The infrastructure conversation has evolved well beyond roads and bridges. It now includes buildings, campuses, water, utilities, and other components that make up communities across the world. And it’s expanding into the digital realm because these physical assets, connected via the Internet of Things (IoT), allow for increased operational and environmental efficiencies while producing vast amounts of data. The resulting data and analytics will be the story that your infrastructure is “telling” you. The question is: What do you do with all this information?
In fact, the richness of data is driving a new asset class within infrastructure that will be valued, regulated, and financed just like our physical infrastructure is today.
The management of this data will be a major undertaking, given the quantity that the IoT will be generating five, 10, and 20 years from now. That great data domain will present a massive opportunity for growth, providing many new roles and jobs, because we, the drivers of change, are at the center of digitalization.
Humans will be the true deciders, not AI
People talk about artificial intelligence (AI) as if it is something that will be overapplied and thus surpass the people in the system, or even rule us out. This is a mistaken assumption that ignores a central fact about how AI is and will be used: AI is akin to a trusted advisor that helps the humans in the system understand vast quantities of data in a timely fashion so that people have the right information, at the right time, to make the key decisions and plan strategically.
In fact, within the context of mining value from data using AI, it is most often looking—from a high level—for or at something very specific in the data, and then learning from that discovery and providing specific insights. It is not going to do any overall governing—the role of governing belongs to the human managers. AI simply helps us move from information to knowledge much more quickly, knowledge being something human-generated.
In those scenarios where AI is able to achieve repeatable processes that human beings are currently doing, this creates the perfect opportunity to lean into education and lifelong learning to upskill and re-skill people to fill critical, open digital roles in advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, and elsewhere.
Humans will continue to be the critical drivers of our future. Because when you have actionable data coming out of, say, our first fleets of electric vehicles, real jobs will result. We’re talking engineering plans, drawings, welding, and pouring concrete. Those are real jobs resulting from digitally enabled infrastructure projects, and this will occur across the labor market.
Where infrastructure data overlap, people will find opportunity
As we network more and more infrastructure, data will, in a sense, become the voice of infrastructure—telling stories on how best to do more with less resources. These stories will unfold in an intersection of capital markets, businesses, and many social sectors. In that overlapping space, people will find information that leads to opportunity.
Say, for example, you’re an investor and you want to assess a piece of infrastructure over time. Data will help you learn the condition of that asset, and you can compare its story to that of a similar asset. Making multiple comparisons of data stories can lead to a much better understanding of what investment risk you face, and help you decide how you want to allocate capital.
Infrastructure data will also help us understand how to make the right decisions about decarbonization, because there are a lot of considerations that must be made about CO2-reduction efforts: What actions create jobs? How much capital needs to be spent for the optimal outcome? What are the long-term developmental and economic benefits? Good data helps prepare human decision-makers to answer essential questions, with the right answers bringing opportunity.
Actionable data means people can find jobs
Believe it or not, there are some things that computers can’t tell us because they don’t always understand what is humanly possible. The onus is on us to use our data-derived knowledge to see potential and set clear outcomes. Humans will do most of the critical thinking and, most importantly, set the vision for our future.
Humans will continue to be the critical drivers of our future. Because when you have actionable data coming out of, say, our first fleets of electric vehicles, real jobs will result. We’ll need new forms of car manufacturing. We’ll need new systems of power generation. We’ll need charging infrastructure. So now we’re talking engineering plans, drawings, welding, and pouring concrete. Those are real jobs resulting from digitally enabled infrastructure projects, and this will occur across the labor market.
A lot of these digitally enabled infrastructure projects will happen around water and around energy, and data will create a positive cycle because the more information we have, the more people we will need to understand it and act on it. The more we act—to develop and build and maintain—the more we need operators and technicians. There will also be cyclic needs for engineering work, municipal planning, rule- making, and computer work.
Humans will protect data and enforce its trustworthiness
Society already functions through a variety of safety networks, including food safety, water-quality, and the protection of nuclear plants and electrical grids, with intermediaries in both the public and private sectors at a variety of levels to ensure security. Similarly, we will have to put in place governance over the security of the data of a wide variety of critical infrastructure.
Cybersecurity—the secure control of data—becomes more critical as many more things become interconnected digitally. Within this secure ecosystem for data, trust will be the force that holds the whole thing together, and building trust is entirely in the hands of human managers.
This is already happening. In Europe, there is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDRP) that addresses data security, privacy, and transfer. In the U.S., our governance infrastructure continues to evolve with recent policies like the IoT Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2020, supporting our path forward in the digital world. And we will enforce these standards and frameworks around infrastructure data as it continues to evolve. These standards and framework will define how we interact with technology—and people will continue to be the drivers of this.
All of this points to one key matter entirely in the hands of humans: We’re going to need significant, new leadership skills because we must have organized and core-structure change management if we’re really going to leverage IoT effectively. All our processes, all our behaviors, and all the intellectual glue that keeps things together day to day will have to change to varying degrees as we build the digital world piece by piece, sector by sector. We’ll learn as we go—our perceptions will change over time as the world changes, and we will learn how to guide and lead ourselves.
Published: May 19, 2021