Tomorrow's infrastructure, tomorrow's technology

When you think of the challenge of tomorrow’s infrastructure, what springs to mind?

Will the role of technology in delivering tomorrow
Will the role of technology in delivering tomorrow's infrastructure be disruptive?

Perhaps it’s the question of how the supply chain can scale to deliver that vast pipeline of assets that will be needed by a growing and urbanizing world population; perhaps it’s questions of how to get money to flow more freely into infrastructure projects and how they should be procured; or perhaps it’s how we can ensure that what we build tomorrow remains both sustainable and relevant for subsequent generations.

Whichever aspect you focus on, one thing is certain, technology will be playing an increasingly significant role – and that role may well be disruptive.

Technology has always changed the infrastructure sector - both the nature of the assets we’ve built, and the way in which those assets have been delivered. History is littered with examples, from the invention of the tunnelling shield, which enabled Brunel to create the world’s first tunnel under a river, to more recently, the use of building information modelling (BIM) to improve efficiency and predictability of infrastructure projects, as they become larger and more complex.

Emerging infrastructure technologies

Today though, the sheer number of emerging technology trends vying for the attention of infrastructure professionals can seem bewildering: 3D printing, infinite computing, crowd sourcing, augmented reality, drones, robotics, reality capture, gaming engines, the internet of things, generative algorithms, big data, predictive analytics, to name a few. Making sense of this explosion of new technologies, understanding and unlocking their potential can seem like a daunting task.

What we can say with confidence is that individually, each has the potential to change one or more infrastructure processes, just as their predecessors did – the mechanical excavator changed physical construction, the invention of computer-aided design (CAD) changed the way infrastructure designs were documented, and so on. But, take a step back, and you might just see that collectively, the interplay between these trends is delivering something much bigger – they’re fundamentally rewriting how we will design, make and use infrastructure, and the implications might be profound.

New industrial revolution

The act of design is today a best-practical practice, where the number of different options you can investigate for a given infrastructure challenge, and the depth of evaluation, is constrained by the resources at your disposal – you typically have a fixed amount of time, money, data, or expertise with which to make design choices. But tomorrow, unlimited amounts of computer processing power in the cloud, together with unlimited amounts of data, and the ability to connect talent together seamlessly, regardless of location, are going to enable design to become a best-possible practice – enabling the investigation of huge numbers of design options in a timely manner to identify the ‘best’ solution.

The act of making, or how projects are physically constructed, is being disrupted by the new industrial revolution sweeping across the manufacturing sector. For over a hundred years, modern manufacturing has been characterized by the mantra of “economies of scale” – it’s more expensive to produce a single, bespoke component than a mass produced, standard component, because complexity and uniqueness are expensive traits. But with the advent of digital fabrication, it is becoming possible to go from a design to a finished real world component in a single touch, in a single machine, without having to retool. In that type of environment, complexity and uniqueness are essentially free. What will the implications be for both infrastructure designers, given this new freedom, and for physical delivery, given the implication for traditional supply chains?

And the act of using infrastructure is something that technology is increasingly digitalizing. The tumbling price of sensors, advances in reality capture technologies, and of course, the Internet of Things is enabling us to monitor every aspect of infrastructure performance. Collectively, the data produced could enable us to get better at forecasting future demand patterns at a granular level, and understand how infrastructure systems relate to one another, opening the door to systems-of-systems approaches to infrastructure planning, as our cities in particular become more complex.

Today’s technology (particularly BIM) has great potential – tomorrow’s technology trends, even more so. At Autodesk, we’re calling this emerging period of the industry’s evolution the “era of connection”. Yes, it’s in its infancy, but it won’t stay there for long. But the main driver for success will arguably be the ability for industry executives and engineers to change their relationships with technology, embrace it strategically, and harness its power to solve problems in non-traditional, perhaps even radical new ways.

Want to learn more?

Join ICE, Autodesk, KMPG, ARUP and Anglian Water in a live TV debate, streamed online, on Transforming Infrastructure with Technology, 29 September 12.00