Innovation can help to close the ‘infrastructure gap’

Innovation can help to close the ‘infrastructure gap’

Summer in the city seems to be set to one pervasive soundtrack: the grinding, jack-hammering, ear-splitting noise of construction. The warm months are a cold country’s chance to rebuild — roads are resurfaced, sewers repaired, water mains replaced — and we all bear the disruption in one way or another. But advances are being made that hold tremendous potential to help minimize the mounting costs municipalities are facing to renew their crumbling infrastructure.

Look at Hamilton. When it needed to repair its water mains in 2006, the city deployed robots underground to insert a new flexible pipe within a pipe. Researchers from Queen’s University in Kingston worked in partnership with the city to apply the pipe-liner technology. So rather than enduring months of dirt, dust and inconvenience from having their lawns and sidewalks dug up, residents merely passed by a truck where engineers and technicians quietly orchestrated the work being done below.

What’s more, the city paid a fraction of what it would have cost to excavate and replace the pipes.

Today, municipalities of all sizes are staring down gigantic price tags associated with fixing and replacing the roads, sewers, utilities and other infrastructure that sustains them. In March, the federal government announced $14 billion for infrastructure investments over the next 10 years. Even still, how to best manage these investments is likely to dominate the agenda when mayors, councilors and city staff meet later this week in Niagara Falls for the annual conference of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).

And rightly so. Last year, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives identified a $145-billion “infrastructure gap,” defined as the value of current infrastructure relative to the value of infrastructure that is needed. Given the increasing pressures on all levels of government to address the infrastructure deficit — not to mention the evidence that infrastructure is not keeping up: potholes, boil-water advisories, sewer backups and power outages — Canadian cities are at a critical juncture. The majority of Canada’s roads, bridges, and sewer and water systems are now operating well beyond their expected lifespan and are due for an overhaul.

Amid the discussion about how we will pay to upgrade our urban infrastructure, let’s not lose sight of the equally critical question of how the infrastructure of the future will be built. Research and innovation is, and will continue to be, a key part of the answer to both questions.

Cities face very different challenges than they did shortly after the Second World War, when the majority of our urban infrastructure was installed. Given that 80 per cent of Canadians now live in large and small urban centres and weather patterns are shifting, there is unprecedented pressure on aging infrastructure. The technologies of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s simply won’t cut it in the 21st century.

The modern challenges cities are contending with today demand increasingly innovative and cost-effective, solutions. The work being done in universities and colleges across the country is doing just that.

A research team at the University of British Columbia has created synthetic high-performance fibres that can be sprayed through a high-pressure hose directly onto old concrete bridges and overpasses to increase their strength and durability. The spray coating is also fitted with fibre optic sensors that can send digital signals to engineers so they can monitor the structure’s condition in real time.

At Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, researchers have created a cement additive that strengthens concrete by up to 40 per cent and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by using less material, making it both green and cost-effective over the long run.

Not only are these advances part of the solution for Canadian cities, but technologies like these can also be applied to global infrastructure gaps, translating into significant economic benefits for the country.

As municipalities move forward in developing their infrastructure renewal plans, they will need to look to this kind of cutting-edge research to save money and to ensure that their vital support systems are up to the task of withstanding the demands in the century ahead.

Dr. Gilles Patry is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the country’s only organization dedicated to funding state-of-the-art research infrastructure. This opinion piece originally appeared on the Toronto Star’s website on May 27, 2014.​