In a world of intelligent motorways and driverless cars, IBM’s Big Green Innovations unit chief technology officer Peter Williams says it is “information” which will lead the civil revolution.
Williams, a San Francisco resident, spends his days in Silicon Valley thinking about “smart cities” and new initiatives to shape how future citizens will interact with the built environment.
Williams thinks humans are on the brink of a new era where objects, once considered “dumb”, will be given the intelligence to interact and give future citizens opportunities and choices that once might have been considered in the realms of fantasy.
To bring about this revolution, it is key to realise the value of information, as opposed to technology, he says.
“The key to it is to separate out the information and the technology. The technology is one thing and if you want to be a technologist be a technologist. But civil engineers need to understand that the difference that information could make to the thing that they’re building or designing.”
Information could come from people interacting with an object, its surrounding environment or the behaviour of the item itself.
Potentially, that information flows on to the public, water authorities and energy regulators.
“It’s all about information flows,” he says. “A lot of people [are] a bit like a deer in a headlight when it comes to smarter cities, because they go ’I don’t know anything about information technology’. You don’t need to.
The key to it is to separate out the information and the technology
“The key is understanding that the thing that makes the difference is not the emerging technology – it’s the information.
“You don’t need to know how a computer works or how a sensor works, you just need to know that it exists and it gives you certain capabilities in terms of how information is captured or distributed or analysed or visualised. That will change behaviours. You just need to have a view on how the information itself will change the way the item which you’re designing is used or viewed.”
Williams says the notion of the ’internet of things’ will revolutionise our world of physical objects.
One example is a ’smart building’ which adapts to its environment – be that the demands of the energy grid or the weather.
He says these demands, traditionally requiring human intervention, will increasingly be taken care of by buildings themselves.
“You’re adding capability to something which was a once ‘dumb’ thing,” he says.
He says this interaction of objects is happening on many different levels including roadways, the water system and the electricity grid.
“If you go back to the days of the dotcom boom, the business models were either B to B [business to business] play or consumer play. Infrastructure at the time was the government’s equivalent of B to B play, it just sat there and you took what it handed out, water or electricity or whatever it might be.
“Nowadays you get to interact with it in whole new ways.”
Examples of this interaction can now be seen and are being rolled out across the UK. He says that the smart energy meter in a house allows consumer to have considerable intelligence about how they are using energy.
“I can make decisions about my energy which once upon a time would not have been possible. I can ignore it which means I’ll pay a higher price or I can do something about it. Likewise with water, if I have a problem the water company can probably tell me within 24 hours that I’ve got a leak.”
Taking a leap further, Williams describes how information could be used to decentralise different markets.
He says that instead of having to maintain single huge assets, information from the assets could be used to create single, virtual entity which comprises several smaller physical entities.
It’s not just the car. Those things will change the entire way we think about cities and land use
“It also starts to play tunes around say rooftop energy generation from solar or wind. Some water agencies are also now starting to ponder: ’do we want these huge Victorian water treatment plants? ’What if we decentralise that?’ If you do that, and there are some very good reasons for doing that, the last thing you want to do is decentralise the quality control over what’s going on, and that’s again where technology comes in.”
He compares the market to online mega-retailer Amazon. It operates a single virtual warehouse with all of its physical warehouses underneath. With the use of the available information he says the same could be done for energy generation or other critical infrastructure. In the water sector this could translate as a single all virtual water treatment works, which communicates with a network of smaller, physical water treatment works.
And he says “it’s only a matter of time” before cars become driverless.
“It’ll be an absolute game-changer for commute patterns, for settlement patterns, for the volume of traffic on you can get on a given quantum of road.
“It’s not just the car. Those things will change the entire way we think about cities and land use.”
This sentiment has been echoed by the UK government with the introduction of the Modern Transport Bill which the government says underlines its aims to ensure the UK is at the forefront of the modern transport revolution. The Bill will include new laws enabling the UK to pioneer driverless cars, as well as legislation to enable future development of the UK’s first commercial spaceports.
Several companies are also embracing the driverless car revolution, with Car maker Volvo revealing plans to trial semi-autonomous vehicles on UK roads next year.
I can make decisions about my energy which once upon a time would not have been possible
Williams says the volume of new construction needed to accommodate the expansion in cities and population over the next 25 years is going to be “massive”.
“The new build, one hopes, will be able to readily accommodate a level of smartness that the old stuff previously didn’t.
“The old stuff [that] becomes life expired will hopefully be replaced with new and take that opportunity to smarten it up and add intelligence to the way that it operates. For example, in countries with water stress, one will hope that they will embrace leak control and leak protection.”
He says that in the United States, the amount of space in the country has resulted in a tendency to apply brute force to the problem, while in Europe that there’s a bit more finesse about it.
“The infrastructure in Europe is older so you can’t just level stuff and start again. There’s less complete new build going on and the settlement patterns are a lot more established.
“Accommodating this to the existing built environment is a big deal and there are no easy answers to it.”