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Smart Infrastructure: Need of the Hour

Infrastructure is the lifeline connecting people, facilitating global trade and acting as a pillar of economic success. Asia alone will require US$30 trillion of infrastructure investment between 2016–2030 as per an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report. Increasing urbanisation and economic growth will entail upgrading existing and creating new infrastructure assets. Technology can be a great enabler in meeting our infrastructure needs better. With the rise of a digital-powered Industry 4.0 revolution, the new infrastructure design can be future-proof while existing infrastructure utilisation and operations can be optimised along with enhancing user experience.

Why Smart Infrastructure?

A smart infrastructure is flexible to user needs, can adapt to the changing demand profile and aims at lowering the overall “cost of service” throughout the asset lifecycle predominantly using technology solutions. It entails mapping the business objectives, selecting the right technology tools and having a holistic implementation framework.

Smart infrastructure can help in the following ways:

  • Decision-making – Automated or assisted decision-making based on asset data will be the major drivers of gaining benefits from a smart asset. With the availability of real-time, accurate and comprehensive information, asset managers are more confident in making critical decisions through use of data analytics tools. For example, a leading transport operator in Southeast Asia is prioritising assets for maintenance and replacements based on “asset risk” to overall network reliability.
  • Flexibility – Digital technology can help better manage and operate the infrastructure through use of robotics and AI methodologies thereby offering higher flexibility. Melbourne is currently trialling a system for better traffic routing and management through use of real-time traffic data.
  • Revenue and cost optimisation – Key objective of an infrastructure asset owner predominantly is to improve an asset’s revenue and profitability; for which smart infrastructure can significantly help. Based on a World Bank Report on Infratech, utilities could achieve a 15–20% increase in efficiency with the use of augmented reality alone.
  • Sustainability – ESG is one of the key upcoming challenges for infrastructure asset owners. With the use of new digital technologies like digital twins; it is not only easier to track the carbon footprint of an asset, but it’s also useful for optimising energy consumption. In addition, technology can seamlessly provide green financiers with significant assurance that an asset is meeting its environmental impact goals. A digital twin implementation for a university in Singapore coupled with IoT sensors was able to deliver reduction in energy consumption by approximately 25%.
  • Customer centricity – Leveraging the feedback loop from the social media feed can help improve infrastructure service delivery. Sydney water is executing a Proof of Concept (POC) to consolidate user feedback from social media channels and route it to priorities maintenance.

Potential benefits are quite apparent but are not necessarily easy to quantify given the limited empirical evidence. This has also been highlighted as one of the biggest challenges hindering adoption of technologies by asset owners based on a 2020 Built Environment Infrastructure sector survey conducted by KPMG in Singapore.

What are the key Smart Technologies?

  • Analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) – Present-day infrastructure assets with embedded instrumentation relay significant data which can be ingested by various machine learning models to derive decision-making insights. For example, heat rate improvement is achieved by controlling plant parameters through an AI model which dynamically responds to changing load requirements.
  • Smart Devices & Wearables – The advent of IoT sensors & actuators and GPS-enabled wearables has tremendous potential to enable remote monitoring and operations of construction or operational assets. A Scandinavian construction firm is currently trialling remote operations of construction equipment through creation of a connected sensor network.
  • Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality – With cutting-edge AR/MR capabilities, infrastructure assets are visualising their construction in a virtualised environment. A Singaporean startup has deployed and implemented virtual reality-based collaboration platform for resolving design issues faster and conducting progress meetings over a virtual site walkthrough.
  • Digital Twins – The digital technologies are likely to converge into a “Digital Twin” which is essentially a digital replica of the asset. While early-stage digital twins are useful for capturing asset data comprehensively, advanced digital twins are useful for maintenance prioritisation and asset reliability simulations at the individual or network level.
  • Materials/Fabrication Technologies – 3D printing and nanomaterials have additional capabilities to transform the supply chain for infrastructure assets. 3D printed spare parts can significantly change how inventory is planned and managed for complex infrastructure assets; while nanomaterials can significantly reduce the quantum of materials and time required for the construction of assets.

Need for a “Support Backbone”

Futuristic technology implementations have immense potential but need to be supported comprehensively by the enablers as follows:

  • Cloud/Edge Computing – Cloud computing (storage and processing) is expected to be a primary enabler to process the complex computing tasks which most of the above technologies will require. Cloud is a more cost-effective way of storing and processing voluminous data.
  • Communications Backbone – 4G/5G networks are the core communication backbone which fully enables technologies like AR/VR, IoT, Edge Analytics and Digital Twins. Without the required connectivity speed, the time lag in transactions can significantly hamper the usability of the above technologies.
  • Cyber Security – Any potential digital technology and device will need protection from vulnerabilities when they are connected on a cloud-based/public network from cyber threats. Enabling adequate protection of data and intrusions can provide organisations with the assurance to use these technologies more confidently and securely.
  • Data Governance & Interoperability – Data is a common denominator when we talk about digital technologies. But data by itself is often “low in value” and “high in volume”. Data Governance is the support framework that enables conversion of data into usable information for decision-making. Principles of Data Governance include maintaining Data Accuracy, Timeliness, Completeness, Correctness and Precision.

How should Technology Implementations be planned?

Technology will not succeed for an asset if it is not looked at holistically from an organisational perspective. For example, a large utilities player in Southeast Asia has implemented an organisation-wide ERP system but there is limited use because it has not captured the current “process on the ground” adequately in system design. When technology implementations are planned for infrastructure assets, it is important to look at it from a perspective of:

  • Strategy and Leadership – A well-thought-out and adequately sponsored strategy is essential for success.
  • Process – Organisational processes need to be adequately mapped to a system.
  • Technology – Selecting the right technologies which are fit for use and flexible is extremely important.
  • People – Operating technology solutions requires adequate skillsets.

How to implement Smart Infrastructure?

Based on the feedback received from multiple infrastructure stakeholders, the following steps can help effectively implement smart infrastructure:

  • Leadership Commitment – Sponsorship from the top level is paramount for technology implementation. A properly calibrated framework on technology investment, short-term business impact and long-term benefit realisation timeframe needs to be agreed upon upfront.
  • Digital Transformation Roadmap – Develop a comprehensive 5 to 10-year roadmap at an organisation level. Instead of implementing multiple solutions at one go, it is critical to adequately prioritise and stagger the implementation.
  • Business Processes Alignment – Coherence between the business processes and technology solution will ensure that technology as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
  • Use cases – Use cases need to be developed and aligned with the business objectives. An appropriate benefits measurement framework to track performance is essential to gain traction for the process and achieve broader stakeholder buy-ins.
  • People – Upskilling people and sharing the benefits of the transformation will lead to wider appreciation, acceptance, and adoption across the organisation.

What is the Smart Infrastructure vision?

It is imperative that the infrastructure sector not only benefits but uses the emerging new technology platform to leapfrog into a new era of seamless service delivery. While technology solutions are fast becoming affordable and ubiquitous, we should not discount the significant organisational resources necessary for a successful rollout. Technology can help extract more value from existing assets while offering a more cost-efficient delivery of new projects. The time is ripe for infrastructure asset owners and managers to leverage technology for building a sustainable and smart future.

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