Frontier Materials for Infrastructure
Infrastructure has become a hot-button topic for many governments across the world: the United States recently made the largest historic investment in its roads and bridges in, and China, despite recent slowdowns, continues to plow money into its global Belt & Road initiative while the European Union has unveiled the Global Gateway program, which seeks to secure and strengthen trade linkages through investment-related funding. Investments made for construction and architectural purposes tend to pay for themselves rapidly, stimulate short- and long-term job growth, and eliminate waste by enabling stable trade routes that move goods more efficiently, sustainably, and safely. In the Middle East, many infrastructure projects unfortunately become severely complicated due to the abundance of regional environmental ‘bumps in the road,’ such as heat waves or sandstorms, which restrict ease of travel and increase trade-related costs; however, some recent investments here provide insight into how these challenges can be overcome. The most significant development in the region has been the construction of the smart-megacity, NEOM, in northwest Saudia Arabia, which seeks to diversify the nation’s hydrocarbon-based economy by creating a new logistical, tourist, technological, and clean energy hub that will be both autonomous of the Riyadh government and operate independently of the State’s energy systems. NEOM presents an ideal case study of how governments can adapt to changing global environments, demographics, and energy needs by investing in infrastructural projects that seek to overcome both the global and regional challenges that are created by unfettered climate change.
NEOM is somewhat comparable to similar projects, such as Egypt and Indonesia’s planned new capitals that seek to overcome both housing and waste concerns, yet NEOM separates itself from these similar endeavors because it seeks to reinvent the concept of a metropolis entirely. NEOM, with significant fiscal support, plans to create a self-sustaining municipality that won’t require conventional cars, will possess the largest green hydrogen plant, and can be maintained by an army of robots that handle a variety of tasks, such as security, logistics, caregiving, etc. At times, many of these awe-inspiring ideas or technologies appear to have been pulled straight out of a Hollywood movie or Star Trek episode, but nowadays, many cities across the globe are reinventing themselves in ways that would have seemed unbelievable only a decade ago, as seen in New York, San Francisco, Beijing, or Mumbai. These feats, however, could only be accomplished by the dedicated scientists or entrepreneurs that sought to solve some of the world’s largest and smallest problems and whose success compounded on previous beneficial discoveries or implements that further created positive impacts work that benefit both the city and its communities.
There are many companies and organizations that have pushed the boundaries of infrastructure, architecture, or construction. For instance, several big-name infrastructure-based businesses, including Vinci SA or Ericsson, continue to provide traditional infrastructural services but remain industry leaders by continuously investing in the development of next-generation projects or technologies. Vinci SA, for instance, has been focused on making its construction projects more sustainable through better waste reduction, energy efficiency, and climate adaptability, while Ericsson has been at the forefront of the 5G deployment, creating both 5G prototypes used across the globe and helping build out the digital infrastructure network required to maintain these systems. These companies, however, are expected to be at the cutting edge of this revolution since they have access to hordes of money with which they can continuously invest in their R&D, but even then, they aren’t able to address every modern infrastructure problem. Luckily though, many start-ups have begun emerging as potential front-runners in this new infrastructural boom and introducing their own novel solutions.
Notable examples include Valerann, Aqua Robur, and Built Robotics. Each invented, developed or created new methods or technologies that heralded an even greater expansion of the things impacted by or connected to infrastructure. Valerann, for instance, has been designing smart road systems that are enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT) solar sensors, which can detect potential traffic risks in real-time, and collect and transmit maintenance directly to repair crews, while reducing overall environmental impacts caused by driving. Aqua Robur, on the other hand, has moved from the land to the water and created smart IoT systems that are capable of measuring and collecting data about leaks and deficient water quality in municipal pipelines, which aids in the elimination or prevention of harmful pollutants and chemicals. Meanwhile, Built Robotis is seeking to revolutionize construction processes by developing fully autonomous AI-based heavy machinery, such as dozers, excavators, compactors, etc., which are capable of operating independently and safely, making it possible to reduce the risks to human operators working and reducing average construction times. There are, of course, many more start-ups or fledgling laboratories that are at the bleeding edge of this Era of Infrastructure, and every day it feels as if another company is jumping into the fray with hopes of helping to build future cities that are adaptable, sustainable, and can accommodate an ever more crowded and tech-centric society.
Modern smart cities, such as NEOM, act as contemporary physical laboratories for novel technologies, services, and ideas since they not only are built with these latest tools in mind but also foster the growth of unexplored concepts that improve social conditions within the city. Increasingly, governments and international organizations recognize the importance of constructing cities intelligently and with significant consideration given to the possibility of future problems, such as extreme weather events, waste generation, contaminated water, etc., placing adaptation to unforeseen challenges as an essential determinant for the city’s long-term prospects. NEOM’s first phase, The Line, is expected to be completed by the year 2025 and be fully completed by 2030. In that time, we can expect that Saudi policy-makers and construction planners will adopt even more forward-thinking technologies and tools that further reinforce the idea that modern infrastructure needs be even more sustainable, cheaper, and better acclimated to the coming challenges presented by climate change.