I was born in Texas and lived there for 40 years before moving to Washington State 18 months ago. And so I’ve been watching the misery unfold there this week by way of texts from my family and friends as well as on social media. I’ve also been watching as people try desperately to figure out what happened, to understand why the Texas grid was utterly incapable of dealing with the frigid temperatures.
And because it’s what I write about every day, I’ve also been wondering if the internet of things could have helped prevent this crisis. Could sensors on natural gas stations or refining operations have prevented them from freezing? Could predictive maintenance algorithms have anticipated the troubles that took generators offline?
I’m still waiting on answers to those questions, but I do know this: Once Mother Nature comes roaring through in the form of a hurricane, ice storm, heatwave, or tornado, technology cannot save us. In the middle of the crisis, it’s too late to hope that technology can change much less ameliorate the situation. You may have a Tesla Powerwall on the side of your house that’s able to provide heat in the midst of a power outage, but that’s an individual solution to a collective crisis.
And even if you do have some power, it’s small comfort when others around you do not. Or stores shut down because they don’t have electricity. Or Amazon can’t deliver packages. The electric grid is vulnerable. But so our are our roads, gas pipelines, airports, and telecommunications infrastructure.
Putting more sensors on things isn’t going to help unless the government and operators of our basic infrastructure engage in a mindset shift. It’s time we invest in infrastructure and orient our business operations around resiliency. We’ve spent decades optimizing for profits, relying on just-in-time delivery of parts, postponing maintenance to keep margins high, and weighing costs over risk when it comes to investments in building materials.
Yet, as the Earth warms and the weather gets wilder, the risk calculations are changing. The 100-year flood plain has shifted. The temperature swings stressing the asphalt on our roads and the metals holding up our bridges are larger. But because all of this has happened relatively recently, and because the underlying idea of climate change is still politically controversial, our risk calculations haven’t kept up.
Only in the last year or so have insurers decided to stop insuring properties in certain areas. Or has the federal government decided that it’s better to pay people to leave flood-prone areas rather than fund rebuilding. And until the actuarial data matches our ever-changing new climate reality, governments and businesses can choose to ignore the new levels of risk.
But this is where the internet of things can help. Cheaper sensors in more places mean more data to inform our new climate models. With a better understanding of the climate comes a better understanding of risk. We can also use sensor data to better predict the failures of our machines and materials in different temperature scenarios, or in higher winds using digital twins.
Combining better climate risk data with a deeper understanding of materials lets businesses and governments choose how to invest based on the actual risks and uncertainties in a world where nature is becoming more unpredictable. This helps with new infrastructure investments, but we can also use the data we have in combination with sensors on existing structures to predict when and where failures might occur.
It’s clear that many in politics and business are still focused on the bottom line, but climate change demands an additional focus on resiliency. Luckily, thanks to the global pandemic, California wildfires, and the failure of the Texas electric grid, more politicians and businesses are waking up to this fact. The next big challenge will be making sure we focus on resiliency for all as part of broad business best practices and government policy. Thinking that individuals can buy their way out of a collective event like climate change by spending on solar panels or batteries ignores the breadth of the threat.