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Technology: The Engine of Smarter, Greener Cities

Asian cities need to fuel urbanisation and economic growth by upgrading existing and creating new infrastructure assets. Technology is a great enabler in these needs, but how can we leverage and finance it in an efficient and effective way to keep our smart city initiatives at full throttle?

Technology: The Engine of Smarter, Greener Cities

The Industry 4.0 revolution heralds the dawn of a new era for the infrastructure industry. Technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) is now at the helm of many projects in the region and it is only just ramping up. Asia alone will require US$30 trillion of infrastructure investment between 2016–2030 according to an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report
To keep up with this, Asian cities need to fuel urbanisation and economic growth by upgrading existing infrastructure assets and creating new ones. Technology is a great enabler in these needs, but how can we leverage and finance it in an efficient and effective way to keep our smart city initiatives at full throttle?

Smart Infrastructure Drives Smart Cities

According to the Asian Development Bank, rapid growth in many regions of Asia has generated urban sprawl and unregulated development in risk-prone areas such as flood zones. Digital technology can help cities achieve more effective monitoring, mapping, and analysis of urban environments, ultimately improving land use planning and decision making.

These are just some of the ways smart infrastructure can help:

  • Decision-making – The use of data analytics tools provides accurate and comprehensive real-time data for automated or assisted decision-making, while also empowering asset managers to make better-informed decisions at critical times. For example, technology has enabled a leading transport operator in Southeast Asia to prioritise assets for maintenance and replacements by comparing “asset risk” to overall network reliability.  
  • Flexibility – Technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) can greatly improve the management and operation the infrastructure by offering higher flexibility to explore faster and better solutions to smart city challenges. Melbourne illustrates this with its new trial system that leverages real-time traffic data for easier traffic routing and management.  
  • Revenue and cost optimisation – Smart infrastructure can also improve asset revenue and profitability. Based on a World Bank Report on Infratech, utilities could achieve a 15–20% increase in efficiency with the use of augmented reality alone.  
  • Sustainability – Meeting ESG goals is no easy feat, but one that can be overcome with new digital technologies. Digital twins, which makes it easier to not only track the carbon footprint of an asset but also optimise energy consumption with tangible results for green financiers is one such example: A Singapore university has successfully implemented a digital twin with IoT sensors that was able to reduce energy consumption by approximately 25%.  
  • Customer centricity – Platforms such as social media offer companies accessible two-way communication with users, making it easier for companies to improve infrastructure service delivery. Currently, Sydney Water is executing a Proof of Concept (POC) to consolidate user feedback from social media channels and route it to priorities maintenance.

Potential benefits are apparent but are not necessarily easy to quantify given the limited empirical evidence. This has also been highlighted as one of the biggest challenges hindering adoption of technologies by asset owners based on a 2020 Built Environment Infrastructure sector survey conducted by KPMG in Singapore.

Smart Technologies – The Key to the Ignition

Smart infrastructure is flexible to user needs, adapts to changing demand profiles, and aims to lower “cost of service” throughout the asset lifecycle. However, every digital transformation journey is different, and companies should ensure they have a holistic implementation framework and are choosing the right technologies that best fit their business objectives.

  • Analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) – Present-day infrastructure assets with embedded instrumentation relay significant data which can be ingested by various machine learning models to derive actionable insights. For example, the heat rate of a plant can be improved by controlling plant parameters with an AI model that dynamically responds to changing load requirements.
  • Smart Devices & Wearables – The advent of GPS-enabled wearables and IoT sensors and actuators is already demonstrating their potential to enable remote monitoring and operations of construction or operational assets. A Scandinavian construction firm is currently trialing remote operations of construction equipment through the creation of a connected sensor network.
  • Digital Twins – The digital technologies are likely to converge into a “Digital Twin” which is essentially a digital replica of the asset. While early-stage digital twins are useful for capturing asset data comprehensively, advanced digital twins are useful for maintenance prioritisation and asset reliability simulations at the individual or network level.
  • Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality (AM/MR) – With today’s cutting-edge AR/MR capabilities, infrastructure assets are visualising their construction in a virtualised environment, allowing organisations to insert more details within a shorter period of time. A Singaporean startup has deployed and implemented a virtual reality-based collaboration platform to resolve design issues faster and conduct progress meetings through a virtual site walkthrough.
  • Materials/Fabrication Technologies – 3D printing and nanomaterials have additional capabilities to transform the supply chain for infrastructure assets. For example, 3D printed spare parts can significantly change how inventory is planned and managed for complex infrastructure assets, while nanomaterials can significantly reduce the quantum of materials and time required for the construction of assets.

The Importance of a Solid Digital Framework

Futuristic technology implementations have immense potential but can be hindered by archaic digital infrastructure such as aging servers, software, and storage. To be able to truly achieve the full potential of these technologies, businesses should ensure a strong IT foundation that can support their deployment. Some key services integral to smart infrastructure implementations are:

  • Cloud/Edge computing – Cloud computing (storage and processing) is a cost-effective way of storing and processing voluminous data that is primary in processing the complex computing tasks that most of the aforementioned technologies require.  
  • Network support –  Broadband networks such as 4G and 5G are fundamental to delivering the digital services such as AR/VR, IoT, edge analytics, and Digital Twins. Without the required connectivity speed, delays in transactions can significantly hamper the usability of the above technologies.  
  • Cybersecurity – Security vulnerabilities are abound in a digital age when many devices are connected to cloud-based/public networks. Ensuring adequate protection of data and intrusions allows organisations to use these technologies safely and confidently.
  • Data governance & interoperability – Data is often “low in value” and “high in volume”. Data governance is a necessary support framework that enables the conversion of data into actionable insights. Principles of data governance include maintaining data accuracy, timeliness, completeness, and correctness and precision.  

Charting the Route Towards the Infrastructure’s Future

Having the fanciest technology does not guarantee a smooth journey towards a truly smart future. It is also important to look at digital initiatives holistically from an organisational perspective. The lack of direction can lead to spending wastage or underutilised technology. For example, a large utilities player in Southeast Asia has implemented an organisation-wide ERP system, but this is currently limited in use because it does not adequately capture the current “process on the ground” in system design.

While planning for technology implementations, it is important to look at it from a perspective of:

  • Strategy and leadership – A comprehensive and adequately sponsored strategy is essential for success.
  • Process – Organisational processes need to be adequately mapped to a system.
  • Technology – Selecting technologies that are suitable and flexible enough for your business goals.
  • People – Operating technology solutions requires adequate skillsets.

Preparing For the Journey

As with every expedition, it is essential to ensure all bases are covered and that one is fully equipped to begin. Based on the feedback received from multiple infrastructure stakeholders, the following steps can help effectively implement smart infrastructure:

  • Leadership commitment – Sponsorship from the top-level stakeholders is paramount. A properly calibrated framework on technology investment, short-term business impact, and long-term benefit realisation timeframe needs to be agreed upon upfront.  
  • Digital transformation roadmap – Develop a comprehensive 5 to 10-year roadmap at an organisational level. Instead of implementing multiple solutions at one go, prioritise and stagger the implementation strategically.  
  • Business processes alignment – Coherence between the business processes and technology solution will ensure technology serves, rather than impedes digital transformation objectives.  
  • Use cases - Use cases need to be developed and aligned with the business objectives. An appropriate benefits measurement framework to track performance is essential to gain traction for the process and achieve broader stakeholder buy-ins.  
  • People – Upskilling people and cross-departmental sharing of learnings and skillsets will lead to wider appreciation, acceptance, and adoption across the organisation.  

The Journey Matters More Than the Destination

While technology solutions are fast becoming affordable and ubiquitous, rushing to meet smart infrastructure goals without ensuring proper planning and utilisation of resources can lead to disastrous results. It is imperative that the infrastructure sector uses the vehicle of emerging technologies in a strategic and cost-efficient manner to effectively drive a new era of seamless service delivery. All that said, there is no doubt that the time is ripe for infrastructure asset owners and managers to leverage technology for building a sustainable and smart future.

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