The critical part of critical infrastructure

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Putting it all together

The COVID-19 pandemic was one problem. It won’t be the last. Looking at the big infrastructure picture, many drivers are in play, including aging, growing energy demand, and increasing interdependence. All contribute to added vulnerability and the potential for serious disruption.

With respect to age, more than 50,000 bridges in the U.S. are in serious need of repair. The same goes for electrical power generation and distribution, municipal water and sewer systems, and more than 3,000 inoperative satellites with slowly decaying orbits—all while tens of thousands of new satellites are planned for
launch in the coming decades.

Whether we’re talking about infrastructure to support the flow of goods or the flow of knowledge, all require energy, and lots of it. Many parts of the world suffer from rolling brownouts and power outages. How future supply shortages will affect new, energy-guzzling technologies such as blockchain, especially cryptocurrencies, remains uncertain.

But it’s the interdependencies that are most likely to cause things to come crashing down. For example, consider this scenario: A small explosive detonates and ruptures the casing of a large electrical substation transformer, draining the oil. It quickly overheats and becomes permanently damaged. Due to widespread copper shortages, a replacement won’t be available for at least several months. From data centers to hospitals to police and fire stations, backup generators kick in. But fuel quickly runs out, and back orders begin to pile up.

Remember how quickly something as simple as toilet paper disappeared from store shelves last year? Or more recently, how a shortage of computer chips resulted in a sharp drop in automobile, appliance, and smartphone production? Imagine something much worse, such as the energy grid suddenly going dark for a prolonged period. Everything—food, transportation, life-saving medical devices—would start shutting down.

A 21st-century infrastructure blueprint

This scenario and similar ones are very real possibilities. But we can’t wait until such things happen before trying to figure out how to keep everything up and running. That’s where knowledge infrastructure comes into play. Every physical and digital component needs a corresponding knowledge component containing the who, what, when, where, how, and why that went into it. That’s what today’s infrastructure needs to look like.

As a KMer, you can start by assessing your own three-part infrastructure. Are your physical assets at risk from fire, weather, theft, and other disruptions? The same goes for digital threats such as ransomware. Where is your critical knowledge stored and how is it protected? Can it be easily accessed in times of crisis? Extending outward, what external physical, digital, and knowledge assets do you and your organization depend upon, and how will you access them in an emergency?

As graph databases and knowledge graphs continue to work their way into mainstream KM practice, it’s getting easier to map all of the pieces and their many interdependencies. Free, open source tools such as Neo4j and others are great places to start.

On a much larger scale, we can drawfrom the ever-growing body of knowledge of the smart cities community. Some of the many tools and practices they’ve stitched together include AI/machine learning, smart energy grids, driverless transportation, IoT, virtual organizations, egovernment, and much more. For a more in-depth look at how those technologies are being applied in cities all over the world, check out the book, Smart Cities of Today and Tomorrow: Better Technology, Infrastructure, and Security, by Joseph Pelton and Indu Singh (2019).

Taking steps such as these are essential, not only to our survival, but to our continued growth and evolution as a society. From the individual to the global, more investment in financial, structural, and intellectual capital is needed. Our future depends on it.

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