Fourth Industrial Revolution

How can we make infrastructure smarter?

Sarah Murray
Journalist, Financial Times/Economist Group
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From fixing leaking water pipes and unsafe bridges to upgrading ageing road and rail networks, governments around the world need to spend money on maintaining infrastructure. Such investments in maintenance can be substantial, accounting for 55% of total infrastructure investment in South Asia, for example. But they also represent an opportunity to make the renovated infrastructure smarter and, in some cases, to generate new revenue streams as well.

Digital technologies and increased computing power are providing the tools. At the planning and construction stage, for instance, 3D visualisation software and computer modeling enable planners and designers to ponder design alternatives for infrastructure upgrades before starting work; they can also help them secure permits or approvals more quickly. The Smart London Plan, for example, uses 3D visualisations of the city’s infrastructure so that planners can co-ordinate the road excavations that different utility companies need to carry out, thus avoiding unnecessary costs and disruption.

The insertion of sensors during the repair or building stage can also provide insights enabling better future management of infrastructure. In Minneapolis, for example, hundreds of sensors installed on the I-35W St Anthony Falls Bridge over the Mississippi River are monitoring its performance, giving engineers insights into how the bridge is ageing and when repairs are needed.

The gains are not limited to predictive maintenance, however; a growing number of local governments are turning to technology as a means of enhancing the efficiency and sustainability of infrastructure. In Austin, Texas, for instance, energy infrastructure is being equipped with smart-grid technologies — such as smart meters, sensors, databases and software — to improve load distribution and to reduce the need for extra generation or transmission capacity.

Similarly, in Singapore, a combination of hardware and software is being used to monitor in real time the city’s water distribution infrastructure. A network of sensors can track indicators that include pressure, flow rate, pH levels, turbidity and dissolved organic matter. The system, WaterWiSe, not only enables faster detection of leaks or burst pipes, it also facilitates long-term planning for maintenance and system expansion.

All of these productivity gains result in cost savings. Cutting power and water losses, for example, can cost less than 3% of the expenditure needed to add new capacity to the system, according to a 2013 report from the McKinsey Global Institute.

Getting more out of existing assets also creates opportunities to increase the income generated by infrastructure, particularly in the transport sector. A typical example is the replacement of staffed tollbooths with automated ones that can adjust tolls in real time depending on traffic. The result: increased vehicle throughput and generation of additional revenues while reducing congestion (which has its own economic costs). Overall, intelligent transportation systems for roads, railways, airports and ports could double or triple the use of those systems, according to McKinsey Global Institute.

The opening of a new bridge or road is often what makes the headlines, but in a context of a $1trn infrastructure investment gap, governments looking to save money and increase revenues might also want to look to the less glamorous task of upgrading their infrastructure — which technology is now making smarter as well.

This post first appeared on GE LookAhead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Sarah Murray is a specialist writer on business, society and the environment. She is a regular contributing author for the Economist Group.

Image: Traffic makes its way up the 110 freeway under an interchange of roads in Los Angeles. REUTERS/Mike Blake.

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