24 September 2020

When Digital Meets Physical: The Future of Citizen Centric Infrastructure

Written by Rafael Fernández, Innovation & Digital Strategy Director, Ferrovial
24 September 2020

Today’s transport infrastructure – especially in cities – is no longer “fit for purpose” to serve the future demands of free-flowing and uninterrupted movement of people and goods. The legacy of an almost purely physical approach to infrastructure poses significant challenges and limitations which have only been partially resolved by installing stand-alone single-purpose solutions such as “intelligent” traffic lights, flow regulators and congestion zones. The growth of e-commerce, teleworking, micro and shared mobility is changing mobility patterns, urging the need for new ideas to improve citizens’ life - the alliance of physical and digital infrastructure can be one of the answers.

A more integrated approach is needed. One that seamlessly integrates appropriately designed and dimensioned physical infrastructure with smart, dynamic and multi-purpose digital solutions. Incorporating ubiquitous connectivity, scalable edge compute and sensors that can enable machine-to-machine communications and both enterprise and consumer focused “over-the-top” services.

Increased adoption of digital infrastructure will allow cities, regions and their transport operators to integrate new transport modes such as car sharing, like Zity in Paris or Madrid. It will also evolve demand-responsive shuttles and micromobility into a single mobility as a service offering. This can dynamically manage capacity, availability and flow of thoroughfares and curbsides to deliver more citizen focused benefits like improved safety, more consistent travel times, seamless and efficient e-commerce deliveries, reduced emissions and improved transport equality

During exceptional times, such as we are currently experiencing with the global pandemic, digital infrastructure can also provide the foundations for more flexible and resilient mobility – something that current systems have struggled to maintain safely or sustainably. A roadmap to carbon neutral cities and transport infrastructure developments will require new designs, material and urban mobility solutions such as an aggressive public transit fleet electrification or dynamic urban mobility pricing schemes. At the same time, rebuilding the citizen confidence in mass transit will be key in this sense by providing rapid disinfection as a solution to protect the public health.

Provision of high-capacity, secure ubiquitous connectivity (e.g. 5G) and edge-computing will also increase productivity at home, in the office and while on the move by enabling autonomous transportation, other types of future mobility and service orientated business models.

“Green-field” developments offer opportunities to “leap-frog” the legacy issues and will allow for entirely new types of zoning and planning for a much more citizen centric and integrated approach to urban development. However, properly designed, planned modifications and retrofitting of brown-field infrastructures at scale in our existing towns and cities also offers relevant transformation opportunities. Developments in technologies such as mobility modelling and simulation, parametric design and XR are creating new opportunities for infrastructure adaptation as well as user engagement in the design and development process.

These civil transformation works will also require new innovations in construction methodologies – such as offsite, modular construction with a high-degree of automation (eg. 3D printing], digitisation and robotics to achieve the required level of accuracy and efficiencies to minimize cost and disruption. The new Construtech field will definitely be key for the improvement of transport infrastructure.

Delivering such transformation – and its associated benefits - requires significant leadership, collaboration and investment from both public and private organisations as well as proper citizen support and engagement. Enabling long-term public/private partnerships is essential to modernise and future-proof the transport infrastructure network of the new post-pandemic era.

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