1.4 Embrace technology and innovation
Technology is increasingly important for everyday life, from the smart phone to apps and smart home appliances. Figure 6 shows the rapid increase of internet use by Australians. Technology has provided new ways to communicate, work, access services and connect socially.
While the ways technology will continue to change people’s lives over the next 30 years is unknown, our recommendations support Victoria to embrace technological opportunities to enhance efficiency and productivity, allow new industries to flourish, provide better access to services, and improve people’s quality of life.
Rapid technological change accelerates innovation
Victorians adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic in ways previously not thought possible. In 2018, one quarter of Australians were unfamiliar with technologies such as digital education, telehealth, and on-demand transport,1 but the COVID-19 pandemic hyper-charged technology use. Many businesses rapidly moved online, causing e-commerce to explode with record growth of 169.9% in Victoria in the year to August 2020.2 This shows technology can facilitate rapid change, and that people can swiftly adapt.
We can retain and learn from many of the technological adaptations made during the pandemic. The growing practice of telemedicine and telehealth services can promote better access to health services, particularly in areas of regional Victoria where access to skilled medical specialists and health professionals is more challenging. Digital access can substitute for many face-to-face interactions including remote working, video-conferencing, and remote service delivery. It can potentially overcome many disparities, including limited transport access or distance.
Globally, technology is rapidly changing, driven by rising internet use, digitisation, smart technologies, and automation. Many new technologies with potential implications for infrastructure are developing swiftly, such as 5G mobile, artificial intelligence, automated and connected vehicles, drones, virtual and augmented reality, the `Internet of Things’, and digital health and education.3 They have immense potential benefits, with some estimating that digital innovation could deliver $315 billion in gross economic value to Australia during the next decade.4
Technology can change the infrastructure that Victoria needs. For example, automated vehicles could lead to significant network efficiency improvements that could mitigate congestion and boost economic growth.5 This could mean redesigning road layouts and avoiding or delaying major infrastructure investments.6 Other technology is still at early concept stage or is unproven, making it difficult to anticipate any benefits of supporting infrastructure.
These may simply require monitoring technological developments, such as urban air mobility and hyperloop technologies.
New technology and applications are also increasing productivity, enhancing services, and promoting innovation.
Technology can underpin new business models, such as using reverse osmosis to create drinking water, or using algorithms to closely match users and providers, such as in ride sharing. Technology can help integrate transport services, with public and private transport services combining to deliver affordable and sustainable choices and a seamless customer experience. Sometimes allowing new technology to flourish requires regulatory changes. Regulatory shortcomings can impose costs on business and the community.7 During rapid technological evolution, prescriptive regulation can stifle innovation. Instead, regulation focusing on outcomes, such as safety, can protect consumers while allowing innovation to flourish.8
Widespread adoption of rapidly advancing technology also has risks. For example, digital technologies need strong privacy safeguards and robust cyber security, so information is non-identifiable and stored securely. Cyber-breaches can erode community trust, and potentially discourage use or thwart innovation. Governments must also consider the fairness and ethics of automating public functions so the benefits of technology are equitably distributed and do not undermine labour standards.
In a hyper-connected world, individuals and families who cannot afford or are not able to access personal technology are at risk of deepening disadvantage. The social consequences of rapid technology change means governments need to focus on sharing the benefits widely. For example, people who can afford rooftop solar and energy efficiency upgrades are rewarded with lower bills and more efficient usage, while those who cannot end up paying higher energy bills. Our community panel on accelerating adoption of electric and low-emission vehicles identified major principles of a just transition, equitable access, and sharing knowledge.9
Technology can provide alternative service delivery methods
As business models change, so too can government services. Government providers can try different ways of working, including innovative models of health care, justice and policing services. Technology can transform government services, which in turn alters their infrastructure requirements. Digital technology can substitute for buildings. Health services demonstrated and expanded different ways of providing health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, without necessarily requiring more dedicated infrastructure, including by evolving telehealth, outreach services, and ‘hospital in the home’ arrangements.10 Telehealth services complement in-person care by providing telephone and online health services, allowing easier and potentially earlier interventions.
Over 56 million telehealth services were delivered and 83,540 providers used telehealth services nationally from 13 March 2020 to 21 April 2021.11 An NBN Co survey also found 48% of respondents who needed to access a health service during the pandemic used a telehealth service, and 63% are willing to consider telehealth.12
Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically transformed the administration of courts and tribunals, which were required to change traditional protocols and procedures.13 For example, virtual courtrooms allow many cases to progress without the participants needing to attend in person.
Technology and data analytics can help infrastructure perform better
Technology provides new ways of collecting and disseminating information about infrastructure and the services it supports. Technologies can create, collect, and analyse data, supporting more targeted interventions, superior service delivery models, and better asset management.
Victorians are increasingly using new technology to help manage their daily lives. Apps can show people how much electricity they use, count their steps, and support their budgeting goals. An Australian survey identified that 75% of respondents used the internet to download an app in 2017–18 and that 35% used one or more smart home activated tools in the same period.15
Smart homes with Wi-Fi connected devices create an ‘Internet of Things’, allowing people to turn on televisions, lights and appliances by voice command, set timers, ask questions about the weather or even remotely check visitors at their door.16 Intelligent transport systems can communicate between private and public transport vehicles, and between vehicles and infrastructure. This has the dual benefits of reducing manual processes for managing traffic flows and responding more quickly to manage congestion and reduce queuing. Victoria already has limited dedicated traffic signals that prioritise movements of buses and trams. Traffic light synchronisation in Orange County, California, reduced overall travel times by 11%, the number of stops by 75% and greenhouse gas emissions by 7%.17
Incorporating uncertainty into infrastructure planning
Planning for infrastructure in uncertain times is challenging. The exact evolution of technology is unpredictable, as is its impact on long-lived assets. Challenging assumptions can have a profound impact on predictions for infrastructure investment.
Scenario planning involves constructing multiple different projections under different assumptions. It improves understanding of the value of infrastructure investments in different possible futures. It also helps document the value of keeping options open under different possible circumstances, and identifies situations where infrastructure could become redundant.
Infrastructure sectors that undertake scenario planning are better prepared. For example, to help plan for the nations electricity and gas needs, the AEMO has developed an Integrated System Plan, using several scenarios that represent plausible futures to assess risks, opportunities and development needs.18 The electricity sector is experiencing considerable disruption from renewable and storage technologies, but the pace of growth is uncertain with national consensus still to be reached on greenhouse gas emission reduction aspirations.
The Integrated System Plan identifies the infrastructure investments that hold the most value in different circumstances, and the potential impact of not investing.
Similarly, in preparing our Advice on Automated and Zero Emissions Vehicles Infrastructure, we modelled several scenarios based on different assumptions about the availability and use of transport technologies.19 We prepared multiple transport and land use modelling scenarios in developing this strategy. We are also examining implications for Victoria’s gas network infrastructure under different 2050 energy sector scenarios, providing our final advice to the Victorian Government by the end of 2021.
Having staged, incremental planning for infrastructure projects also helps to manage uncertainty. For instance, designing infrastructure to adapt as technologies mature keeps infrastructure resilient and investments productive. New and significantly upgraded infrastructure can consider its capability to be connected, including by embedding technology.20 It can also assist infrastructure maintenance, recording its condition to support continuing safe and effective operation over its useful life.
Recommendations to embrace technological opportunities and innovation
Infrastructure Victoria makes the following recommendations to better position the Victorian Government to capitalise on technological opportunities and innovate in core service delivery. These are complemented by recommendations to unlock regional economic growth opportunities (see section 4.1) and keep regional Victorians connected (see section 4.2). Many other recommendations incorporate developments in new technology.