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As semiconductors and data continue to reshape our lives, smart infrastructure, where tech meets the material world, is rebuilding our environment - Jason Walsh asks what comes next?

When the computer revolution really started to pick up steam in the 1970s it was quite common to hear predictions of how central processing units (CPUs) would revolutionise and re-shape everything around us, from factories to buildings, and even the towns and cities that we lived in. The predictions were not quite wrong – robotics certainly transformed manufacturing, for example – but the time scale was slightly off.

The reality for most of us over the next three decades was that computers belonged almost exclusively to the domains of office automation and entertainment. Even the embedded systems that we did encounter, such as in cars, were typically neither particularly smart nor were they connected to anything outside of themselves.

Today, the picture could not be any more different. From energy to supply chains to transport, intelligence – in the form of processing power and data – is being added to the crucial infrastructure that keeps the world moving.

Indeed, one of many lessons from the coronavirus pandemic was just how reliant we are on semiconductors: supply chain crunches didn’t just frustrate gamers hoping to buy new graphics processing units (GPUs). Instead, due to how much silicon is now found in just about every manufactured device, they drove up the cost of everything from computers to cars, which, unlike their predecessors from the 1980s to 2000s, are now finally transforming into connected devices.

The upshot of everything being effectively transformed into a computer is that everything can behave like a computer: by combining so-called ‘edge processing’, where devices from cars to thermostats have their own data processing abilities, with connectivity to the cloud, and where predictive capabilities can be brought to bear solving everyday problems.

Take public transport, for example: in 2011, Dublin Bus rolled out its real-time passenger information system. Today, using mobile apps, including unofficial ones such as Google Maps, journeys can be planned with greater accuracy than ever. Meanwhile, car drivers can also get indications of congestion as well as suggested alternative routes. As vehicle tracking deepens and is combined with other data sources including weather, commuters’ ability to control their journeys will only increase. In time, this could result in not just less standing around in the rain, but changes to how cities are planned and built.

And transport is only one example, albeit an important one. Today, every conceivable network is capable of being transformed into a data network, from the electricity grid to networks of people.

What smart infrastructure really comes down to is sensors, said Dermot O’Kane, head of sales at GIS mapping software specialists Esri Ireland.

“Smart infrastructure is a smart system that uses a data feedback loop to improve decision-making regarding a matter. A system that can monitor, measure, analyse, communicate and act based on data collected by sensors,” he told Connected in an email.

Given so much of infrastructure is fundamentally about movement, whether of people, goods, resources or data, it is no surprise that location and other spatial data is a key, and often primary, component of the information used to add intelligence.

O’Kane said that though many may not realise it, in Ireland, critical national infrastructure projects including transportation links, the water network, the national gas infrastructure, school building, the National Broadband Plan, and many more are already being transformed with location and spatial analysis at their core.

“Everything happens somewhere, so knowing where matters. It’s a simple fact of life that without geography you’re nowhere. There’s no escaping it: it's all around us, whether we like it or not. Whether we know it or not, spatial is special,” he said.

The national broadband scheme is just one example: Esri Ireland has been working with National Broadband Ireland to plan service rollout, analysing geography and topography. The intelligence doesn’t end with installation, though. This month, National Broadband Ireland announced it was deploying an AI-powered platform from SnapLogic in order to perform eligibility checks, order placement and network setup.

The transport conundrum

Returning to transit, it would be foolish to claim Ireland had a world-beating public transport network, or even that the deployment of sensors could make up for a lack of investment on the scale of metropolitan railway systems. However, smart technology can be, and is being, used to make the existing networks more responsive.

Brian O’Rourke, chief executive and co-founder of CitySwift, said that Ireland has demonstrated that it can invest in intelligent transport. Asked by Connected if Ireland was a laggard, O’Rourke said no. Instead, the picture was a mixed one.

“It's a good question. We do it well in some places. Dublin City Council and Dublin Bus have a really good control centre, and, on the west coast there are various activities going on trying to bring autonomous transport forward. Obviously more could be done, but that’s true across the world,” he said.

What is being done across the world is a whole lot of writing and talking. Barely a week goes by without the publication of a breathless article about how autonomous cars in particular will change everything, from the shape of our cities and nature of communities and even the concept of ownership. Such think-tank and corporate public-relations hype may have helped generate interest in the early days of the technology, but at this point it is easy to argue that the promises are beginning to wear thin.

O’Rourke said that, nonetheless, autonomous public transport was viable.

“The promise of autonomous vehicles being in every city hasn’t materialised. However, with fixed line transport, whether that's buses or trains, there has been real progress. Driving around every nook and cranny is very difficult,” he said.

Indeed, Lidar-guided buses were first demonstrated in Dublin in 2018 and are currently being trialled on limited routes in other European cities including Paris, where several currently roam around the Vincennes suburb and park. Both examples are more mini ‘pod’ vehicles than true buses, but five single-deck, full-sized autonomous buses have been undergoing public trials in Scotland since April, while automated metro trains have been around for decades.

CitySwift, which this month launched a mobility as a service platform, is understandably bullish about the future.

“The only reason our company exists is that machines have data flowing out of them – GPS provides real data. Most buses have five or six Sim cards in them right out of the factory,” O’Rourke said.

The next step in getting public transport to meet the needs of commuters is to look to the future by moving from responsive use of data to predictive.

“We’re looking at the historical data, but the future is real-time responsive, and even predictive, based on factors such as weather. One area we’re working on is in events: if you have a big match, where is demand coming from and how does it affect the network?” said O’Rourke.

However, Ciarán Harris, co-founder and director of user experience designers Each&Other, said that to truly become a leader in smart infrastructure, Ireland needed more political initiative.

“If you look at the e-scooter legislation, that just got stuck and was then abandoned, then it changed to legislation for trials [but] that has gone nowhere since March last year,” he said.

Harris praised the initiatives that were underway, but said that central government needed to do more and suggested this could be kickstarted by a new round of citizens’ assemblies.

“Smaller organisations like Smart Dublin, Smart Docklands and Smart Dún Laoghaire have been trying to grease the wheels and they're trying to create the conditions for these things to happen,” he said.

Building the future behind the scenes

A core aspect of smart infrastructure is construction, not just because major infrastructure itself involves significant amounts of civil engineering and construction, but also because the sector is ripe for improvement through the deployment of data.

“I always like to use the definition from the smart infrastructure report by University of Cambridge, which states that it is the result of combining physical infrastructure with digital infrastructure, providing improved information to enable better decision making, faster and cheaper,” said Karol Friel, sales manager at Topcon Positioning Ireland.

However, the sector has typically been slow to adopt new technologies, particularly on-site.

Friel said this was changing, and that adoption of technology was accelerated by the pandemic as contractors had to turn to digital solutions out of necessity only to then realise the additional benefits.

“In the last few years, we have seen the industry start to change its attitude towards digital solutions due to the continued pressure to deliver more sustainable projects, meet tight deadlines, stay within budgets and find skilled workers to complete increasingly sophisticated briefs from clients,” he said.

Noting government plans to invest €165 billion in infrastructure projects by 2030, as well as likely investment in the North, Friel said he expected the digital transformation of construction to continue, with technologies such as building information modelling (BIM), GPS and 3D modelling feeding into and out of on-site total stations.

“Digital solutions are helping contractors to achieve more accurate results at each stage of their projects, enhancing the whole construction process in different ways. For example, instrumentation like scanning robotic total stations can set out the construction from a 3D model, set it up on-site and use it to measure to a millimetre level. Once the construction has been done, then it has a scanner on top which creates the point cloud, which is compared against the BIM model. Other technologies like machine control combine GPS satellite data and 3D models to ensure machines follow a precise, accurate grade design, reducing waste, time and costs,” he said.

Jeff Colley, editor of sustainable construction magazine Passive House Plus, said technology was a key component of better building, whether in terms of increasingly intelligent monitoring of energy use, controlling how, where and when a building uses energy, or testing the standards to which buildings are built. However, he also cautioned against tech-enabled quick fixes.

“Smart technology isn’t an end in itself. People get very obsessed with high-tech solutions as an easy solution and one that sounds great,” he said.

“Where smart tech is important is using sensors to prove whether a given approach to building works, and if you look at standards like passive house, there are reams of evidence that show the buildings work.”

When it comes to smart tech in buildings, Colley said he had reservations that it could be used to make bad buildings perform better without addressing more fundamental issues.

“Also, a lot can go wrong: you get discontinued apps, and so on. It has its place but lobbing in a solution can’t be an excuse for business as usual. When it is used, it's essential that user experience is front and centre. How people use any smart technology needs really solid evidence that people are using it correctly.”

So, while user-facing applications are the most obvious aspect of smart infrastructure – after all, we notice buses more than we do the energy performance of buildings or construction workers operating total stations – in many respects it is in these behind-the-scenes applications that smart infrastructure is making the biggest difference to our lives.

For example, CitySwift’s work on bus networks, for example, takes care to understand how new powertrains have changed how the vehicles are run and marshalled in order to ensure they have sufficient power.

“How do we keep large fleets fully charged? It comes with a planning overhead: historically you fill a bus with diesel overnight and it would last all day, now it's only going to last seven or eight hours,” said O’Rourke.

Esri Ireland’s O’Kane said that using data and analytics to monitor and analyse projects was crucial, for example, with the high voltage and gas network, using satellite imagery and machine learning to identify differences in data from one cycle to the next.

“Take water as an example: identify where the issues are, prioritise this issue based on data like population impact and the maximum return for the government, and use smart tools to predict where issues will be,” he said.

“Obviously, at the centre of all this decision making is good data.”

The shining city in the desert

Not all smart infrastructure projects seem particularly smart. Whether it is the much-vaunted Hyperloop or the terrifying ‘transit elevated bus’ concept for a bus that can drive above cars, many supposedly smart projects seem fanciful at best and downright dumb at worst.

One particularly curious kite being flown is The Line, part of the wider Neom project for an entirely new smart city being built in Saudi Arabia. Dispensing with just about every concept we know in urban planning, the city is to be built as a 170 kilometre-long straight line. Dispensing with cars entirely, the people behind The Line say it will revolutionise both city life and urban planning: "Neom has the opportunity to build a greenfield city that will not have such problems to start with," its executive director for urban planning, Tarek Qaddumi, said, speaking to architecture magazine Deezzn in August.

Drone footage this month revealed construction had begun, putting paid to claims the entire thing was nothing more than an exercise in PR puffery. However, critics have pointed out that while a 500-metre-tall and 200-metre-wide linear city is certainly a novel idea, it would bring no benefits – as well as create a lot of new problems.

But, while sceptics have been surprised by the project breaking ground, concerns have been raised about the amount of embodied energy that will be used to build The Line, the potential for such a city to be a surveillance panopticon and, of course, why a line-shaped city would be built in the first place.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Jason Walsh

Quelle/Source: Business Post, 25.10.2022

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