A panel of five young professionals, from different corners of the world, talk about the impact of technology on infrastructure.
Its high capital costs, technical complexity and centralized models required tight regulation, economic support and mass political appeal to succeed. Any attempt at an alternative vision, such as hydrogen-powered homes and cars, was unadvisable if not unattainable. Once a technology was entrenched in our infrastructure, it became economically and politically difficult to replace it.
Previous generations, particularly the baby boomers, developed and built infrastructure by investing in a future they were confidently certain of. They strengthened that foundation and passed it on to younger generations, complete with the public debt model and flawed discounted cash flow method they had conveniently used to pay for it:
— Boomer: “You’re welcome.”
— Millennial: “Hold my avocado and kale smoothie. I’m about to launch an unregulated, data-driven nursing home with robot caretakers…”
We are now more than 20-years into an information and telecommunications revolution that is shaping and defining a new era in human history. Just as the Boomers adapted and prospered from the Post-World War II economic surge, Millennials are positioned to be equally influential as the pace of technological change accelerates, threatening obsolescence and disrupting traditional infrastructure business models.
Ashleigh Mateer on ‘smarter transport’: Technology is going to make life lot easier. In London, we have a lot of issues with transport capacity. The London Underground, for example, is not pleasant at peak times. New services like Crossrail are coming soon, but they are expensive and take considerable time to develop. Technology might allow us to manage movement smarter — allowing people to work from home and make remote working more commonplace. That could smooth out some of the peak capacity demand and help operators manage the whole system more efficiently.
Technology will also have the potential to free up capacity on the roads by making logistics, ordering and supply operate more efficiently. 3D printing might change how and where companies manufacture products — shortening the distance between production and consumption. There is also last mile logistics where companies like Uber can activate people driving near a house or a supply centre to pick up a delivery of goods and take it somewhere near their intended destination. That’s particularly prevalent in Asia where there are more experimental things going on.
Yesenia Arteta on ‘cleaner transport’: Colombia is different to other countries when it comes to public transportation. We are really into Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems! Bogotá has one of the biggest — if not the biggest — BRT systems in the world. What’s changing is that we are trying to move towards cleaner sources of energy. We are going from diesel-powered to maybe electric, hybrid, other types of energy that do not cause as much pollution. We are also evaluating a Metro light rail system in Bogotá because the city has a lot of people and the BRT system is not quite enough. We are trying to come up with ideas to see if we can increase the availability of transportation modes to service all of the people.
Morten Reimer on ‘digitalization’: Infrastructure organisations are becoming much more data-driven. They are seeking reliable information to support better decision-making. There is great potential for further digitalisation in cities — with machine learning, forecasting tools and predictive analytics being used to solve urgent challenges and drive better use of existing infrastructure. In Denmark, we are helping organisations to be much more data-driven and thereby being able to apply machine learning to predict traffic situations. We see a critical need for combining different data sets to be more proactive and predictive about causation. For example, by combining traffic and weather forecast data and linking it to big events, we will have a more reliable picture of reciprocal consequences going forward and that “picture” is important to establish in the urban areas.
Alan Mak on ‘drones’: Drones will play an important role in our future. I usually put them into three buckets — long-distance transportation for rural areas, fragmented transportation for the urban environment and augmented data collection. Augmented data collection would include things like site surveys, 3D model capture, thermal imaging, and collecting pollution or temperature data. Currently though, it is the first two that generally get the most attention when, for example, companies like Google are heavily invested in these systems.The hard part is using drones within cities — both in terms of the regulatory environment and technology capabilities. Can a drone be made to not collide with a skyscraper? If a drone hits the wall of a skyscraper that’s 50 floors up and suddenly falls down and hits someone that would be a huge safety issue. If a drone fails over a farm field there is much lower risk. People within the industry and government need to validate what are the risks associated with drone technologies and balance that with the benefits to be achieved.
Lauren Kerr on ‘different ways of working’: From an Irish perspective, there is a mass movement of young people to Dublin — so working remotely and leveraging technology to make your working life and your personal life easier is quite common. It’s also probably linked to the fact that Ireland’s transport infrastructure isn’t currently as strong as it could be so commuting can be more difficult/time consuming.Japan — by contrast — is heavily developed with very good transport infrastructure. Yet working remotely and leveraging technology isn’t as common. Certain companies have initiatives to encourage different ways of working but there’s also a strong cultural perception that you need to be seen at work. So, technology-enabled remote working hasn’t really fully delivered what it could here.
Alan Mak: That leap in technology is already there. Right? We already have car clubs and car shares in Toronto, which use phones to find a nearby car. The next leap is maybe autonomize those cars.
Morten Reimer: That will appeal to me. But I will also want to have my own car. I don’t want to let that freedom go. But actually when I’m traveling a lot around in urban areas, I use multiple types of vehicles. I use trains, bicycles, buses, and all of the different transportation modes available. So I’m actually not using my leased car that much. I think the whole autonomous driving concept is really interesting. There are some philosophical issues that need to be solved. Not that it scares me, but I think it’s something we’ll have to deal with in the near future.
Lauren Kerr: I think that car clubs are already quite popular in Japan especially in the bigger cities and surrounding areas. The ongoing maintenance costs of having a car (tax, insurance and parking) can be quite prohibitive if you live in the centre of Tokyo considering how seldom you may actually drive, so having the flexibility to just pay a low monthly charge and have access to a car whenever you need it can be a convenient way to avoid excessive fees etc. It can also be really handy for trips outside of the city, if say you want to go hiking and you need a car to get there or back. Outside the centre and in more rural areas transport options can be limited, for example there may only be a bus and it may only depart once every one-two hours. Using technology to get around this just makes so much sense.
Ashleigh Mateer on ‘data awareness’: People being armed with more information about their health are going to live healthier lifestyles and be more productive. Having wearables, like Fitbits, and smart phone apps creates a new level of awareness that comes with the idea of having things that tell you your heart rate and your calories during the day.
The danger is self-diagnosis causing people to seek out more healthcare than they actually need. But perhaps this too can become more formalized through technology and bring some of the cost out of health organizations from the bottom so that more money can be spent on a more detailed and complicated technology to do it more effectively with some of the more serious health issues.
Morten Reimer on ‘machine learning’: I see a huge potential for machine learning and IT solutions to get healthcare more digitalised in general. Machine learning will help to deliver a better diagnosis of what is wrong with you. For example, I know that IBM Watson has been tested to deliver more accurate oncology diagnoses.Yesenia Arteta on ‘virtual healthcare’ Medical histories are mostly handed by paper in Bogotá. Hospitals are trying to move these records towards tablet computers — having everything online or in a cloud — to provide easier access whenever, for whatever information is required. But the journey towards a technology-friendly environment is not easy.I think there is great potential in Colombia for virtual healthcare. We have the difficulty of mobility — both moving through congested cities and accessing some more remote parts of the country. Given that most people in Colombia own a cell phone — probably a smart phone — it’s interesting to imagine that we are not far from extending low-cost basic healthcare through technology and providing virtual access to people that otherwise would have a hard time going to the doctor.
Lauren Kerr on ‘Japan’s energy future’: There is a big push now towards renewables in Japan — quite a significant push. Japan has lagged a bit behind in terms of renewables generally, so that is something that has been gaining more attention — in particular since the 2011 Great Japan Eastern Earthquake and subsequent shut down of the nuclear power reactors. Wind energy is becoming increasingly popular here though the main focus to date has been solar PV (photovoltaic) because the FITs (feed-in-tariffs) are quite high. From next year Japan will start a reverse FIT auction where the FIT starts at the cap price and reduces rather than ever going back up as high as it used to be. The increase in renewables has sparked related conversations that focus on decentralized energy and how that impacts on the grid in terms of intermittency of supply, battery storage and smart grids etc.
Alan Mak on ‘microgrids and distributed generation’: The main concern with distributed generation in Canada is the regulatory portion and cost function. For example, if I generate a kilowatt of energy here — what price do I get when I sell it? Do I sell it at the distributor price or can I sell it at the generator price? If you sell at the generator price then it’s not economically viable yet. But if you sell at the distributor rate — what I pay when I use energy at home — then it becomes much more economically viable for generation that is used locally. The argument against this is “the system is a system” — you can’t use 1 percent of the system and not think about the other 99 percent. Each has a valid point, and I’m not sure where it’s going to go. If you want to encourage people to have segregated energy sources, it’s likely going to be the distributor price. I think the government is pushing it more that way.”