The ability to envision new possibilities is perhaps uniquely human, and engineers are among those who figure out how to translate vision into reality. One of the engineer’s greatest tools is an ability to break down big dreams into the many small steps that must be accomplished to see them realized. Sometimes this includes finding smaller ways to achieve big things.
For example, while we tend to think of service for our smartphones and mobile devices as a function of big cell towers, engineers are always looking for ways to expand coverage and improve data speeds for customers. We are finding that thinking smaller allows us to make these improvements more cost-effectively and more aesthetically pleasing than building more of those big antennas. Small cell installations can place small antennas on existing street lights or other utility poles and use fiber optic cables running along local streets to greatly enhance service where customers want it. By extending this micro-scale focus across urban areas, the bigger dream of improving service and availability for customers will be realized. This smaller scale coverage will also make it possible to support autonomous vehicles, smart traffic signals, gigabit-speed mobile downloads, and adding scalability to the data network for the developing Internet of Things (IoT).
Scalability isn’t only an issue for data networks, it’s also a key part of engineers’ approach to our local street network. Historically, our picture of making progress for traffic has been making things bigger, wider, and taller. The “highway of the future” has been a very big dream for cities since the 1950s. Unfortunately, we have learned that these grand visions have often created as many problems as they’ve solved. Engineers have learned to zoom back down to micro-scale to see how streets function and fit within our neighborhoods and communities. We focus on the fundamental needs of motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists and try to determine how much street they really need and how best to provide that space for movement in a safe arrangement. As we’ve applied this to developed corridors around the Kansas City area, we are finding that we can provide just as good of traffic flow and safety with less pavement. This means that some of this public space can be re-purposed for use by pedestrians, bicyclists, landscaping, or utilities. That means enhancing our corridors without having to encroach on the folks who own property along the street. This can lower infrastructure costs while improving the value of properties along these corridors. (That IS the definition of “win-win”).
From moving data packets to moving you along your daily commute efficiently, engineers are hard at work trying to make our lives easier, filled with more opportunities, and safer than before. By keeping an eye on all of the little stuff, engineers make it possible for us to dream big for today and the future.