Last edited 21 Sep 2020

2050 and the Future of Infrastructure


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[edit] Introduction

Much of the world around us has been formed around key pieces of infrastructure. Many see this as a testament to who we are as a society, and part of the cultural moorings we need to guide us into the future.

In general, infrastructure represents a long-term societal investment that will move us along the path of building a more efficient, better functioning, society. And usually it does … for a while.

But infrastructure comes in many forms and as we build our elaborate networks of pipes, wires, roads, bridges, tunnels, buildings and waterways, we become very focused on the here and now, with little thought as to whether there might be a better way.

Virtually every piece of infrastructure creates jobs, revenue streams and investment opportunities, as well as new laws, regulations and industry standards.

The longer a piece of infrastructure is in place, the greater the resistance there is to replacing it. Much like an ageing tree, the root system that feeds it becomes enormous.

That said, the life-cycle of infrastructure is getting shorter, and teams driving the disruptive technologies are getting far more sophisticated.

Infrastructure projects represent huge paydays for a few, and the disruptors are determined to make it their payday.

Here are ten examples of how our core infrastructure is about to change and what this will mean to the nations and businesses at the heart of this revolution.


[edit] 1. Driverless cars and driverless highways

Even though the art of road building has been continually improving since the Roman Empire first decided to make roads a permanent part of its infrastructure, highways today remain little more than dumb surfaces with virtually no data flowing between the vehicles and the road itself. That is about to change for the following reasons:

  • Driverless technology will initially require a driver, and it will creep into everyday use much as airbags did, first as an expensive option for luxury cars, but eventually as a safety feature required by governments;
  • The greatest benefits of this kind of automation won’t be realised until the driver’s hands are off the wheel. With millions of people involved in car accidents every year, it will not take long for policy-makers to be convinced that driverless cars are a safer option, and

The privilege of driving is about to be redefined.

As cars become equipped with driverless technology, important things begin to happen. To compensate for the loss of a driver, vehicles will need to become more aware of their surroundings.

Working with cameras and other sensors, an onboard computer will log information on surrounding road conditions over 1,000 times per second from short-range transmitters , including where other cars are and what they are doing. This constant flow of data will give the vehicle a rudimentary sense of awareness.

With this continuous flow of sensory information, vehicles will begin to form a symbiotic relationship with their environment, a relationship that is far different than the current human-to-road relationship, which is largely emotion-based.


An intelligent car coupled with an intelligent road is a powerful force. Together they will accelerate our mobility as a society, and do it in a stellar fashion:

In the driverless era, intelligent highways will be able to accommodate 50-100 times as many vehicles as they do today. Counter to traditional thinking about vehicle safety, the higher the speeds, the fewer the number of vehicles on the roads at any given moment.

As we compress the time and space requirements of every vehicle, we achieve a far higher yield of passenger benefits per square metre of road resources.

In addition to the benefits passengers receive, the road itself will greatly benefit from this technology. With cars constantly monitoring road conditions, the road itself can call for its own repair.

Rather than waiting until a road becomes a serious hazard, as is currently the case where repair crews disrupt traffic for hours, days or longer, micro repairs can happen on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. High-speed coatings and surface repairs can even be developed for in-traffic application.

Even treacherous snow and ice conditions will have little effect if de-icer is applied immediately and traffic is relentless enough.


[edit] 2. Tube transportation networks

When Tesla Motors CEO, Elon Musk mysteriously leaked that he was working on his hyperloop project, the combination of secrecy, cryptic details and his own flair for the dramatic all contributed to the media frenzy that followed.

Leading up to this announcement was his growing anxiety over California’s effort to build a very expensive high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco with outdated technology.

While the Musk media train was picking up steam, several reporters pointed out a similar effort by Daryl Oster and his Longmont, Colorado-based company, ET3, to build a comparable tube transportation system that was much further along.

Indeed, both are working on what will likely be the next generation of transportation where specially designed cars are placed into sealed tubes and shot, much like rockets, to their destination. While high-speed trains are breaking the 300 mph speed barrier, tube transportation has the potential to make speeds of 4,000 mph a common everyday occurrence. As Daryl Oster likes to call it, “space travel on earth.”

Even though tube travel like this will beat every other form of transportation in terms of speed, power consumption, pollution and safety, the big missing element is its infrastructure, a tube network envisioned to combine well over 100,000 miles of connected links.

While many look at this and see the lack of infrastructure as a huge obstacle, at this point in time it is just the opposite, the biggest opportunity ever.

Constructing the tube network will be the biggest infrastructure project the earth has ever seen, with a projected 50-year build-out employing in excess of 100 million people along the way.


[edit] 3. Atmospheric water harvesters

Only 2% of all the water in the world is fresh water. To make matters worse, only a quarter of all fresh water is accessible to humans. Until now, the entire human race has survived on 0.5% of the available water on earth. But that is about to change.

We are seeing a fast-growing trend towards harvesting water from the atmosphere, something our ancestors first began working on centuries ago. People in the Middle East and Europe devised the original air-well systems over 2,000 years ago. Later, the Incas were able to sustain their culture above rain line by collecting dew and channelling it into cisterns for later use.

Even though these techniques have been around for a long time, technology in this area has recently taken a quantum leap forward, and many are beginning to think in terms of houses that generate their own water supply, self-irrigating crops and even 'waterless' cities.

The earth’s atmosphere is a far more elegant water distribution system than rivers, reservoirs, and underground waterways. Our current systems involve pipes and pumping stations that are expensive to operate and maintain, and easily contaminated.

There are roughly 37,500 trillion gallons of 'fresh' water in the air at any given moment. The age-old problem has been getting it to people who need it at exactly the right time.

A new breed of inventors has emerged to tackle this exact problem. Using solar, wind, and other forms of passive energy, our future water networks will operate with far more efficiency and convenience than anything imaginable today.

Today’s steel pipes will soon be replaced with tomorrow’s air pipes, and we will forget what life was like when chlorine-tasting water was an everyday occurrence.


[edit] 4. Micro colleges

In 2014, when Facebook announced the US$2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift, it not only put a giant stamp of approval on the technology, but also triggered an instant demand for virtual reality designers, developers, and engineers.

Virtual reality professionals were nowhere to be found on the list of hot skills needed for 2014, but they certainly are today.

The same was true when Google and Facebook both announced the acquisition of solar-powered drone companies Titan and Ascenta respectively. Suddenly, we began seeing a dramatic up-tick in the need for solar-drone engineers, drone pilots, air-rights lobbyists, global network planners, analysts, engineers and logisticians.

Bold companies making moves like this are instantly triggering the need for talented people with skills aligned to grow with these cutting-edge industries.

Whether its Tesla Motors announcing the creation of a fully automated battery factory; Intel buying the wearable tech company Basic Science, Apple buying Dr. Dre’s Beats Electronics, or Google’s purchase of Dropcam, Nest, and Skybox, the business world is forecasting the need for skills that are radically different to those taught to students by colleges and universities.

In these types of industries, it is no longer possible to project the talent needs of business and industry five or six years in advance, the time it takes most universities to develop a new degree programme and graduate their first class. Instead, these new skill-shifts come with a very short lead-time, often as little as three to four months.

With literally millions of people needing to shift careers every year, and the long, drawn-out cycles of traditional colleges being a poor solution for time-crunched rank-and-file displaced workers, we will be seeing a massive new opportunity arising for short-term, pre-apprenticeship training in the form of micro colleges.


[edit] 5. Space-based power stations

Earth’s appetite for power continues to grow. Since the 1960s, power consumption has quadrupled around the globe, with many countries opting to build large oil and coal plants to meet the demand.

But for Japan, a burgeoning economy without large oil and coal reserves, after the Fukushima disaster occurred, an in-depth review concluded that the most viable long-term strategy was to focus on spaced-based power systems.

For this reason, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) recently announced its 25-year plan to build the world’s first 1-gigawatt power plant in space.

The vision of harvesting solar power from space and beaming it to earth has been around ever since Dr. Peter Glaser first proposed it in 1968. After considerable research in the 1970s, scientists concluded it was not a viable concept just yet because technology had not advanced enough. The materials were far too heavy, and it would have required over 100 astronauts working with thousands of crude robots to create it.

Since then, technology has advanced in countless ways, not only making it doable, but for Japan, making it the best available option for controlling its own destiny.

What most people do not realise is that solar panels in space are 10 times more efficient than those on earth because there are no day-night cycles, seasonal variations or weather issues to contend with.

But here is where it gets even more interesting. Many other countries will not be comfortable with Japan having the world’s only expertise in building space-based power stations. Once the first one proves successful, it will become faster and cheaper to launch the next 10, or even 100.

[edit] 6. Drone delivery networks

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International, once drones get okayed for commercial use, the first three years will produce a multi-billion dollar industry creating hundreds of thousands of new manufacturing jobs.

But more than just manufacturing, there will be a need for drone pilots, drone farming specialists, drone security, drone data analysts, drone mosquito killers, and much more.

[edit] 7. Mass energy storage

We are now entering the early growth stages of what will surely become a huge global industry – energy storage. It will both support and compete with conventional generation, transmission and distribution systems.

Over the coming decade, as the industry evolves, it will lead to new business models and the creation of new companies that make, apply and operate storage assets to help the grid work more reliably and cost-effectively, while decreasing unwanted environmental impacts.


[edit] 8. Global language archive

For most of us, the language we speak is like the air we breathe. But what happens when we wake up and find that our air is becoming extinct? Researchers estimate that over the past 500 years, half of the world’s languages, from Etruscan to Tasmanian, have vanished.

By 2100, nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will disappear, as young people abandon native tongues in favour of English, Mandarin or Spanish. Think of the Global Language Archive as the 'Louvre of Languages' where culture and language collide in a way that all can experience.

[edit] 9. Whole Earth Genealogy Project

The genealogy industry today consists of millions of fragmented efforts happening simultaneously. The duplication of effort is massive. While significant databases already exist on websites like, RootsWeb, GenealogyBank, and the National Archives, there is still a much bigger opportunity waiting to happen, an opportunity to automate the creation of our genealogies. What is missing is a Jimmy Wales-type entrepreneur to turn this project into their life’s calling.

[edit] 10. Our trillion-sensor infrastructure

In the past six years, we have gone from 10 million sensors—in things like the Nintendo Wii and iPhones—to 3.5 billion. This is why Janusz Bryzek, an executive at Fairchild, organised the Trillion Sensor Summit which took place in Palo Alto in 2016. Bryzek is projecting 1 trillion sensors by 2024 and 100 trillion sensors in mid-2036, along with literally millions of new primary and secondary jobs to manage this emerging sector.


The projects listed here merely scratch the surface of what is possible.

Whether it is building the Great Pyramids in Egypt, erecting the Great Wall of China, or sending someone to the moon, crazy-big projects have a way of defining our humanity and raising the bar for future generations.

As our capabilities improve, we simply need to set our sights higher and aim for the stars - literally.

By 2050, we will see more changes to core infrastructure than in the combined total of all of human history. The fundamental shifts we will see to the way society functions will be nothing short of breathtaking.

[edit] About this article

This article was written by Thomas Frey, futurist and author of “Communicating with the Future”. It is published in collaboration with The article was originally published on the Future of Construction Knowledge Sharing Platform and the WEF Agenda Blog

[edit] Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki

--Future of Construction 15:10, 20 Jun 2017 (BST)

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