Over the last 20 years, more than one trillion dollars have been spent building our information infrastructure – and what a great outcome for the investment. It changed everything in our lives and in the economy. The opportunities over the next 20 years, however, will be massive with the focus on physical infrastructure. We will likely have to spend multi-trillion dollars to update our infrastructure globally.
Our physical infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with our digital one. The basic technology to merge our digital and physical lives is there, but our infrastructure needs some serious updating to handle this unification. Once done, our buildings will be stronger and smarter, our roads capable of handling autonomous cars and our cities prepared for natural disasters, like Hurricane Harvey.
Fortunately there’s a growing number of startups and entrepreneurs focused on technologies that will integrate human activites with our physical infrastructure – a category I like to refer to as BuildTech. Entrepreneurs interested in cracking into this industry will need to specialize in one of three areas: digital technologies, materials technologies or AI and robotics.
I recently spent time with some of the key technologists at WSP Global, a consulting firm that specializes in infrastructure. They are studying how digital technologies can change the way buildings are designed, constructed and engineered. In their view, it’s all about “smart” – harnessing digital technologies to make everything from our roads and buildings to entire cities intelligent and connected to each other.
The implications of “smart” are incredible. For example, your condo or apartment may detect you returning home and not only turn on your lights, but also have coffee or a martini waiting for you. At work you may be able to schedule a meeting through your phone and a system will reserve a conference room, prepare technology requirements for any presentations and order lunch for you and your guests. All this will be done while reducing energy cost, increasing safety and providing new sources of revenue.
Dan Butler, senior director of Telecom & Technology for WSP, predicts future digital technologies won’t just provide value post-construction, they will play an increasing role in the entire lifecycle of a building. Starting in the design phase, building information modeling (BIM) will integrate CAD systems, engineering and construction. For example, bar coded materials will match up to construction plans making it easier to track, manage inventory and ensure all materials are ready at the building site each day. The cost-saving potential is huge.
Dr. Babak Samareh, from the University of Toronto’s Center for Advanced Coating Technologies (CACT), is working on a new simulation technology that will allow architects to understand how their structures could withstand a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or flood, as they are designing them. Currently most designs go to a third party to be “tested.” The ability to obtain near realtime results will save a lot of money and time. One day this technology may even be available to the general public, allowing us to simulate any disaster and plan for it based on our current location.
Speaking of planning, technology is also changing the very ingredients that form our created environment. New companies and research are emerging with ways to make buildings stronger, lighter and greener from the inside out. For example, nanotechnology has shown the potential to help strengthen concrete and decrease the amount of it needed, resulting in lighter, more durable structures.
Nanotechnology could also reduce our need for harsh chemicals or cleaning processes to keep our buildings unsullied. Dr. Javad Mostaghimi, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto and director of CACT, is studying just such possibilities. One technology he finds particularly promising is the use of nanoscale titanium dioxide to create metallic coating and a ‘self-cleaning’ surface. Not only does it give the material to which it is applied an appealing, metallic appearance, it can also actively break down dirt, making it easier to keep façades, roofs and windows unsoiled.
AI and robotics
The third technology category changing the future of our infrastructure is robotics and AI. Drones, enormous robotic arms and autonomous machinery that responds to environmental stimuli, like temperature or precipitation, will all play a significant role in shaping our infrastructure in the years to come. Robots can work faster and more precisely than humans, they can also lift heavier loads and go where it’s not safe for humans to go.
Swiss firm Gramazio & Kohler recently tested a group of flying robots on building a six-foot tower out of Styrofoam blocks. The goal? To study how to program a cluster of drones to work efficiently and avoid collisions. This is just the beginning. Down the road, robots will do the demolishing and building, drones will serve as site supervisors and AI will act as coordinator for the entire supply chain from beginning to end.
Whether it is through smart building technologies, new materials or robots as construction workers, one thing is for sure – the cost of building infrastructure will be reduced, functionalities will significantly improve, and our lives will be more integrated with our constructed environment.
The BuildTech industry is still in its infancy and, as such, there are numerous opportunities to get in on the ground floor. Like FinTech and MedTech before it, BuildTech will generate some incredible new companies whose effect will last for generations to come. Just as we wonder now what we ever did without the internet, in fifeteen years we will look back and wonder how we ever lived without our smart homes.