This article was first published on The Business Times.
The world is facing two big shifts from this decade into the next. The first, is the advent of technology and the digital revolution sweeping across industries and economies. The second, is the push to build or renew existing infrastructure for catering to growing urbanisation and connectivity needs.
The confluence of these two trends, is that more industries and governments need to consider changing consumer expectations and the impact of disruptive digital technologies when building new infrastructure.
On its part, the infrastructure sector need to consider this rapidly evolving convergence into their plans and governments too need to accelerate their policy agenda to effectively support digitalisation in the sector.
Adding to this increasing complexity, is sluggish global economic growth this past decade, meaning an overall muted investment climate for new infrastructure.
Even now, as global economic growth starts to pick up, improving the productivity of existing infrastructure becomes the more realistic alternative.
In Singapore, the Committee for the Future Economy’s report released this year also noted the problem of low real estate and infrastructure sector productivity and its impact on Singapore’s economic growth.
The answer seems therefore to lie in leveraging the digital revolution to improve productivity.
From design to construction, operations to maintenance
Disruptive digital technology has potential to unlock productivity improvements at all stages of an infrastructure asset life cycle. Using digital technology more effectively for infrastructure projects, from design to construction and operational & maintenance phases can reap significant benefits for both governments and industries.
One example of this in the use of Communications Based Train Control, a high capacity signalling technology enabling shorter train arrival frequency and safer operations embedded within a projects design phase. This has already been adopted on the Metro Tunnel project in Melbourne, Australia and for Singapore’s new MRT lines.
Another, is the increasing adoption of collaborative Building Information Modelling (BIM) technologies in the construction sector to improve design quality, detect design clashes and enable faster project delivery. A 2016 Worldwide CAD Trends survey indicates that 67 percent of BIM users enjoy shorter design times and 40 percent report additional cost savings. Leading engineering and construction firms are also exploring the use of drones for remote project monitoring, robotics and smart sensors. By equipping them with Global Positioning System trackers & sensors, equipment relay real time data around productivity, fuel efficiency and fatigue levels to their controllers.)
The sector is also moving towards a manufacturing approach with use of industrial 3D printing to fabricate modular components for on-site assembly resulting in faster project delivery, higher quality and reducing construction accidents.
Optimal operations planning across an infrastructure network is essential to derive higher asset productivities and using digital technologies and analytics can be extremely helpful. For instance, power and utilities companies are leveraging data analytics for drawing predictive usage trends to shift peak loads and smoothening network usage. This becomes vital for network operators in planning new networks and minimising maintenance.
History is replete with examples how proper maintenance minimises infrastructure failure and disruption. A recent report highlights economic impact of corrosion in the Australian water sector alone to be nearly 3-5 percent of GDP every year.
With mature data collection regimes and advanced data analytics software, both private and public infrastructure owners will find it easier not only to monitor their assets in real time but also predict and prevent the asset failures causing disruption to ailing infrastructure.
For example, a mobile ATV using Light Detection & Ranging (LiDAR) sensor technology was used to map the condition of rail and track systems for Singapore’s MRT network. This has helped in significantly reducing time required to conduct asset surveys and improved maintenance planning.
Rethink, rewrite, reform and implement
The possibilities of the digital revolution are endless for improving infrastructure productivity and managing the associated risks and challenges. There are four imperatives which infrastructure planners need to consider.
The first, is the rethink the role of data as a key asset. Organisations now need to focus on understanding data generated, removing redundancies and use data analytics for transforming operations and driving targeted improvements.
Secondly, rewrite strategic plans. Plans need to take an organisation-wide perspective for adopting digital technologies and promote a long term vision to build capability and drive sustainable growth. For example, staff up skilling is equally important when considering implementation of digital solutions to fully realise the solution’s potential.
Thirdly, reform project selection. Rather than new projects serving rising demand, it should explore the potential for improving productivity of existing infrastructure using more technology. New projects should be approved only once exhaustive analysis to improve asset productivity does not fulfil demand.
Fourthly, organisations need to focus on better project implementation to achieve project delivery within time & budget and meeting targeted objectives. More projects increasingly benefit from greater collaboration between infrastructure ecosystem partners, including technology vendors, start-ups, implementation specialists, customer experience designers and government agencies.
Governments can play a part
As we move in the digital age, economies which are able to adopt and implement digital technologies quickly will have a significant growth advantage over other economies.
The government can help complement industries efforts by taking two essential steps. The first, is in reviewing existing laws and the second in understanding their own buying power for infrastructure.
Governments need not only to proactively remove legal obstacles to the greater use of technology, but also to anticipate emerging responsibilities and risks. New laws, regulations and incentives will have to address upcoming technological trends thereby facilitating use of technology for improving infrastructure operations and planning.
As a major buyer of infrastructure, governments can also drive change. For example, by mandating the use of digital technologies during contracting to drive selective adoption of technologies by infrastructure companies. This can help create an adoption wave across the infrastructure sector.
Singapore, with its agile economy has a strategic opportunity to be at the forefront of the technological revolution in infrastructure. Local industries looking to expand internationally would then have significant advantage over competitors if they are able to harness the power of digital technologies.
The time is now, for the infrastructure industry and governments to come together and implement digital transformation in a seamless and collaborative fashion to unleash greater infrastructure productivity.
This opinion is contributed by Sharad Somani, Partner and Mitul Shah, Manager of the Infrastructure Projects Advisory practice, at KPMG in Singapore. The views expressed are those of the authors.