Smart Cities are rapidly evolving from futuristic aspiration to emerging reality. Many governments and local councils across the world have embarked on ambitious plans to transform their territories into smart connected ecosystems. The building blocks required for this transformation are already being created, from infrastructure projects in Wuhan and Barcelona to airports in Abu Dhabi and Singapore.

There continues to be a lot of focus and attention on the ICT infrastructure, capabilities, and services that will be required to build smart cities. Almost every technology major has already made a strategic play to develop solutions and innovations for smart cities. To cite just a couple of examples, IBM launched its Smarter Cities program back in 2009 and currently offers a suite of smart city technologies to governments and local authorities in various global markets. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, launched Sidewalk Labs in 2015 to improve urban infrastructure and accelerate urban innovation. In addition, there are a host of technology startups developing solutions that address different aspects of the urban renewal context, from water usage to waste management and parking to urban planning.

But smart cities are not merely about smart technologies. They are about smart construction where innovative ICT capabilities and services solutions are embedded in intelligent structures. And that is the opportunity and the challenge for the construction industry.

The smart city phenomenon opens up a huge new opportunity for the construction industry. But it also poses a significant challenge to an industry that has traditionally been rather slow to adopt the latest technologies and innovations. The construction industry will need to quickly adapt and evolve to embrace new technologies and innovations and to upgrade and align conventional capabilities, processes, and models with the smart city opportunity.

There are already a whole host of new technologies with the promise to transform the industry.

Technology is already transforming BIM (Building Information Modeling), a  process that was primarily associated with project design. But the evolution of technology is constantly expanding the scope and the capabilities of the BIM process.  Today, 7D BIM integrates a range of diverse real-time variables and allows construction professionals to track and manage projects across their entire lifecycle including operations and maintenance.

Mobile and wearable devices are constantly redefining the way the industry connects and collaborates across teams, activities, and sites. Technology-enhanced wearables like glasses, helmets, vests, and trackers are radically redefining the industry’s approach to collaboration, productivity, quality, and safety. Embedded NFC and GPS capabilities are transforming the way the industry tracks and manages the flow of personnel, equipment, and materials. Virtual Reality(VR) and Augmented Reality(AR) applications allow the industry to seamlessly combine pre-construction simulations with real-world execution. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are helping project managers track work progress, performance, and productivity.

New technological concepts like Big Data and IoT will have a huge impact not only on the industry’s approach to construction but also on facilities and asset management. On the one hand, these technologies will enable the industry to manage the productivity and quality of core tasks. On others, they will also play a critical role in ensuring more efficient facility management and influencing how smart structures react to the real-time flow of operational and environmental information.

Above and beyond all this, the industry also needs to reinvent its fundamental approach to design and planning. In a smart construction culture, structures will have to be holistically designed with embedded intelligence as a standard feature. Key smart concepts, like optimizing energy usage and reducing environmental impact, will have to become key drivers of the planning and design process. This reinvention will require a new and unified perspective that involves smart materials, that respond to environmental conditions, advanced techniques, like prefabrication and modularization to enhance quality and reduce environmental impact and emerging technologies, like 3D printing and robotics.

The success of a smart city hinges on a perfect combination of smart policy, smart infrastructure, and smart technologies. The construction industry needs to adopt an organic whole-building whole-city approach to development in order to deliver the conceptual, functional and technological requirements of the smart city paradigm. It also requires significantly more coordination and collaboration to create a vast connected ecosystem of entities and services working towards some specified common outcomes. This can pose a significant challenge for an industry that has traditionally taken a siloed approach to project development.

The transition to a collaborative approach will likely be driven by business model innovations that emphasize cross-functional cross-stakeholder partnerships and empower construction firms to contribute and compete more successfully in this new paradigm. Building strategic and specialized partnerships with key stakeholders – in urban planning, urban services, technology, etc. – in the development process will be critical for progressive companies looking to create sustainable competitive advantage.

According to one report, the global smart cities market will expand at a CAGR of nearly 19 percent over the next 10 years to reach US$ 3.482 trillion in 2026. Of this, smart buildings will constitute a 15 percent share of value at US$ 520 billion. This is not an opportunity that any player in the construction business can afford to ignore. But the ability to embrace technological innovations and to build cross-sector partnerships will be critical for firms seeking to participate in this huge and transformative opportunity.

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