Originally Published 2014-07-14 07:24:42 Published on Jul 14, 2014
A road or a highway will no longer be a 'dumb pathway'. It will be an intelligent network with its own inherent logic and sense of meaning derived from algorithms and predictive software. From the point of view of institutional arrangements, several ministries and departments will have to work together.
Paving a new road to a digital future
Transport minister Nitin Gadkari wants to build at least 30 kilometres of roads every day. It's an ambitious target. The minister, however, comes to the table with the formidable reputation of someone who gets things done. He is credited with building the Mumbai-Pune expressway to world class standards in record time. The issue is not whether Gadkari can fulfill his promise, though it's one worth a serious debate. The real question is whether the categorisation of roads as physical infrastructure needs to be revisited. The basic framework of road building has not changed substantially in the last 100 years. No doubt the technology has changed. Where spreading layers of bitumen earlier literally took an army of men months, today a single machine can do the same quantum of work in a day with such extraordinary precision and finesse that it almost looks like a work of art. But through it all a road is still physical commodity, a mixture of rocks, cement and tar. It's an analog worldview of connectivity, social cohesion and culture.<br /><br /> Recent advances in construction and digital technologies throw up interesting possibilities that can redefine roads as a hybridised digital infrastructure. Roads are potential digital pathways and bridges to socio-economic integration and progress. It is equal parts literal and metaphorical. By all means of measurement, roads are still fundamentally physical in nature and scope. Their primary function is to facilitate movement of vehicles of various tonnages, and all core and ancillary services available in and around the roads are oriented towards such facilitation. Laying a road is a physically demanding task requiring the combined strength of manpower, resources, machines and technology. But what's different today, as compared to the recent past, is the increasing ability of a specific suite of digital technologies, radio frequency identification (RFID) chips to name just one, to integrate itself with and within the built ecosystem of a road network.<br /><br /> Gadkari has a golden opportunity to not only create a dense and integrated mesh of roads, but also layer them with specific suites of digital technologies that automatically upgrade India's pathways from an analog system of transport to a smart network of digital highways. This opportunity also ties in with the overarching mindset of the Modi administration that's constantly looking at ways to integrate departments and ministries and create fresh cross-functional and inter-departmental goalposts. If Gadkari, and his advisors, are serious about evolving a fresh approach towards establishing a network of highways and roads across India then there are three components that they should seriously consider introducing into the current policy framework, including in the processes for bidding, tender and issuance of contracts.<br /><br /> The first component deals with extending and modifying the current construction parameters of highways and roads. Building a road, every metre of it, requires excavation, digging, concretisation and asphalting. It also requires laying down drainage pipes, electricity cables and street lamps, sign posts, signaling systems, break barriers and lane dividers. These parameters are already institutionalised as rules and guidelines of the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), various PPP expressway projects and the state highway authorities. All that's required to be done is to introduce one extra parameter in the guidelines. This new parameter must mandate that all major roads, highways, arterial routes and village roads being constructed under various schemes must create a separate underground and concretised pipeline for fibre optic cables, network hubs, wi-fi antennas and integrated digital devices. It's will just be an incremental cost to the overall project budget, and in one swoop will bring about immediate synergies between the long standing plan to bring about broadband connectivity to 250,000 villages and a viable and good quality road network connecting every single household. There will also be an added advantage of integrating digital technologies through such a pipeline. It will automatically make every single metre of the road smart. The possibilities embedded within a smart road are practically endless. It ranges from traffic density oriented signaling systems to a millisecond response time towards RFID/barcoded vehicles not adhering to any of the RTO parameters (pollution certificates, broken tail lights and overloading). <br /><br /> The second component is more futuristic and deals with integrating new and intelligent materials for building roads. Bitumen, tar and concrete have been in existence for over a century and not much has changed. In the last five years, however, several high-strength materials, having the possibility of multiple uses due to their ability to integrate digital technologies, are slowly redefining what the fundamental ingredients of a road should be. Some of these materials are already in use, like the self-healing concrete that's being used for latest road bridges being constructed in Switzerland. But the most promising set of technologies seems to be the ones that have made solar highways a viable and workable proposition. The highways are made from materials that make aircraft black boxes virtually indestructible. But what really makes such roads unique is its ability to integrate functional solar panels. No doubt each panel is expensive, but the economics of the roads are such that with every single passing day the roads pay itself out due to the electricity that it generates. Such electricity can be merged with both off-grid and on-grid systems. Integrated with digital pipes mentioned earlier, the highways become autonomously intelligent lighting up embedded LEDs that can act as early warning systems for pedestrian crossing to creating separate and exclusive lanes for ambulances in case of emergencies. Of course, the ecosystem of such highways is fertile grounds for cultivating a robust and sustainable digital economy (Please see: <a class="textlink" href="http://www.wimp.com/everythingsolar/">http://www.wimp.com/everythingsolar/</a> and <a class="textlink" href="http://www.wimp.com/solarhighways/">http://www.wimp.com/solarhighways/</a> for more information about solar highways).<br /><br /> The third component is administrative and requires a governance mindset of convergence and synergy. Once the first two components are conceptually and practically accepted and implemented, roads and highways will have the potential to become independent engines of social and economic growth. It will integrate a health centre in the hinterland with a major hospital in the city. It will bring in logistical and operational efficiencies in retail chains and networks. It will bring together farmers, agricultural markets and cold storage chains in a seamless network of information, exchange and transaction. It will merge digital kiosks and common service centres with daily transportation of goods, services and people. A road or a highway will no longer be a 'dumb pathway'. It will be an intelligent network with its own inherent logic and sense of meaning derived from algorithms and predictive software. From the point of view of institutional arrangements, several ministries and departments will have to work together. At best it will require a substantial integration of the ministries, departments and institutions of health, agriculture, transport, roads, highways, programme implementation and statistics, information technology and telecommunications, banking and finance. At worst it will still require deep functional cooperation between all these departments. The real challenge before Gadkari is not the number of kilometres that's covered with tar, concrete and asphalt every single day. It actually lies in converting those kilometres into smart and integrated intelligent systems, ready for the inevitable digital future.<br /><br /> <em>(The writer is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation and a Fellow at the National Internet Exchange of India)</em><br /><br /> <strong>Courtesy:</strong> Governance Now
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