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The construction site of the future, envisioned by Balfour Beatty, looks like a scene from a science fiction movie.

By 2050; robots are the builders, using yet to be discovered materials. Drones fly overhead monitoring building progress and gathering data. The data is analyzed in the cloud and instructions are sent to the machines to avoid problems and set the next steps in motion. Humans are still in the picture, but only remotely, monitoring multiple sites to ensure things are being done according to spec.

These will rely on greater investments in STEM subjects in schools and universities and the abandonment of long-held misconceptions that construction and engineering careers are necessarily male-oriented and largely manual trades.

In its Innovation 2050 report published in late June 2017, Balfour Beatty, a leading international infrastructure group, issued ten predictions of ways technological innovation would change the face of the construction industry. Headquartered in the UK; Balfour Beatty finances, develops, builds and maintains infrastructure across the globe.

Balfour Beatty’s bold vision will impact society in significant ways. As the world population increases exponentially, the need and demand for infrastructure will also increase. According to Market Research Hub (MRH) in “Global Construction Outlook 2021”, construction accounted for $8.8 trillion in 2016, and 10% of global GDP.  The global construction market is predicted to reach $10.1 trillion by 2021. By 2050, construction is forecasted to account for more than 13.5% of the world’s economic output, primarily due to growth in emerging markets.

Construction has been traditionally a low-productivity sector and has been slow to innovate. The construction model of the future will be significantly more efficient; relying upon skilled robots, and using less costly materials. Robots, 3D and 4D printing, and self-assembling parts will speed up construction to eliminate cost overruns. Greater efficiency at a lower cost will enable the spread of infrastructure in places where it is currently unaffordable. Improved infrastructure will result in more opportunities for trade, better health conditions, improved education, and overall better quality of life in emerging nations.

The rise of robots will result in the displacement of humans from manual labor positions. For example, robots will do the heavy lifting, transporting, cleanup, assembling, and welding. New opportunities for humans will arise in higher level positions; such as designing, planning, and monitoring construction projects. New materials and software applications will need to be developed, as well.

Digital Transformation Leads the Way

In a recent article on construction, Sundeep Sanghavi, CEO and Co-Founder of Progress software, identifies several ways he believes Balfour Beatty’s predictions will manifest. According to Sanghavi, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) will play a dominant role in the integration of sensors across multiple sites and projects. This will enable cognitive learning to provide predictive maintenance and macro level control. From smarter building complexes to smart cities, energy usage and maintenance will become more efficient and less costly. As infrastructure takes on the additional tasks of generating, storing, and providing energy; IoT will require multi-functional thinking, design, and planning capabilities.

Virtual reality will enable teams to develop better designs, and provide visualization of the end product to discover problems and make enhancements. Software applications will arise in order to plan and manage green construction, integrating operations and control of smart buildings with smart cities.  Other applications will expedite communication and provide supply chain optimization.

Innovation Requires Bold Thought Leaders

In a traditionally risk averse and highly regulated industry, the embrace of these disruptive technologies will not happen overnight, and will not happen smoothly. In the 33 years between 2017 and 2050, both the industry and the environment in which it operates will need to see big changes.

construction worker remotely operates a drill.

Beginning now, new ways of thinking with a focus on innovation will be required from the industry itself, the policymakers and regulators, as well as from the education systems that prepare the workers of the future.

Businesses within the industry will need to innovate or die. Infrastructure owners and operators will need to become less risk averse and more willing to encourage and embrace innovation. The policymakers and regulators need to become learners and adapters themselves to keep up with changes in the industry.

The education systems will need to promote creativity, problem-solving, and innovation. As Chris Wood, CEO of Develop Training, the UK’s leading accredited provider of Compliance, Technical, and Safety Training states “If we are going to see the widespread use of new materials, new technologies and an atmosphere of fearless innovation then we need to be sowing the seeds for these behaviours now. These will rely on greater investments in STEM subjects in schools and universities and the abandonment of long-held misconceptions that construction and engineering careers are necessarily male-oriented and largely manual trades.”

By embracing change, the construction industry and the political environment in which it operates will make a significant contribution to the quality of life for a growing, teeming global population. To become a reality, the bold vision projected in Innovation 2050 – A Digital Future for the Infrastructure Industry will require bold thought, and even bolder action on the part of world business and political leaders.

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