Why we need a shift to a smarter physical infrastructure

I have always enjoyed sci-fi films because they provide science-based depictions of future technology in the context of the philosophical and sociological issues of the human condition.

One of my favorites is "The Matrix." Though more than 10 years has passed since it was released, the movie's exploration of what choices unfold when we look deeper beneath the surface for a different, more holistic perspective has timeless relevance to the challenges we face in today's world.

In the film, the lead character, Neo, visits a prophet in a futuristic world. He meets a young boy who is bending a spoon without any physical contact. The boy gives the spoon to Neo, who stares hard at it, but nothing happens. Instead of bending the spoon, the boy tells Neo to realize the truth: "There is no spoon." Upon hearing this, Neo can bend the spoon without physical effort.

As we work on the significant energy and efficiency challenges in today's matrix, which includes buildings, cities, utilities and transportation, I find a new approach or perspective is needed. Many of the current initiatives, while helpful, are not sufficient to address sustainability issues in the timeframe required. Instead of remaining in the same thought patterns and approaches that got us here in the first place, imagine the challenges as the spoon in "The Matrix" and that they will bend  or yield  much more easily when we realize a different perspective is needed.

As GreenBiz's VERGE conferences go on the road in 2013, this discussion will be front and center. We need a paradigm shift. For example, how information and communication technology can better leverage an exponentially growing data set, streaming from the built environment in a way that delivers the economic, operational and environmental mandates of today's world and the urban infrastructure our children will inherit.

The required shift is to something I call the smarter physical infrastructure. We have the opportunity to make our infrastructure smarter by applying digital technologies to the physical world. New technologies  big data, analytics, geospatial, cloud, mobile  can help us reimagine how we can build and operate the built environment in a more sustainable manner. It's a convergence of what IBM calls the three Is:

• Instrumentation of the built environment.
• Integration across that instrumentation.
• The deeper, more holistic Intelligent insight we can derive.

We are at the dawn of a new opportunity where we can truly drive transformative change. It will be a new day where technology can help fix the very problems we have inherited from past approaches.

Unlike "The Matrix," this is not science fiction. It is a very present possibility as evidenced by a growing number of projects that are delivering transformative results today. Many examples will be shared at VERGE, a conference that will inspire us and show new doors through which we can pass. It is up to us "to go through the door."

Building image by Vladitto via Shutterstock.