By James Dean Last year, the emphatic historian Dan Carlin released a book entitled ‘The end is always near’, which examines questions and historical events that force us to consider what sounds like fantasy; that we might suffer the same destructive fate that all previous civilisations have.
War, famine, pandemics and societal collapse - it has always happened, so is it a fallacy to believe it won’t happen to us? Do tough times create tougher people? Can humanity handle the power of its weapons without destroying itself? Will human technology or capabilities ever peak or regress?
It’s always an intriguing exercise to remove yourself from the moment, to look at the bigger picture and think about the forces at play right now and the consequences they will have on the future. In doing so, it is clear that the ramifications of a global pandemic will have profound impacts on some of the largest pillars on our globally connected civilisation.
The ancient city of Nineveh, imperial home of the Assyrian empire and one of the largest cities in the ancient world. Nobody knows exactly why the Assyrian empire collapsed, but it did in quick succession - so much so that this great city sat in ruins, it’s origin unknown to locals, just generations later.
During the long running era of globalisation (defined for purposes here from the industrial revolution until the present day) there has been a notion of ‘developed’ and ‘emerging’ nations. Judged on facets such as economic output, globally connected trade, infrastructure and political might, this divide has seen opportunities for growth by investing in emerging economies, which in turn purportedly has raised the quality of living and life expectancy for billions of people around the world.
But my advice now for those looking for opportunities in a world beyond the global pandemic is not to focus on emerging economies, but to look at emerging sectors.
Infrastructure is the bedrock of global economies and our future cities. In designing what the city of Los Angeles would look like in 2058 for Westworld Season 3, Architect Howard Cummings commented “We wanted this to be a grounded futurism. The buildings are a mix of new and old, making it feel welcoming”.
United by pain
In our globally interconnected world system, a natural disaster such as a pandemic produces an indiscriminate levelling greater than any political or military might is able to. It also focuses the mind of leaders and organisations like no other to focus on what matters the most, both for their own survival and their own opportunities.
Blink and you’ll miss it
Civil Infrastructure is continually derided for being the second worst sector on the planet when it comes to digital adoption (only hunting and fishing fares worse!). Multiple reports have stated it hasn’t had a productivity increase in over 60 years (think about that for a second… imagine if banking and finance were operating at the same levels as the 60s… or media and telecoms… or agricultural food production).
But this isn’t quite fair. Civil Infrastructure is inherently one of the most physical sectors on the planet - it is literally building things. And those things are made of atoms. And computers don’t deal in atoms, they deal in bits. But in 2015 that changed:
“This is a story of adventure, curiosity and exploration - as much as it is about technology. But it doesn’t start on the campuses of Silicon Valley. It begins in a leafy borough of north London in 2015, where a duo called Harry Atkinson and James Dean were working late nights from a kitchen that doubled up as a bedroom.
Their idea, a prototype platform that transformed large Structure from Motion (SfM) datasets into representations of the physical world as binary numbers, put the real world into a computer's language for the first time ever. This would be the greatest step-change since the internet; the digitisation of the physical world.”
When we started Sensat we had two profound realisations:
Future technology was stunted unless it could ‘understand’ the real, physical world in which we live (and which had remained offline to computers since the invention of the digital age)
Huge latent opportunity remained untapped in predominantly physical sectors, where digital technology had remained largely under utilised because it could not analyse or augment their physical workplaces
Individually these are world changing events. Together they are historic.
But this isn’t new, if we look to history we see hundreds of parallel examples. To illustrate, I’ve picked a relatively current example we should all remember well:
China largely skipped the dial-up windows 98 PC internet - the cost of adoption was too high for the up and coming Chinese middle class to warrant at the turn of the millennium
This meant that the latent demand of almost a billion people went under served until the mobile internet came along, in the process leapfrogging the PC era entirely
That meant that the Chinese assumptions of what the internet was capable of were very different (due to being born on a phone) than in the West, who were at the time comparing early mobile to the PC boundary conditions and switching costs
The result? China quickly built a vastly superior mobile experience and one that to observers is more future proofed and suited to our now mobile-centric society
For example, Chinese businesses don’t have websites, they have public WeChat accounts. You don’t pay for things with your card or cash, you use WePay or scan a QR code (which is so alien to the West that it even stumped a technology startup founder on his China visit last year)
The point is this:
Digital laggard sectors (which are predominantly physical) consistently rank amongst the least productive sectors in the global economy. They haven’t adopted technology on mass, largely because it hasn’t significantly helped them due to the real world being offline. But in the background, technology, in general, has matured significantly, and the act of now bringing that real world into a digital sphere is about to unleash the pent up demand of some of the largest economic powerhouse sectors much in the same way that mobile internet brought a fifth of the world's population online for the first time. The repercussions are momentous.
Infrastructure will be to laggard sectors what China was to Mobile internet due to pent up latent demand. We’re not talking about emerging economies here, we’re talking about emerging sectors. And pent up demand creates change - fast.
The act of bringing the real world into a digital sphere is about to unleash the pent up demand of some of the largest economic powerhouse sectors much in the same way that mobile internet brought a fifth of the world's population online for the first time.
So what has changed?
Covid-19 is creating a once in a generation reason for Civil Infrastructure organisations to actively adopt technology. Enterprise Digital Transformation (EDT) and Tech enabled solutions for 'Agile Business Continuity' (which didn’t exist from of AGILE/LEAN methodology just 6 weeks ago) are at the top of Corporate agendas. Stakeholder caution has been turned inside-out - incentives and behaviours are now anchored in creating digital redundancy in commerce vs. shunning new technology risks and switching costs in re-skilling. Business risks are spiking and there is little to no information available to understand liabilities.
For example, here are some specific practical pressures we’ve witnessed in just the last three weeks:
Civil Infrastructure relies primarily on Quantity and Topographical Surveyors to undertake physical data collection. They cannot currently access sites, with a single broken link halting the entire downstream information flow
Limited access to VPNs means staff cannot access company data and systems. There is no remote working setup, everything is virtually hot-desking to their physical machines.
Large datasets (that lived on hard drives) are physically unavailable, or there is a lack of an easy way to share the data between teams
Distributed teams mean that knowledge/expertise can be missing until the relevant employee returns
Everything mentioned above can be solved with Sensat's common visualisation platform, a cloud-based site management tool that allows you to track and visualise dynamic project performance. This post is not intended as a product placement - I believe the market should and will buy the best solution, but rather highlight the forcing functions and subsequent ramifications on a sector that is a fundamental pillar of the global economy.
Sensat's visualisation platform is a cloud-based site management tool that allows you to track and visualise dynamic project performance. Access your site remotely, from any device, collaborate with an unlimited number of users and discuss work in a visual and intuitive sense. It is used by the world’s leading Infrastructure firms including Heathrow, BAM, Berkeley, Mott MacDonald, Morgan Sindall, Murphy and WSP.
The next New Deal
What do governments do in the midst of deep recessions? They build!
After the Great Depression, Franklin D Roosevelt partook on the US's greatest ever investment in infrastructure spending. During that period (referred to as the New Deal) the US built the Hoover Dam, Interstate Highways and most of its modern day infrastructure, arguably building the bedrock of the world's largest economy.
In and after times of crisis governments invest in infrastructure. Why? Because they get something from it. They get future prosperity and economic stimulus whilst creating jobs and kick-starting business.
Some economists are predicting Covid-19 is creating a global depression the size of which hasn’t been seen in 300 years, surpassing WWII and the Great Depression. But money is cheap, historically at its lowest ever levels, and governments around the world will make the most of that restbite to build (quite literally) the momentum back into growth.
The Hoover Dam is under construction as part of the US largest ever infrastructure build program following the Great Depression, part of what is known as the New Deal.
Sensat prides itself on being industry leaders in drone data, quality and accuracy. Through the use of drones, we are able to collect and visualise up-to-date and highly accurate data that is valuable throughout the different design and construction stages of any infrastructure project.