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Editorial: The Electronic Express

There has been much talk about President Obama’s push to make electronic medical records standard in the United States. It’s a good idea that despite its upfront costs will increase efficiency and help save billions of dollars. But there is much more that needs to go electronic—and a good deal of it involves architecture and planning.

If you haven’t yet heard about “smart infrastructure,” you will soon. It encompasses digitally organized and controlled building guidelines, energy grids, transportation systems, and food distribution networks, among other infrastructure components. Companies like IBM, GE, Cisco, and Siemens are busy working on the technology behind such systems, and they’ve already proven effective, putting information within instant reach, streamlining bureaucratic processes, conserving resources, and improving coordination and transparency.

While the private sector has already made huge investments in smart systems, public agencies are way behind in taking notice, despite the fact that much of the technology has been developed in the United States and exported to governments elsewhere. IBM, for instance, has developed traffic-monitoring systems in places like Stockholm and London, while improving management for bus and train systems worldwide, and it is even working with food producers to limit the billions of dollars worth of food that is wasted every year. Yet very few American cities have adopted such technology and its obvious benefits.

Take one of the most egregious examples of our backwardness in this area: building permits. A look at the typical building department is a trip down memory lane, with disorganized sheaves of paper documents still dominating. Most of California’s building authorities are no exception, despite steps in the right direction. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, for example, offer online permitting, but only for simple permits like electrical and plumbing approvals. Anything requiring planning review is still done the old-fashioned way.

And most cities haven’t even gone that far, which is a waste, according to John Backman, executive director of, an alliance of city and county governments in Washington State that provides online permitting to 16 cities and one county. They’ve issued 40,000 basic online permits so far, and their group hopes to unveil online review permitting by the end of this year (a more complicated, but very doable task, he said). Backman notes that online permitting will save his constituents thousands of hours of time and thousands of dollars. Still, the biggest holdup for most cities is the cost of launching a new service, he said, adding that several municipalities might work together on a system and thus share the cost.

Meanwhile, there are other rays of hope. Many of New York City’s building agencies use Buildings Scan and Capture Application Networks (BSCAN), which enable online submittal and retrieval of construction-permit applications. Oregon was the first state to sponsor a statewide e-permitting program, which now extends to over 100 cities and counties. And Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Fort Meyers, Florida, and Scottsdale, Arizona also allow online permit applications.

Some might argue that going electronic is a leap into the unknown, but that’s not the case. There is no good reason why most new infrastructure projects appear to be moving forward in the same old analog fashion. If the problem is that few seem ready to part with the startup money necessary to install these systems, it’s time to get with the program. We’ve already learned the lesson of sustainable architecture—that those willing to make an initial investment are already way ahead in terms of saving money and time down the line.

Sam Lubell