John Talks Tech

As president of the Transmission & Distribution Group at Burns & McDonnell and the lead behind companywide technology initiatives, John Olander talks about the future of technology and the transition to a smart city.

Q: What does becoming a smart city mean to interested communities? 

A: As we become more connected, there's more opportunity to share info and make timely decisions. It’s up to each community to decide where it needs to focus to get the most benefit for citizens and the people who visit the community. Taking advantage of real-time and trending data and analytics will help address what’s most important to that community.

For example, if you have a traffic problem in your city, then you’d probably focus on getting real-time data on how people are traveling and where and when bottlenecks occur. Once you determine the need, collectively find ways to approach it, which could be through sharing information or changing how you operate your traffic signals. It also might work into your long-term planning, where you need additional roads or alternate timing on traffic patterns, encouraging people to use your facilities in a different manner. 

Q: Why the seemingly immediate need to replace and redesign our power distribution systems?

A: Original distribution systems were designed for a single purpose, which was to deliver power in one direction and on demand, with low technology use. Over time, we are tasking our distribution system with more and more, and it’s not acceptable today for people to lose power at their home or place of business. We rely on power for just about everything we do these days, so maybe in the past when you dropped power for a couple hours, it made less of an impact, but now everyone loses connection with their lives.

In addition to the demand for a higher level of reliability, we have areas of the country that have generation on their distribution system, such as rooftop solar, where we’re using the distribution system to not only consume power but also deliver power to others. With the two-way power flows and the higher level of reliability required, we are using our distribution system like never before.

Q: As the lead for the firm’s many technology initiatives, what is the plan to help fulfill the vision of a smart city for customers?

A: As we put technology platforms in place for ourselves, we also need to be aware of how the industry is moving and how our customers' needs are evolving. As we make purchases to support our current needs, it’s always with a thought of how it will interconnect with our customers’ needs five years from now. Putting systems and tools in place where we can share and capitalize on that going forward is incredibly important.

Q: What's the biggest technological change you've seen within the last 25 years?

A: Mobile devices. The power that’s in your hand or in your pocket is incredible now compared to anything we had back when I was in school.

Q: What do you forecast is the biggest, most significant change to come in the next 25 years?

A: I really think it’ll be data analytics, the measurement, assessment and use of data in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

Q: We've talked technology on a business level, but how about a personal favorite?

A: A cellar tracker app for wine collection. But as for an automatic wine preserver stopper, “there’s no need for that," he says. "Once you open a bottle, you might as well find someone to help you finish it.”

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John Olander President, Transmission & Distribution 816-822-3883
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