From ensuring bars don't run out of beer to understanding the importance of the Gong Shuttle, one university facility is putting a human face to infrastructure, writes GLEN HUMPHRIES
It’s hard to get people interested in infrastructure.
We use it every day – it’s the roads we drive on, the rails used by our trains, the pipes our water flows through, the wires that bring our latest Netflix download to our screens.
We know it’s important but, for many people, even the word “infrastructure” can be enough to make eyes glaze over.
That’s something Pascal Perez, the director of head of SMART Infrastructure at the University of Wollongong, knows all too well.
He’s been trying for years to come up with a straightforward explanation for what he does every day.
“This is a question that my daughter has been asking me over the last 14 years of her life,” Prof Perez said.
“I’ve been trying a couple of answers but I still get the same blank look at me when I give one of them.”
The name on the building at the university campus says “SMART Infrastructure” (by the way “SMART” stands for “Simulation Modelling Analysis Research and Training”) but it could read “SMART People” and still be just as accurate.
Because the work they’re doing involves people just as much as it does those roads, rails, pipes and wires. That modelling, analysis and research is largely focused on the point at which the people and the infrastructure meet.
“It’s trying to better understand this very complex interaction of physical networks – the pipes and the roads and the tracks and the wires that surround us all the time – and the people,” Prof Perez says.
It’s not just looking at the “physical complexity” of building and operating the infrastructure, he says, but the “social complexity” of introducing people into the mix.
After all, every piece of infrastructure is designed to be used by people – either as workers or customers. A piece of infrastructure that people don’t need or use is a failed piece of infrastructure.
“You don’t need infrastructure if you don’t have to provide a service and to provide a service you need people to use this service. And you need people to manage the service as well,” Prof Perez says.
“So you can’t understand the complexity of the delivery of the services if you don’t understand the complexity of the demand.
“That’s why people have to be at the core of whatever we do, whether it’s implementing or researching infrastructure decisions.”
One project SMART Infrastructure has been working on shows both the eye-glazing effect of infrastructure when you look at it in isolation and also the “oh, now I get it” moment when it’s used to deliver something useful.
This would be the Digital Living Lab, which has seen SMART construct its own local internet service across the region.
It’s not a network that will allow people to download films (legally or illegally) – it doesn’t allow a transmission that big. Instead it can only send small packets of information.
That’s the eye-glazing bit. Now for the “I get it” moment. Those small packets of information are being used to stop bars from running out of beer, to help senior citizens live in their homes for longer and help fire crews quickly locate the closest hydrant to the scene of the blaze.
In each case, it works with the help of small sensors. A sensor is attached to a beer keg, which will detect when it’s nearly empty and send a message to the bar and the brewery that owns the keg.
Similar sensors can be placed in a senior’s home to monitor mobility and potential risks, which will then be relayed to those who need to know via the network.
And those sensors can also be stuck to fire hydrants so that a fire fighter using a special app can pick up their signal when they’re nearby.
Prof Perez tends to refer to the “now, I get it” moment as the “of course!” moment. But they represent the same thing – that moment where people and infrastructure meet successfully.
“What really matters is the fact that you put something out there where the reaction will be ‘of course! Why didn’t people think about this before?’,” he says.
“That’s the perfect human-technology relationship you want to have.”
Prof Perez’s move towards the point where humans and infrastructure meet happened gradually. Born in France, he graduated as an agricultural engineer.
“It was all about wheat and sugar cane and those kinds of things,” he says.
“Then I crept into [looking at] the farmers and how they behaved, the landscape and how people behave in the landscape and interact with it.
“You fast-forward 20 years after that, here I am applying the same people-centric approach to infrastructure systems in Australia.”
There’s one instance of this “people-centric approach” that is very topical for the people of the Illawarra – a study looking into the Gong Shuttle.
Prof Perez says it’s not a “media stunt” – the research began before the government announcement that fares would soon be charged.
It started out as a project assessing the free shuttle’s benefits to the vulnerable people in our society but, after the news broke, it became more about the ramifications of the fare introduction.
This puts the focus on people – what shuttle users do when they have to pay a fare and what the flow-on effects could be.
“If you leave aside the students of the university and you look at the mums and dads who could pay for a ride, some of them won’t,” he says.
“These people who don’t ride it any more, will they continue to go shopping in the city? Or will they go somewhere else? If they do go there, how are they going to get there – are they going to use their car? Are they going to use a bicycle?
“If you continue to peel the onion, even from a purely economic rationality, this shuttle bus doesn’t live in isolation in the transport ecosystem of the city and the region.
“There were well-established links with fee-paying, and some of them privately-owned, public transport companies.
“These people start to worry that there will not be only be less patronage to the free shuttle that was bringing patronage to their fee paying services, but it also might shed a negative light on public transport at large and more people will revert back into private vehicles.”