Published on Digital Development

Digitizing infrastructure: Technologies and models to foster transformation

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An integrated digital infrastructure system
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With so many people working from home, it is all too easy to think about digital transformation only where the technology meets its end users. Meetings are on video-conferencing platforms, grocery orders are placed online, and curbside pickups at brick-and-mortar retailers involve smart phone apps. 

Out of sight of the consumer, new digital technologies are transforming infrastructure sectors such as transport, energy, and mining.  New applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI), accelerated wireless connectivity, and the spread of relatively inexpensive edge computing systems, all mean that these sectors can offer a faster, cleaner, and more efficient world for doing business. 

The impact of digitizing infrastructure can already be felt in the private and public sector. IFC’s mission is to ensure that all countries have access to new digital tools in essential infrastructure sectors. 

Fifth-generation cellular technology, commonly referred to as 5G, is another exciting and disruptive computing innovation. It can handle vastly more concurrent users than previous systems, such as 3G and 4G, and has an extremely high rate of spectral efficiency.

Networks using 5G technology also have extremely low latency, or lag time, as they transfer data between devices and servers. Moving computing tasks to smart devices, rather than repeatedly relaying information between devices and a distant server also speeds processing times significantly. (In real-world terms, this means that a city bus, equipped with remote sensors, can be programmed not to hit a similarly equipped bicycle as both move through a busy traffic circle). 

Intelligent traffic systems’ impact on transport

In Argentina, intelligent traffic systems have already reduced commuting time by 20 percent. According to Kapsch TrafficCom, about nine million people in Buenos Aires benefit from intelligent transport solutions.  These systems typically deploy information from remote sensors to guide traffic signals and maximize the efficient flow of pedestrians, bicycles, cars, buses and trains. 

Fast and effective traffic control systems are just one of the benefits of edge computing. 

When calculations are processed inside a traffic light, for example, rather than at a far-away data center, the time wasted as information is uploaded, downloaded, and relayed between nodes is eliminated. The milliseconds saved in each calculation matter. 

Edge computing can provide accuracy in measuring the position of moving objects that can be measured in inches, rather than feet or yards. Such precise accuracy is an urgent matter at busy intersections, where pedestrians, buses and trucks may be just a few steps away from each other. Placed at every intersection, and on buses and other vehicles, sensors or cameras can be paired with GPS devices to power unified Advanced Traffic Management Systems (ATMS). 

ATMS can manage traffic patterns in real time to reduce traffic congestion. The data collected from the network of sensors and devices is used to quickly suggest alternate routes, speeding traffic throughout the city. Machine learning can be used to model the probability of accidents for road traffic management. This then allows businesses to invest in adequate safety and schedule measures to reduce risks. This type of technology has been tested in Pittsburgh where it has reduced wait times at intersections by 40%.

Using new data analytics to modernize the electric grid

New digital technologies have enormous potential in the energy sector. Already, smart meters can collect and transmit real-time usage data. The insights from this data allow utility companies to operate networks more efficiently, reduce operating costs, and improve user demand analytics. The resultant savings on new electricity infrastructure has been estimated at $270 billion. 

By using data analytics to manage the grid, utilities can better forecast peak load needs, resulting in better management of electricity generation. Remote sensors can monitor equipment performance, resulting in better safety performance and a more efficient deployment of resources for maintenance. New parts and equipment can also be made more reliable thanks to machine learning, which has applications for predictive maintenance and longer asset lifetime. 

In Egypt, IFC invested in Globaltronics, a company which uses new smart meters to improve billing accuracy and provide convenient payment options for consumers. 

Advancing sustainable mining through new digital tools

Like other infrastructure sectors, mining is beginning to reap significant rewards from the application of new digital technologies. Machine learning applications precisely identify both the best drilling techniques and locations for the geology of a given site. 

The new technology enables mining companies to avoid unnecessary drilling, and thus reduces both cost and environmental disruptions. The potential economic impact of digitizing operation management in mining is estimated to reach $250 billion per year by 2025. 

Autonomous vehicles, used for underground haulage, can perform significantly better than before, thanks to improvements in wireless navigation and location software. Like the energy sector, the mining industry stands to gain from increased equipment reliability and safety as increasingly sophisticated remote sensors can be used throughout the extraction process.

Digitizing infrastructure services

Increased global connectivity requires substantial investment. A report by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development estimates that the cost of universal broadband connectivity in Africa alone will be about $100 billion. The essential nature of telecom services for economic growth and human well-being became abundantly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Wealthy nations quickly routed business, health care and education through the telecom sector, while many of the world’s poorest nations struggled to provide connectivity. It is essential that upgrades to telecom technology be made available around the world, and calls are growing for universal connectivity to be recognized as an essential service. 

Digitizing infrastructure services and industries can lead to tangible benefits around the world. Digital infrastructure investment may require changing organizational models, but it will also create new opportunities for entrepreneurs.  Taking the steps to digitize infrastructure now will result in safer and more reliable transport, energy and mining services. 

This blog is the first in a series of blogs on how digital technologies can transform infrastructure. Visit the IFC infrastructure website and follow the IFC Infrastructure LinkedIn page to keep up with the latest trends and news.


Carlo Maria Rossotto

Principal Investment Officer, IFC

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