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Management in Practice

Imagining Future-Ready Infrastructure

Deferred maintenance and climate change have pushed America’s aging infrastructure to the breaking point. But federal legislation has created a generational opportunity to rethink the systems that undergird society. David Gilford ’07, head of policy and strategic partnerships at Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, explains the value of building innovative, resilient, technology-enabled infrastructure.

  • David Gilford
    Head of Policy and Strategic Partnerships, Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners

Q: What does Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners do?

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (SIP) looks for opportunities to combine technology and infrastructure to create more sustainable, future-ready, resilient, and ultimately more equitable systems. Unlike traditional investors, we have a flexible, holding company structure through which we develop and operate “innovation platforms.” Each platform develops transformative technologies as well as projects that build technology-enabled infrastructure at scale. We currently operate four such platforms, covering distributed energy, wireless broadband, advanced recycling, and smart roads.

Q: How does SIP choose projects?

With each of the major platforms that we’ve launched, we’ve gone through a process that starts from first principles. We explore what’s shaping the need for better infrastructure, convene and engage with stakeholders, look at companies working on the issues, and test and refine our hypotheses. Then we figure out if there’s something that we can uniquely solve with our combination of approach, technology, and time horizon. Once we decide there’s something we can do, we determine what that looks like. Is it incubating a new company from scratch? Is it helping an existing company scale? Something in between?

Q: Would you give an example?

Autonomous vehicles have been on the horizon for close to 20 years, promising to change how we move around, how we live, and how infrastructure is used.

By going to first principles, we realized that roads themselves will need to evolve. Rather than developing new in-vehicle technology, we saw an opportunity to contribute by focusing on the evolution of roads. We think smart roads will be critical partners for smart vehicles. In my view, a hybrid of smart roads and smart vehicles is a lot closer to being reality than driverless vehicles that can navigate themselves in all situations. This partnered approach could enable some autonomous travel sooner and more safely.

We launched a company called Cavnue, whose first project is working with Michigan’s Department of Transportation to develop a sensor network and data analytics capabilities that will turn the stretch of I-94 between Ann Arbor and Detroit into a smart road. We see this approach as creating the operating system for roads in the future.

A lot of the information that governments rely on to manage roads still comes from very manual processes, from 911 calls about crashes to people counting cars with manual clickers. With a smart road, the operating agency gets all of that information in real-time.

We need to get our infrastructure into a state of good repair. At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the fact that our infrastructure needs are evolving and changing. Building back what we had 50 years ago isn’t going to make us ready for the next 50 years.

In addition, a lot of cars already have the ability to do things like adaptive cruise control and keeping to a lane. We’re working closely with auto manufacturers on integrating the ability to incorporate information from the road into connected vehicle technology. That way, cars will simply come with the ability to interface with smart roads rather than needing a separate app or other technology. Cars would get an early warning if there’s an object on the road or an icy patch or a maintenance crew is in the left lane in half a mile. It would be like an automated version of what Waze does on a smartphone, directly connected to vehicles’ systems.

Adding a smart infrastructure layer, with the road itself being able to communicate to the vehicle, could really have an impact on safety, reliability, and comfort. Working with several other states, we’re also exploring other uses of the technology that range from freight safety to transit applications to new forms of mobility.

Q: Infrastructure is kind of like vanilla ice cream—unobjectionable and overlooked. Make the case for really appreciating infrastructure.

I think of infrastructure as the systems that underpin everything—all the unnoticed stuff that allows society to function. We depend on infrastructure all the time; we only notice it when it fails.

Traditionally, infrastructure meant things like roads, bridges, water, and power. But the COVID-19 shutdown made really clear how much we are dependent on digital infrastructure too. If a single cloud service goes down, it can disrupt work for millions of people.

That points to a broader shift around our expectations of infrastructure. We expect digital services to be available always and everywhere. We expect roads and bridges to manage higher traffic flows and last longer than in the past. Then, despite our increased dependence and the extraordinary demands we put on infrastructure, there are countless examples of deferring maintenance in problematic ways. “Budgets are tight, so let’s not worry about this bridge for the next few years. We’ll deal with it when we have to.” It’s hard to celebrate a bridge that doesn’t collapse. Who is going to take credit for that? Yet, it’s one of the most important things we can do.

We need to get our infrastructure into a state of good repair. At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the fact that our infrastructure needs are evolving and changing. Building back what we had 50 years ago isn’t going to make us ready for the next 50 years.

Q: Climate change is likely to be a defining part of the next 50 years. How do we get more resilient infrastructure?

My first experience with the need for resilience came while I was working in New York City government during Hurricane Sandy. Beyond the direct damage from flooding, the disruption was multiplied by the failure of infrastructure, particularly around transportation and power.

Whether it’s recovering from a disaster, doing maintenance, or building new infrastructure, it’s critical to be using a lens of “How is this going to adapt?” And the answer can’t just be “We’ll make the power line poles thicker to withstand stronger winds.” We really must think deeply about “How will this whole system work in the future in the face of all the stresses, disruptions, and disasters that we can imagine?” I think of resilience as not just the ability to withstand stress or disruption, but really to adapt and recover and ultimately get to a better state.

Three pieces of federal legislation—the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act—represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity for rethinking how infrastructure is delivered. The funding is federal but the decision-makers and implementers around infrastructure are primarily at the state and local levels. The knowledge of what’s possible and the capacity for designing, scoping, and ultimately delivering new types of projects isn’t evenly distributed.

SIP recognized that the types of infrastructure we need for the 21st century are difficult to deliver with 20th-century procurement methods and processes. We became a founding member of the Innovative Infrastructure Initiative (i3), which is now part of the nonprofit Accelerator for America.

i3 connects cities peer-to-peer as well as to national resources to ensure that the resources to solve infrastructure problems reach the local level. We’ve been talking with cities about everything from electrifying vehicle fleets to repurposing parking garages to microgrids and energy storage. We’re also sharing best practices—not just case studies, but also templates of procurement documents and RFPs. Getting the procurement piece right is often underappreciated, but really good projects stall at that phase way too often.

Ultimately the aim of i3 is to bring together a cohort of cities that are committed to innovation around smart, resilient infrastructure then helping them over the next several years to develop and implement projects.

Q: Cavnue takes on autonomous transportation by looking at the roads. Another SIP-backed company, OhmConnect, challenges our conception of what counts as infrastructure.

It does. With extreme weather, many parts of the country are facing potential blackouts when the electric supply can’t meet demand spikes. Most efforts to address the issue focus on increasing the power supply; OhmConnect comes at it from the demand side. It operates what we call virtual power plants in several states.

Here’s how it works: in California, for example, 250,000 households have enrolled in a program through which we coordinate with their smart thermostat and smart plugs to reduce the stress on the grid at critical periods. It does that by adjusting the thermostat by a couple of degrees or turning off some appliances during peak demand.

The most critical demand spikes are typically fairly brief and happen during heat waves when people are arriving home and turning on air conditioning just as the sun is going down and solar power is going offline.

Last year there was a late-summer heat wave that came very close to creating major blackouts in California. Residents received text messages from the state asking them to reduce demand. People responded. Demand did drop. The members of OhmConnect received over $2.7 million in rewards for cutting their energy usage during that heat wave. And at less critical moments, OhmConnect can effectively substitute for more expensive, dirtier energy by selling reduced demand into the grid.

This is pretty different from what most people think of as infrastructure. It’s actually mostly software and people being willing to take part. But when you combine those things, it has the same impact as a large piece of traditional infrastructure. It’s smarter infrastructure, leaning into the ability of technology to coordinate things in a way that wasn’t possible when we were just building large power plants and then connecting them directly to the end user.

Q: What is SIP’s business model?

We’re organized as a holding company. That allows us the flexibility of permanent capital rather than being tied to the 7- to 10-year time frame of many investors. Our anchor partners are Google’s parent company, Alphabet; the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan; and the StepStone Group, a large private infrastructure investor.

We certainly have a focus on ultimate profitability and scalability. But developing very new things involves uncertainty. With the technologies and projects we work on, there simply are so many unknowns that flexibility is very helpful both from a product perspective and on the timeframe to recognize the value of an investment.

Q: How did you come to this work?

I’ve always been fascinated by the ways technology can be applied to solve problems and change what people, communities, and society can do.

Part of me enjoys moving really fast to solve problems. I helped launch a startup working on telecommunications between developing economies. It was exciting and dynamic. At the same time, I appreciate the complexities and the layers of history that are embedded in all of the systems that we rely on. I worked at the Federal Reserve and came to understand the challenges of implementing change at scale at a very large government organization. Given the impact of Fed decisions, there are good reasons for it to be more risk-averse than a five-person startup.

I think it’s useful to hold both perspectives in my mind at the same time. Solving problems that required working across organizations, sectors, and technologies that move at different speeds is so interesting to me.

My experience at Yale SOM and taking classes across the university solidified my interest in the social benefits and potential impact of applying technology to problems such as sustainability and energy. Yale SOM also prepared me very well for working across sectors. I recognize the strengths and the gaps in each sector.

It’s valuable to be a bit of the odd one at the table, whether it’s having a bit more private-sector bent within government or a public-sector perspective inside a company. Being able to combine public and private, business and society, has led to great opportunities for me personally. And with those opportunities, I’ve made more of an impact than if I had worked just within one sector.

Q: And it makes your current role as the head of policy and strategic partnerships at SIP seem like a perfect fit.

It is. My role is to connect the public and private sectors. Infrastructure by definition is in the public realm, and partnerships are essential to every project. There are almost always multiple representatives from the public side—that might be federal funding with a governor’s office and/or a department of transportation coming in at the state level as well as county, city, and even neighborhood and community stakeholders. Private-sector companies are brought in to build, maintain, and even operate the infrastructure. Successful projects require alignment across all of those stakeholders at every stage. It’s complex. It’s challenging. Getting it right really shapes how prepared we will be for the future.