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One small test of the I-City idea is occurring on the MIT campus, where Ulm’s students are wiring a flagpole with sensors that will monitor its temperature and movements caused by wind. The data will be sent to a server computer that displays the stats in real time on the Web. Meanwhile, simulation software will use the data to predict how much time remains until the flagpole fails from structural fatigue.

If these same kinds of sensors were sprinkled throughout a building’s architecture, they could transmit the information upward from individual structures to the city monitoring station to a national antiterrorism or disaster center. They could even be used to coordinate law enforcement and military responses. “How will we even know we are under attack in the 21st century?” asks the ANSER Institute’s Larsen. “If you have an airplane crash in Chicago and the 911 system goes out in Sarasota and you have a big petroleum fire in Houston, are these just random acts? One of the things we need is a national command center, so we know an attack is going on, and that sort of real-time information is going to be very important.”

A Measured Response

Because it’s so difficult to know where terrorists will strike next, there is a natural impulse to retrofit as many components of the infrastructure as quickly as possible. But the resulting expense could be both crushing and ultimately futile, since terrorists might simply select targets that haven’t yet been hardened. Most experts are therefore recommending a measured, planned approach to infrastructure protection, starting with a realistic look at threats and vulnerabilities. “We can’t guard against every contingency, and there’s no point in trying to do so,” says policy analyst Peter Chalk, a specialist in national security and international terrorism issues at the Rand Corporation in Arlington, VA.

One prediction security experts can make is that the next attack probably won’t resemble the last one. Thanks to heightened airport security and passenger awareness, for example, it’s hard to imagine another attack using hijacked planes succeeding. “The plane as a delivery vehicle [for destructive energy] has been substantially abrogated just because of recent history,” opines Exponent’s McCarthy. But that doesn’t mean landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge are out of peril; indeed, notes McCarthy, there’s a real threat to bridges and other structures in coastal cities from ships laden with explosive materials such as petrochemicals.

Foreseeing true threats and responding appropriately will require a new kind of thinking and a sustained sense of urgency, McCarthy and other experts say. As the immediate trauma of September 11 fades, there’s a strong and understandable temptation to return to business as usual. But those who design, build and maintain the infrastructure are realizing that they must now make planning for the worst a part of their everyday work.

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