“Disruptive technologies” – a phrase we are hearing increasingly, but what does it mean for infrastructure and the world around us?
How and when should we – business, industry, engineers, policymakers, academia– respond and how do we keep up? New technologies are emerging at a seemingly relentless pace.
The McKinsey Global Institute’s definition spells it out. Disruptive technologies are “advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy”. Think the internet, social networking, mobile phones. Major challenges like climate change and population growth will without doubt continue to change the status quo, and spawn technological advances on a similar scale.
These innovations will change construction and engineering activity around the world – but what might this look like?
1. Driverless cars
We know the rise of autonomous vehicles is inevitable and could alter demand on the UK’s roads. Car ownership in cities is likely to diminish significantly as the technology lends itself to pay-per-use car-sharing models. Widespread uptake could have profound effects on the insurance sector, increase accessible mobility, lower air pollution, reduce congestion and potentially reduce road accidents.
The use of drones for deliveries could also affect the volume of traffic on city roads. Drones are also expected to alter and speed up planning and construction processes through their ability to check a site or location quickly and create 3D models of structures.
Additionally they can be used with advanced computer vision technology to survey structures for changes or defects, reducing the time and money spent on scaffolding, cranes, and reducing the safety risk associated with some inspections. As with driverless cars, this technology works well with a user-pays model, where infrastructure owners could rent airtime or pay for a live feed of the condition of their asset.
3. Potholes a thing of the past?
We are already seeing innovations in materials - self-healing concrete for example which mends hairline cracks. Research aims to go much further and create a “material for life”, with an in-built first aid kit that repairs itself over and over again. Advances like this could dramatically change our approach to maintenance - who knows, by 2050 maybe pot holes will be a thing of the past.
We do not have a crystal ball showing the infrastructure landscape in 35 years’ time, but we are approaching an era where machines will think for themselves, so anything is possible.
Yesterday I joined industry leaders in London to discuss how technologies and disruptive trends will influence our future infrastructure needs. It was one of many evidence gathering events taking place across the country, and will contribute to a “national needs assessment” – a huge piece of work being led by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and 12 other organisations including KPMG, Pinsent Masons and the University of Cambridge.
What became clear very quickly is that, with or without a crystal ball, it is absolutely right that analysis of our future infrastructure needs factors in technological game changers. It is also clear to me that we – engineers in unity with other professions - must get on the front foot and lead this debate not just react.
Our needs assessment will provide a vital evidence base, enabling strategic choices to be taken today, that will help to shape and mobilise the investment needed for tomorrow.