Tuesday 15 January 2019 11:54 am

The future of infrastructure needs artificial intelligence and new ways of working

During our morning commutes to work, many of us will grumble about unreliable trains, packed tube carriages, or too much traffic on our highways.

And yet, despite these complaints, we tend to keep a stiff upper lip and bear with the current state of infrastructure, rather than question how things could become better.

But if you look at infrastructure in the developed world, there’s much that needs to be redone: bridges are crumbling, and roads are in trouble. In emerging countries, new infrastructure needs to be built, including rail, roads, tunnels, and bridges.

The world’s population is expected to grow to nearly 10bn by 2050 – that’s two billion more people than today, with 75 per cent living in major cities.

To accommodate this growth, the construction industry will need to build an average of 13,000 buildings per day in major cities, and trillions of pounds will need to be invested in infrastructure.

We’re already seeing such commitment in the UK, with the government announcing in November its plan for £600bn worth of infrastructure over the next decade. The plan also calls for the use of modern techniques and digital technologies to help deliver this.

Indeed, we must confront the reality that with fewer natural resources, less space, and a need to reduce waste, we must do more with less — because there are simply not enough raw materials or money available to keep doing things the way that they have always been done.

Construction generates nearly a third of global waste, with volume expected to double by 2025. And the manufacturing supply chain wastes roughly 70 per cent of spare parts.

To meet increasing infrastructure demand responsibly, we must make more things, make them better, and make them with less negative impact on the world.

This is a massive challenge, but it’s also the biggest opportunity that designers and makers have ever had.

Part of the solution to this challenge is automation, which presents an opportunity to embrace new construction and manufacturing processes with less waste and better outcomes.

Technology brings information together, spurs stronger ideas, and helps people make better decisions. We must welcome endless learning and creativity, and work smarter, not harder, as we make the best use of existing resources to do more with less.

Imagine if architects, engineers, and contractors could team up to build something virtually before they built it in real life.

Working from one building model, they can explore dozens of options early in the design phase to facilitate ideation and collaboration before construction, helping to conserve resources. Real-time feedback on the cost, reliability, and risk of designs can improve the final model, the building, and the work itself.

What if this model could be applied to whole cities? What if citizens were involved in the ideation process? This requires a new mindset and clear vision, to be sure, but anything is possible when we reimagine the way we work. To succeed, let’s embrace adaptability, resilience, and community.

Digital, flexible tools will also help workers learn, grow, and adjust to the new world of work. But technology adoption challenges are real – and have to be tackled, today.

Ultimately, we have to bring people together and prioritise automation to positively impact local economies, balance the inevitability of more demand, the reality of fewer resources, and our aspiration for better.

Better buildings, better infrastructure, better work: automation is our ticket to better. We’ll have to find something else to grumble about in the mornings.