Industry 4.0 is blurring the boundaries between the physical and virtual world. From driver-less vehicles, drones and connected homes to intelligent robots and 3D printing, technological change is happening at an unprecedented pace. The applicability of such exponential technologies presents enormous opportunities for the infrastructure sector. The dawn of blockchain, artificial intelligence, robotics and cognitive automation technologies are propelling the infrastructure space in the next direction. Just like flying cars and autonomous vehicles are becoming a reality, it is not unrealistic anymore to predict railway track breakdown in advance, or create hyperloops with direct connectivity to destinations, or fast-track creation of multi-lane highways. From building automation to virtual reality and the use of 3D printing for construction, technology is likely to transform the infrastructure sector.
These applications seek to drive greater efficiencies and enhance user experience. For example, the Indian Railways is planning to develop 200 applications for travellers, employees, and other stakeholders to increase transparency and enhance experience. These apps are expected to cater to different needs: Citizens will be able to access information regarding catering stalls and their location, lodge complaints related to travel and facilities, and even track rail projects, and status of station redevelopment, etc. The data generated through use of such apps could help the allocation of amenities, gauge user priorities, and make authorities more accountable for projects. Singapore has introduced the use of facial recognition and advanced CT X-ray machines which do not require passengers to remove their laptops from their bags during security checks. This enables passengers to board the plane in a speedy, hassle-free way.
There is immense scope for use of exponential technologies in the infrastructure landscape. According to the World Economic Forum, penetration of technology is expected to result in almost 20% reduction in life-cycle costs of a project, along with substantial improvements in completion time, quality, and safety. Virtual reality and augmented reality have the potential to enable government officials to digitally tour in-progress roads and highways projects. Robots could facilitate construction tasks such as demolitions, the laying of bricks, and excavations. Drones fitted with advanced cameras could allow officials to monitor disaster-struck regions or collect data on the traffic situation at congested routes in peak hours. Blockchain-based systems could ease the process of a number of services such as land registration, customs duty payment, supply chain traceability, and so on. IT based tools could also be deployed to monitor large projects, and present hi-tech dashboards based on data analytics.
Apart from physical infrastructure, technology could improve infrastructure delivery as well. For instance, unmanned aerial vehicles/drones could cut down delivery times in the logistics sector, and developing 3D maps of underground pipelines (of water, sewer, electricity, gas, broadband, etc.) has the potential to reduce the amount of time it takes maintenance workers to detect and repair faults. Drones could also be deployed to provide implementation support in difficult areas or in large projects, and help with aerial surveys and project monitoring.
Apart from delivering time/cost savings, technology could be used for extracting multiple uses from the same infrastructure. For instance, a solar tree could be used for energy efficient lighting as well as air quality monitoring and providing wireless broadband connectivity. Smart traffic lights may be used to re-route travellers through a less congested route by connecting with individual cars’ GPS. Modelling the impact of natural calamities on infrastructure could help better preparation, while assessing the impact of infrastructure on environment and incorporating these in the planning processes, and thus, potentially, helping minimise environmental impacts. Construction aid in high-risk areas, emergency response for disaster-hit regions, and remote health monitoring are some other areas where advanced technology tools may be used. Applications for management of commercial spaces, airports, railway stations, and other infrastructure facilities with high footfalls are also being explored and could smoothen consumer transitions and benefit operators and businesses alike.
While all this may sound achievable, governments generally aren’t traditionally known to be early adopters of technology or innovation. A survey conducted by Deloitte across more than 70 countries revealed that 78% government official respondents agreed that digital capabilities allow their employees to work better with citizens. Yet, most government departments are cautious in adopting new technologies or processes in government functions, even on a pilot basis, owing to limited skillsets, involvement of public money and lengthy decision-making processes, amongst others. Embracing technology in infrastructure is picking up pace albeit cautiously. From the public sector agencies’ perspective, exploring smaller use cases in a regulatory sandbox environment to test proof of concepts, wherever feasible, could be one of the strategies. Another could be to collaborate with start-ups on the technology curve to address the challenge of skill availability within. In addition, incorporating flexibility with regards to technology adoption while envisioning large scale projects, to be implemented either on their own or through private partners, could also help open the doors to rethink infrastructure delivery.
From a private sector perspective, this seems to be the time to adopt disruption, as governments adapt. While weighing the risks aptly is non-negotiable, using technological innovations deftly to deliver infrastructure and services could lead to a decisive positioning. This would entail new business models and collaborations and, most of all, the ability to conceive and demonstrate the do-ability.
Government departments, businesses and citizens concur on the potential of exponential technologies in improving the infrastructure base. The ecosystem is ripe and the time is now for harnessing the power of these technologies in infrastructure.
By Vishwas Udgirkar and Aanchal Garg Karanth. Udgirkar is partner, Deloitte India, and Karanth is senior manager, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India LLP.