Rapid advances in infrastructure technologies will transform the way we build. Construction firms need to stop dragging their feet and catch up with the pace of the new technology revolution

Richard Threlfall

Question: What notable event happened on Friday 21 April 2017? It wasn’t long ago, so you really have no excuse for not knowing the answer. Of course it was, according to National Grid, the first full 24-hour day since the Industrial Revolution, that the UK didn’t need coal for any of its energy needs. I suggest you commit that to memory as I guarantee it will turn up regularly in infrastructure trivia quizzes over the next few years.

The event is even more extraordinary when you consider that less than five years ago, coal-fired power stations represented the single largest source of UK power, at around 40% of total generating capacity.

Coal has been annihilated from the UK energy landscape by a combination of environmental-driven policy, economics, and above all technology. While some of these drivers could be anticipated, the pace of growth in capacity provided by renewables has confounded expectations. In 2011, a report commissioned by the Department of Energy and Climate Change estimated that by 2016 total installed solar capacity would be less than 2GW. The actual 2016 output was 11.7GW.

We underestimate how much and how fast technology can impact our industry

For me, this story is powerful for one reason in particular: it shows how we underestimate how much and how fast technology can impact our industry. And that matters because right now, the infrastructure industry is on the cusp of transformation through a multi-faceted technological revolution.

The combination of forces driving this change is well articulated in a short paper Smart Infrastructure – Getting more from strategic assets, published earlier this year by the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction. A huge range of new sensor, control and tracking technologies is opening the floodgates to unprecedented levels of data about our infrastructure, in design, construction and operation. Big data techniques are rapidly providing the tools to manage and interpret that data. Decision support tools, some involving artificial intelligence, are creating the ability to take sophisticated decisions from that data, and in turn provide feedback to the physical technologies. The applications of this coincidence of new capabilities are endless.

As a consequence, every week we are seeing new products come onto the market. US conglomerate technology firm GE has launched a predictive corrosion management system for the oil and gas industry, using ultrasonic sensors linked to a cloud based operating system, to collect real-time information on pipelines with a view to optimising maintenance interventions and predicting and preventing failures. Electronics company Harman is marketing an Internet of Things Gateway system, which links all manner of sensors in a building to monitor use and optimise management. WHIM is a mobility-as-a-service application operating in Helsinki, offering users one-stop access to all forms of transport including cycle hire and car share, buses and trains.

It is time our industry (clients, including government, and contractors) pooled their resources and co-invested much more heavily in innovation

I find a prevalent view that all this is just noise around the margins of an industry that will carry on much as before. Yet basic economics as well as the pace of technology is against the status quo. McKinsey has estimated that the construction industry globally could be 40% more efficient. It is technological innovation that will rapidly achieve that – and as clients see the benefit, ultimately they will demand it. Last month Singapore’s Land Transport Authority released a tender to use automation and artificial intelligence to inspect road and rail tunnels.

But the UK is slow. KPMG’s Global Construction Survey last year revealed 40% of global contractor respondents use robotics or automated technology in some form; a third use RFID tracking of materials and half use drone aircraft for site surveys. We all know the equivalent stats for the UK alone would be much lower. It is time our industry (clients, including government, and contractors) pooled their resources and co-invested much more heavily in innovation. The Manufacturing Technology Centre, in Coventry, tells me it is keen to pivot more of its capability towards our construction industry.

Encouragingly, the National Infrastructure Commission is on the front foot. In December, they published a positioning paper, The Impact of Technological Change on Future Infrastructure Supply and Demand. It is a masterpiece of understanding of both the force of technology and the realities of the infrastructure industry. And it is only 22 pages long, so you could read it from cover to cover over breakfast tomorrow. A further paper will be published later this year.

For each of us in business, the opportunity, and threat, lies in our ability to anticipate just how different our infrastructure future might be, and position our businesses accordingly. Transport for London didn’t anticipate the speed of impact of Uber, but then nor did anyone else. Given the scale of technological opportunity facing our industry, the biggest constraint is our own imagination.

Richard Threlfall is head of infrastructure, building and construction at KPMG