A central platform to exchange best practices and ideas guiding the infrastructure and urban development industry in its transformation, and helping it to address its key challenges.

The promise and peril of digital cities

The convergence of technological advancements into the Internet of Things (IoT) is invoking a fundamental shift which has put the human race on a new course. The pace, social reach and personal impact of this trajectory is way beyond what we have ever witnessed or even imagined.

This “fourth industrial revolution”, as defined by Professor Klaus Schwab, is characterised by a fusion of new technologies, blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological worlds.

„How can we create better societies?“

What is important is how we now recognise these drivers of change and respond to them going forward. How do we grasp the opportunities afforded to us by new technologies and put them to use in solving some of the many challenges faced by the human race? In particular, how do we create better societies by shaping infrastructure and aligning it to human needs?

There is a great responsibility resting on the shoulders of those who possess the power to implement and accelerate the use of technology. Stephen Hawking has already identified that “so far, the trend seems to be toward technology driving ever-increasing inequality”.

This concern has also been raised by Professor Schwab, who cites “social inequality, permanent rises in unemployment and cyber-driven conflicts” as potential unwelcome impacts of the fourth industrial revolution.

But in an infrastructure context there are many great opportunities presented by the digital revolution. For example, virtual reality is already giving us the ability to model the real world accurately in many dimensions and then, using real time data from IoT, to continuously improve, model changes, and predict outcomes.

Years of work – in an instant

Existing modelling approaches which take months or years can now happen instantaneously. However, we must ensure that we concentrate on what we want this revolution to deliver for us, for our clients and for society at large. What benefits do we want to derive and for who? We need to stay increasingly more conscience of these outcomes and actively manage them.

It is clear that technological advancements are changing behaviours, changing people. Advancement and innovation must now become more cooperative and “bottom up”, to be “from the people and for the people”.

Infrastructure asset owners are increasingly striving to improve the end-user experience and are changing the way in which they look to find solutions. Technology-enabled ‘hackathons’, such as the one Atkins ran to explore how improvements could be made to the journey experience on the UK’s busiest motorway, the M25, will help drive the pace of new people-focused outcomes.

Our industry will undoubtedly face more moral and ethical questions about our designs than technical ones – this is not something we are necessarily equipped to deal with. How do we achieve this balance? How do we know our decision is “right”? As Professor Schwab says: “There has never been a time of greater promise, or one of greater potential peril.”

I may have painted a picture of great challenge here, but we should also remember that we are already seeing some great examples of how technology isenabling a better interaction between human beings and infrastructure and bringing great benefit to society.

Mobile data and football fans

One such example is around the use of mobile phone data to measure and model crowd movement and behaviour. Last year, Warwick University, in the United Kingdom, released a study, following two years of research around Milan’s San Siro football stadium and Linate Airport. It showed it was possible to estimate the size of a large crowd based on geographical data from mobile phones and Twitter.

The Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at UCL is now beginning a study to monitor social media around London’s Olympic Park to better understand how information communicated to the public can influence behaviours, for example the movement of football fans after a match. These studies can lead to solutions that improve safety and wellbeing.

„Does the building make people happy and healthy?“

In the past, perhaps, we have focused more on the asset. Is this building energy efficient? Is it carbon neutral? Now we are also thinking much more about people: does the building make people happy and healthy? Have we created an environment in which people can thrive?

Our architects and engineers are now focused on designing infrastructure that actively improves people’s wellbeing, and have created an innovative new digital tool that helps the end users of a building articulate and prioritise what is most important for them in this regard. This data is collected before we even start our concept designs, ensuring that people’s wellbeing is firmly at the heart of our infrastructure designs.

In conclusion, if we are to meet our digital responsibility we need to encourage an educational revolution that will help us ensure we manage technology with an emphasis on people, working to ensure we keep the huge opportunities for a positive societal impact in clear view.

High speed, many directions: Oxford Circus in London.
Image: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth