are designing performance-based metrics for a specific technology, we may say: “The pedestrian detection system shall be capable of counting all people walking and riding bikes in predefined zones with an accuracy of 95%.” If the technology is new and innovative, then two options are likely: either the cost will be higher because it may require multiple technologies combined to reach that level of performance, or the accuracy levels may need to be reduced to a more achievable level. On the other hand, if we can plan to evolve the technology over the course of the project, then we can modify the approach to upgrade to newer versions over the course of the project (even if these upgrades may cause hiccups).
The most important element here is to know your budget and design a program that meets it by not setting targets that are outside your available funds.
It’s true that making decisions on the fly through the procurement process can work, but it’s an approach that’s riddled with pitfalls. With evolving technologies, if you start out with a predefined path in mind, you may miss excellent opportunities. You can maximize outcomes by planning for flexibility and baking it into your program. Whether the technology supports a transit system or eventual AV adoption, defining a clear vision and getting the right stakeholders at the table is paramount. It’s all about implementation in the end.
Giving yourself a reality check to stay focused on the vision is a big piece of the puzzle—not every project is breaking new ground; the most important result is to improve the community. Making effective use of public funds to make that happen should be at the heart of every project plan.
As we move toward an ever more connected transportation environment, it becomes progressively more challenging to maximize the public benefits that can be realized from these technologies. Stantec’s Smart(ER) Mobility group is here to help you to successfully navigate that path.