If the pandemic had lasted months (not years), perhaps many of the digital habits it spawned would have washed away as life quickly returned to normal. But the pandemic is not receding (setbacks and recoveries - and recoveries and setbacks). And the shift to digitization is only picking up speed. Simply put, COVID-19 has made digital real for the infrastructure sector. And, as we predicted last year, the permanency of the changes we are witnessing are directly related to the depth and duration of the disruption being caused by COVID-19.
Over the past year, we have seen infrastructure players renew their efforts to digitize. We are seeing data, analytics and new technologies being used to dramatically improve the planning cycle. We are seeing digital become deeply embedded into the development of new assets and services. And we are seeing infrastructure owners and operators starting to build digital into their operations - from integrated asset management systems through to new payment systems.
Some of the more advanced infrastructure players are now exploring opportunities to collect and manage data across multiple assets and throughout their supply chains to create even more value. This is good news, but the industry could go further. Consider, for example, how navigation apps like Waze provide users with a ‘whole of system’, multi-modal view of the options for their journey. The difficult question is why that data isn’t already being used by city traffic planners and operations managers to make their cities more livable?
But it's not just about making the city more livable, it's also about making it greener and more affordable. Formula One pit teams are said to run more than a billion simulations during a race to keep the car in optimal condition and plot competitive strategy. Consider how that type of insight might be applied to the power sector, for example, to provide operators with a range of real-time options for ensuring grids are optimized and carbon emissions reduced.
Yet, as infrastructure players rush to digitize everything from operations to customer experiences, challenges are starting to emerge. Whether it comes down to cost, comfort or capabilities, some users are unable to leap the digital divide as quickly as others. Infrastructure providers need to be sensitive to the needs of such users and find ways to ensure they are not excluded from access.
At the same time, as systems become more digitized and integrated, the threat of cyber attacks or catastrophic failures cascading across the system become more worrisome. That, in turn, is starting to challenge the acceptability of standardizing systems across multiple assets.
This year, expect to see infrastructure players start to take a much longer-term and holistic view of digital — from integrating data from the back office through to the front office, through to engaging with users and customers to drive digital literacy, access and acceptance.
As we suggested in past editions, infrastructure CEOs will need to start thinking more like tech leaders. And they will need to stop seeing their CIOs as the ‘computer guy’ and start integrating the expertise of their departments into the overall business strategy.
For the infrastructure sector, this is the year that digital becomes real. It will become embedded. And it will move to the core of the interaction between assets, operators and users.