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The many faces of Digital Transformation – The Enablers VI

Rio de Janeiro Infrastructure control centre. The future will gt rid of centralised control in favour of decentralised autonomous decision taken by infrastructure components aware of their surronding and the global goal, leveraging on the data available in the cyberspace. Digital Twins will likely handle most of the interactions and be part of a joint decision making process. Image credit: IBM

Progressive automation of existing infrastructures

Over the years and decades we have been leveraging on computer to monitor infrastructures, analyse operation and performance data and take corrective actions. As infrastructure components have become more and more flexible (computerised, smart, accessible, reconfigurable) we have gain the power to make more and more changes, often in real time, to operation tackling changing situation (load, failures, priorities,…). This control is now becoming more and more decentralised, as infrastructure components are becoming aware of their surrounding, “conscious” of their goal and autonomous in decision making. Infrastructure robotisation is an ongoing trend. Assembly lines are starting to leverage on autonomous robots, gaining in flexibility and efficiency, particularly in case of disruption. Self-deploying infrastructures, such as the ones involved in emergency situations (flooding, earthquakes,…) are being designed with autonomous components and with the capability of self-organisation.

We are also moving in the direction of autonomous, smart users of infrastructures, like self-driving vehicles that will become reality in the next few years. Whereas the short term goal is to have an autonomous vehicle safely “navigating” the road infrastructure, the longer term is to have it, and them all, to navigate it in the most efficient way. This will require self-coordination among them, with safety being a given.

The interplay of smart infrastructures and smart infrastructures users will be on researchers agenda in this decade, probably leading to a complete new way of conceptualising an infrastructure.

Today we have a clear dividing line between the infrastructure and the users of that infrastructure. Not so in the future (see in particular next point). We are moving towards an interplay between the infrastructure and its users to the point that the users may become an integral part of the infrastructure, define the infrastructure and contribute to its operation and capability. Take a look at the clip and see how future smart vehicles can become as smart as Indian drivers!

Think about a smart city. If you separate its infrastructure from its users, the citizens, you are not going to maximise the overall efficiency. You cannot expand the roads in a city at will, even less in a real time way, but you can control the traffic routing it (or stopping it avoid worsening a traffic jam). Even better you can work to make citizens aware of alternatives, create a culture to use public transportation, swap the car for a bike or foldable scooter, stimulate sharing.  You can create a digital infrastructure that makes sharing effective and seamless. This digital infrastructure will be overlaid on the physical roads and vehicles changing the transportation infrastructure. This would be an effect of the digital transformation of infrastructure. Also, this digital transportation infrastructure can be aware and interact with traffic generator points, like theatres, concert hall, events, big sales pitches, logistic distribution fleets, making sure that they distribute traffic peaks to avoid overloads.

Other types of infrastructures will require different kind of interactions, like manufacturing infrastructures having to interact with the supply and distribution chain, as well as with retail points and eventually the customers/users but in the end it is all about fragmenting an infrastructure into resources that can be flexibly allocated as need arises. Notice, as mentioned previously, that we will be seeing a shift from considering infrastructure’s users as demand generators (e.g. creating constraints) to infrastructure resources that can be managed to increase the infrastructure effectiveness. This “can be managed” should actually be read as self-management, autonomous interaction based on local awareness that is orchestrated to generate an emerging global behaviour.

All this evolution will be based on the mirroring of physical components in the cyberspace, through Digital Twin technology and the awareness/decision making will be supported by these Digital Twins and their mutual interactions.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning will play a crucial role in awareness creation and in decision making.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

One comment

  1. Dear Roberto,

    thanks for the interesting article! Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explained that a planet does not technically orbits it host star, but instead both bodies effectively orbit their common center of mass. Considering that idea, we may say that the decision making is somewhere in-between the individual autonomous car and the city’s central brain.