We are entering the age of smart infrastructure. The abundance of digital technology combined with ever more intuitive software has transformed education, finance, health, the media and manufacturing. Applying digital technology and thinking to our physical assets too offers the potential to use our assets more intelligently, finding efficiencies and better meeting society’s needs.
And smart infrastructure has come at a very opportune time. We have reached a state of ‘infrastructure maturity’, especially in developed economies, where the value of new infrastructure is far outweighed by the value of existing infrastructure. In the UK, for example, new construction adds just 0.5% to the value of national infrastructure. There simply isn’t the scope to create a step change in capacity and services.
Smart infrastructure enables us to get more from existing assets, increasing capacity without the need for new build solutions. It does this by improving our understanding of the way our assets are performing, enabling better decisions over how we design, operate and maintain them.
The digital revolution has seen an innovation explosion in the consumer and manufacturing sectors. The infrastructure sector is ripe for disruptive innovation too.
Here are six key ways it can happen:
1. New partners, new skills: Implementing smart infrastructure will require working with third party providers from other sectors. This will expose our industry to new skills and new ways of working from people unaccustomed to the constraints of the construction industry. There is also an opportunity in closer collaboration between competitors. Many companies are investing in design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA), bringing production line efficiencies to infrastructure development. Sharing prototypes and standard designs eliminates the need for companies to develop new components from scratch, and allows existing designs to be continuously optimised.
2. Measure, improve: If you digitise something you can measure it, and if you can measure it you can calibrate gains and losses, pinpointing when, where and how inefficiencies occur and how to improve performance.
3. Better decisions faster and cheaper: Smart infrastructure provides unprecedented understanding of asset performance. This enables owners and operators to act and invest to maximum effect – from optimising performance in real-time, to focused maintenance, with assets becoming increasingly efficient with time. Insights gained can be applied to the development of new assets.
4. Bottom-up value: Adding a digital layer to our physical infrastructure reaps a new resource – data. This can be shared with customers and third party companies which can manipulate and use it to solve problems, develop more personalised services and change their use of resources, adding value for themselves, infrastructure owners and operators alike. When Transport for London shared information on pick-up points for London’s cycle hire scheme, ordinary people took the initiative and created apps to help cyclists make the most of the service.
5. Free up humans to do the clever stuff: Earlier this year a group from Mott MacDonald developed CREATE – a programme which automates many of the routine stages of design. First applied to water pumping stations, it cuts a job that typically takes 15 days to just 15 minutes. Human input is needed simply to check the final design. This development has huge potential to speed commodity design and free engineers for what they are best at – problem solving.
6. Let our assets do the talking: Until now, there was no relationship between assets in one sector and another. But smart infrastructure means each will produce data in forms that can be understood by a single, overarching software application, meaning that assets can effectively ‘talk’ to each other. Traffic control systems already use multiple data sources on the road network plus weather information to minimise congestion and manage emergencies.
However, in order to unleash these opportunities the construction industry has to confront a number of challenges. Long established ways of working need to adapt to a modified industry. New skills must be learnt. Increased dependence on digital assets also means increased exposure to digital risks. Loss of data, privacy concerns and cybersecurity are all issues we read about regularly in the media, and we need to mitigate these problems as a central part of our design solutions to protect our clients and their customers.
But embracing both the changes and the risks is a minor price to pay for the benefits smart infrastructure will bring. Cuts to time, cost and carbon will benefits clients, end users and the environment. New capacity will be unleashed from existing assets, helping meet the challenges of population growth, rising customer expectations and resilience, against the backdrop of constrained resources and budgets. And the massive boost to innovation will release unknown benefits, taking the industry in new directions – all in the service of our ultimate customers: fare, bill, and taxpayers – you and me. Clearly, there is much to get excited about as we begin to build a world of smart infrastructure.