Top 4 Challenges Facing The Construction Industry

Robert Leeds

Population growth statistics paint a rosy future for the construction industry. With the global population predicted to hit 9 billion by 2050 – and two out of every three people living in cities by 2050 – the demand for construction has never been greater. Worldwide, construction is already one of the largest industry sectors, accounting for more than 11 percent of global GDP and expected to grow to 13.2 percent by 2020, according to a 2014 PwC report.

But focusing on this strong demand obscures a more precarious reality. Underlying challenges in productivity, profitability, performance, labor, and sustainability could derail the industry’s growth.

Today, the construction industry is at a crossroads. Companies that address these challenges head-on and re-imagine their business processes will be poised for significant growth. Businesses that fail to take the challenges seriously, however, will face an uphill battle for viability.

Challenge #1: Poor productivity and profitability

Currently, the barriers to entry in construction are low, creating a saturated marketplace with heavy competition. This competition is shrinking profit margins and constraining essential reinvestment in new technology and better business practices. Stagnant construction labor productivity is compounding this problem. While other industrial businesses have benefited from a 100 percent increase in labor productivity, productivity within the construction industry has remained stagnant over the last 50 years.

Why is productivity stagnation? According to a Construction Owners Association of America (COAA) study, 63 percent of direct labor time on mega-construction projects is spent waiting for materials and equipment, traveling to the area, taking early breaks, and planning how to do the work. This lack of productivity is reflected in the bottom line, where typical margins for construction companies range between 2 and 8 percent. Consequently, construction companies find themselves trapped between shrinking profit margins and stagnant productivity, unable to generate the profit necessary to invest in critical technology.

Challenge #2: Project performance

The opportunities in construction are growing, but so is project complexity. With companies already operating under razor-thin profit margins, a single production surprise can wipe out profits for the whole company. Design complexity compounds this problem. As designs become larger and require greater efficiency, construction companies struggle to keep up.

The lack of on-time and on-budget projects is telling. According to an Accenture study, only 30 percent of large projects in the energy industry are delivered on budget, and only 15 percent of projects are completed on time. Worse, the 2015 KPMG Global Construction Survey found that more than half of all construction companies experienced one or more underperforming projects in the previous year.

Challenge #3: Skilled labor shortages

The construction industry is bracing for a dramatic reduction in workforce. The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) found that 74 percent of the total respondents believe there is a crunch in skill trades, and 53 percent said they were unable to hire construction professionals such as supervisors, estimators, and engineers.

Prior to the recent recession, the U.S. construction market consisted of two generations: the traditionalists and baby boomers. Now, the workforce has split into four generations: traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation X, and millennials. This present labor diversification is a challenge because of stark differences in work ethic, attitude, outlook, and behavior between the generations, reports PwC. Traditionalists have nearly all left the workforce and baby boomer retirement is in full swing. Furthermore, the recession drove many skilled craftsmen to leave the industry and never return. By 2020, millennials are expected to represent half of the global workforce– many with little to no experience or interest in the construction industry.

The combination of increasing project complexity and decreasing experience is a risk multiplier, increasing the risk of deliverable delays, quality construction problems, and employee safety concerns.

Challenge #4: Sustainability concerns

The construction industry is the top global consumer of raw materials. The industry generates between 25 to 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. This volume of natural resource utilization is not sustainable and could compromise the environment for the sake of growth. Climate change and water management are two environmental issues that pose a growing challenge to the construction industry. Achieving targets for global carbon dioxide emissions reduction will be a major challenge for the construction energy in rapidly developing countries like India and China. Smart planning and sustainable design could reduce energy consumption and pollution, but require a new approach to project management– an approach that the construction industry on a whole is not yet prepared to undertake.

Next steps: Embracing disruption and preparing for the digital future

The construction industry is at an inflection point, analogous to the move from landline telephony to cellular technology. Digital technologies are disrupting the industry, providing new opportunities to address the challenges of poor profitability/productivity, project performance, skilled labor shortages, and sustainability concerns. Digitization of the construction industry is not a question of if or when—the changes are happening now.

The industrialization of construction and the application of proven manufacturing technology and best practices will help companies drive reliable outcomes and improve margins. Digitization will increase productivity, eliminate waste, and mitigate the adverse impact of on-site surprises.

Digitization will change most everything, including the competitors and the barriers to entry. The end result: a more productive and profitable industry that builds more sustainable assets. Construction companies must take steps now to join the digital future and stay ahead of the competition—or risk being left behind.

To learn more about how to tackle these challenges, read Building a Sustainable World, How to survive and thrive in a digital construction economy.

 

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About Robert Leeds

Robert Leeds has been with SAP for four years and has over 16 years of business development and marketing experience with enterprise software across a variety of industries and lines of business. Prior to SAP, he held a variety of positions across small software start-ups, acquisition agglomerations, and large tier 1 technology companies. Robert’s goal is to help customers understand the value of SAP’s solutions in the terms of their industry.

Five Stories About The Disruptive Power Of Digital Innovation

Jennifer Scholze

Have you heard that shoe shopping is going digital, driving an expected profit increase of 30%? Do you know how real-time customer insight and personalized interactions can lead to five percent revenue growth? Or how digital innovations can be used to predict earthquake damage and provide better disaster response? Digital transformation is leading to rapid changes across industries. New technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and machine learning dramatically change the way customers are doing business.

To help inspire you, here are five stories about companies using digital technologies to transform their businesses, and in some cases their industries.

1. Shoe shopping using virtual reality to increase profits

Aimiqi is a shoe company with a bold goal: to connect people and processes by using digital R&D machine learning to create a whole new consumer experience and respond to changing market requirements and fashion trends. Previously, only five percent of design proposals would reach the production stage, and there was significant overstock and waste. Using digital innovations, including product lifecycle management and virtual reality, the company is now able to collect and analyze customer requirements to design products that truly fit market needs. Customers can design personalized shoes with the desired color and the right fit, then virtually test the product and place an order. Aimiqi is seeing 25% reduction in design time and 40% reduction in overstock and expects to see a 30% increase in profits.

2. Predicting earthquake damage to reduce human casualties

Japan’s Hakusan Corporation is a leading manufacturer of seismometers. The company wanted to transform smartphones into seismometers to measure building movement during earthquakes. With more than 6 million people in the Asia-Pacific region affected by earthquakes last year, better prediction of building damage will help with disaster preparedness and mitigation strategies in earthquake-prone countries in the region. Using digital innovations, the company is now collecting and analyzing seismic data instantaneously to accurately pinpoint and predict damage to buildings, then share the data with first responders and authorities to provide help where it is needed most.

3. Using 3D printing to get closer to the customer

Jabil manufactures parts for transportation equipment, industrial machines, and medical diagnostic machines. The company works with 250 of the best known global brands in manufacturing and wanted to improve its competitiveness by increasing its nimbleness and personal approach to customer relationships. The company is using digital innovations – including 3D printing – to create personalized products closer to their customers’ locations. To date, Jabil has qualified and produced 100+ functional 3D-printed parts for end users. This new capability is leading to more innovative product designs, new business models, and happier customers.

4. Connecting people, plants, and machines for sustainable farming

When Rogerio Pacheco, owner of a midsized farm in the south of Brazil, decided to invest in a tractor with infrared sensors from agricultural machinery maker Stara, neighboring farmers thought he had lost his mind. But in just two years, he was able to recover his investment. Today Rogerio is Brazil’s second largest producer of soybeans. “High productivity and sustainable farming practices are only possible with technology,” he says. “I was able to increase the yield per acre without having to cut down trees, maintaining the balance between cropland and forest on my farm.” The IoT revolutionized Stara’s business model. Previously, it viewed the machine and the farmer as separate entities, but, by using the IoT, it can now connect machines to people and plants. Stara’s tractors already had sensors, and by implementing a digital innovation system to make use of the data collected, Stara can offer data analytic capabilities to farmers so they can gain better insights and make better decisions.

5. Operating a mine based on financial margins, not tonnage

Roy Hill’s entire business and operating model is designed to deliver 55 million tons per year with a margin focus rather than a reliance on tonnage volume, as is typical in mining, and its technology strategy is aligned to achieve its unique business outcome. For example, Roy Hill’s Virtual Warehouse concept is built on the transformative idea that, if you adopt a systems thinking mindset starting with an integrated operating model, then apply disruptive digital technology that has been chosen for its ability to deliver sustainably against the margin-focused business model, and overlay that with advanced planning and scheduling and a flow approach to inventory, it removes the obstacles from the supplier to the maintainer of the equipment.

The old ways of doing business are clearly over for companies that want to grow and thrive. Digital technologies surrounded by innovative thinking are driving new business models and processes that ignite a successful path into the future. We see organizations across and even between industries working together to design approaches that better balance demand with production, focus on profitability, yield more efficient operations, and interact in new and exciting ways with customers.

Are you changing your industry using SAP applications and platform technologies? The SAP Innovation Awards 2018 is your opportunity to share your story and be recognized as a digital transformation leader. New this year is a Digital Disrupter category for a company that uses SAP’s innovative technologies to drive radical change in its industry, generate significant business value, and improve its competitive positioning. 

Go to the SAP Innovation Awards website and start at the About page to learn more about award categories and judging criteria. Then follow the simple steps on the “how to enter” page. Get started today! Entry submission has already begun.

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About Jennifer Scholze

Jennifer Scholze is the Global Lead for Industry Marketing for the Mill Products and Mining Industries at SAP. She has over 20 years of technology marketing, communications and venture capital experience and lives in the Boston area with her husband and two children.

Digitization Is Crucial To Achieve UN Global Goals

Daniel Schmid

Concern, hope, enthusiasm: This was the mixture of sentiments that I perceived during the World Economic Forum (WEF) Sustainable Development Impact Summit in New York City last month.

More than 700 leaders from more than 70 countries took part—including government, business, international organizations, research centers, and not-for profits. Panelists included Salesforce CEO Marc R. Benioff, Mars president Jean-Christophe Flatin, Roche vice-chairman André S. Hoffmann, and Royal Philips president and CEO Frans van Houten.

Concern

Former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner* Al Gore pointed out, in a panel discussion titled “Global Progress through Partnerships,” that the past two weeks saw two record-breaking climate-connected storms. Hurricane Harvey crossed the Gulf of Mexico, which was over four degrees warmer than normal, resulting in enormous amounts of rain. The rainfall totals in Houston were a once-every-25,000-years event. The monsoon in South Asia also brought 70 cm more rain than normal, with one-third of Bangladesh underwater.

Gore said, “We are departing the familiar bounds of history as we have known it since civilization began.” In contrast, other areas are experiencing devastating droughts: 80 percent of Portugal is in drought, and 70 large fires have burned in the western part of North America.

These conditions also create climate refugees. “Long before the civil war in Syria started, the worst drought in 900 years of record-keeping destroyed 60 percent of farms. One and a half million climate refugees entered the cities,” Gore pointed out, adding that this is a contributing factor to the war in Syria.

Hope

“But,” Gore added, “we are also meeting in a time of extraordinary and unprecedented hope.” The World Economic Forum was incremental in building the success of the Paris Agreement, and will continue to play a key role in implementing it. “Public private partnerships are the keys to putting in place the solutions we need.”

The day after the U.S. government announced it would leave the Paris Agreement, Gore said, political and business leaders, states, cities, etc., doubled down on their commitment, saying “We are still there!” SAP is one of the companies that is strongly committed to climate action: We plan to be carbon-neutral by 2025.

According to Gore, there are additional reasons for hope: Technology becomes better and cheaper all the time, a phenomenon known as the “cost-down curve.” Gadgets can now be run with wind or solar energy, and efficiency is better than ever. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is also a sustainability revolution,” Gore said. Technology is key to meeting the sustainable development goals.

This was also consensus in the panel discussion “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Technology-Driven, Human-Centred”: Panelists emphasized the opportunities technology brings, from artificial intelligence (AI) to improve working conditions to mobile phones in India that enable everyone to play a part in the economy (e.g. have a bank account)—even those who were formerly excluded. For girls in Africa, learning IT and coding skills bring hope for a better life.

My take? It is up to us to ensure that the opportunities technology offers outweigh the risks. To help drive awareness around the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and showcase examples of how IT can help contribute to them, SAP has published an interactive web book and iPad app as well as a free online course on openSAP: “Sustainability through Digital Transformation.”

Enthusiasm

The theme of most of the speeches and discussions I witnessed at the summit was “There is no planet B,” but also “Together we can make it,” meaning that government, public, and private-sector organizations need to cooperate to tackle the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With partnerships and cooperation, they have the power to create positive economic, social, and environmental value through technology, solutions, and skills.

World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab described the summit’s intention: “What is needed is a true agenda for global public-private cooperation, with the objective not to defend individual interests, but to keep the destiny of humankind as a whole in mind.”

As a result of the summit, several major new initiatives that will advance public-private cooperation on the global goals were announced or launched, including:

These initiatives show the will to cooperate and the readiness to act of leaders from all over the world—let us all have a part in tackling the biggest challenges of the planet!

*The Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 was awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and former US Vice President Al Gore for their efforts to obtain and disseminate information about the climate challenge. In Gore’s case, the award was grounded in his tireless campaign to put the climate crisis on the political agenda.

This story originally appeared on the SAP Community.

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Daniel Schmid

About Daniel Schmid

Daniel Schmid was appointed Chief Sustainability Officer at SAP in 2014. Since 2008 he has been engaged in transforming SAP into a role model of a sustainable organization, establishing mid and long term sustainability targets. Linking non-financial and financial performance are key achievements of Daniel and his team.

Tick Tock: Start Preparing for Resource Disruption

By Maurizio Cattaneo, Joerg Ferchow, Daniel Wellers, and Christopher Koch

Businesses share something important with lions. When a lion captures and consumes its prey, only about 10% to 20% of the prey’s energy is directly transferred into the lion’s metabolism. The rest evaporates away, mostly as heat loss, according to research done in the 1940s by ecologist Raymond Lindeman.

Today, businesses do only about as well as the big cats. When you consider the energy required to manage, power, and move products and services, less than 20% goes directly into the typical product or service—what economists call aggregate efficiency (the ratio of potential work to the actual useful work that gets embedded into a product or service at the expense of the energy lost in moving products and services through all of the steps of their value chains). Aggregate efficiency is a key factor in determining productivity.

After making steady gains during much of the 20th century, businesses’ aggregate energy efficiency peaked in the 1980s and then stalled. Japan, home of the world’s most energy-efficient economy, has been skating along at or near 20% ever since. The U.S. economy, meanwhile, topped out at about 13% aggregate efficiency in the 1990s, according to research.

Why does this matter? Jeremy Rifkin says he knows why. Rifkin is an economic and social theorist, author, consultant, and lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education program who believes that economies experience major increases in growth and productivity only when big shifts occur in three integrated infrastructure segments around the same time: communications, energy, and transportation.

But it’s only a matter of time before information technology blows all three wide open, says Rifkin. He envisions a new economic infrastructure based on digital integration of communications, energy, and transportation, riding atop an Internet of Things (IoT) platform that incorporates Big Data, analytics, and artificial intelligence. This platform will disrupt the world economy and bring dramatic levels of efficiency and productivity to businesses that take advantage of it,
he says.

Some economists consider Rifkin’s ideas controversial. And his vision of a new economic platform may be problematic—at least globally. It will require massive investments and unusually high levels of government, community, and private sector cooperation, all of which seem to be at depressingly low levels these days.

However, Rifkin has some influential adherents to his philosophy. He has advised three presidents of the European Commission—Romano Prodi, José Manuel Barroso, and the current president, Jean-Claude Juncker—as well as the European Parliament and numerous European Union (EU) heads of state, including Angela Merkel, on the ushering in of what he calls “a smart, green Third Industrial Revolution.” Rifkin is also advising the leadership of the People’s Republic of China on the build out and scale up of the “Internet Plus” Third Industrial Revolution infrastructure to usher in a sustainable low-carbon economy.

The internet has already shaken up one of the three major economic sectors: communications. Today it takes little more than a cell phone, an internet connection, and social media to publish a book or music video for free—what Rifkin calls zero marginal cost. The result has been a hollowing out of once-mighty media empires in just over 10 years. Much of what remains of their business models and revenues has been converted from physical (remember CDs and video stores?) to digital.

But we haven’t hit the trifecta yet. Transportation and energy have changed little since the middle of the last century, says Rifkin. That’s when superhighways reached their saturation point across the developed world and the internal-combustion engine came close to the limits of its potential on the roads, in the air, and at sea. “We have all these killer new technology products, but they’re being plugged into the same old infrastructure, and it’s not creating enough new business opportunities,” he says.

All that may be about to undergo a big shake-up, however. The digitalization of information on the IoT at near-zero marginal cost generates Big Data that can be mined with analytics to create algorithms and apps enabling ubiquitous networking. This digital transformation is beginning to have a big impact on the energy and transportation sectors. If that trend continues, we could see a metamorphosis in the economy and society not unlike previous industrial revolutions in history. And given the pace of technology change today, the shift could happen much faster than ever before.

The speed of change is dictated by the increase in digitalization of these three main sectors; expensive physical assets and processes are partially replaced by low-cost virtual ones. The cost efficiencies brought on by digitalization drive disruption in existing business models toward zero marginal cost, as we’ve already seen in entertainment and publishing. According to research company Gartner, when an industry gets to the point where digital drives at least 20% of revenues, you reach the tipping point.

“A clear pattern has emerged,” says Peter Sondergaard, executive vice president and head of research and advisory for Gartner. “Once digital revenues for a sector hit 20% of total revenue, the digital bloodbath begins,” he told the audience at Gartner’s annual 2017 IT Symposium/ITxpo, according to The Wall Street Journal. “No matter what industry you are in, 20% will be the point of no return.”

Communications is already there, and energy and transportation are heading down that path. If they hit the magic 20% mark, the impact will be felt not just within those industries but across all industries. After all, who doesn’t rely on energy and transportation to power their value chains?

The eye of the technology disruption hurricane has moved beyond communications and is heading toward … the rest of the economy.

That’s why businesses need to factor potentially massive business model disruptions into their plans for digital transformation today if they want to remain competitive with organizations in early adopter countries like China and Germany. China, for example, is already halfway through an US$88 billion upgrade to its state electricity grid that will enable renewable energy transmission around the country—all managed and moved digitally, according to an article in The Economist magazine. And it is competing with the United States for leadership in self-driving vehicles, which will shift the transportation process and revenue streams heavily to digital, according to an article in Wired magazine.

Once China’s and Germany’s renewables and driverless infrastructures are in place, the only additional costs are management and maintenance. That could bring businesses in these countries dramatic cost savings over those that still rely on fossil fuels and nuclear energy to power their supply chains and logistics. “Once you pay the fixed costs of renewables, the marginal costs are near zero,” says Rifkin. “The sun and wind haven’t sent us invoices yet.”

In other words, zero marginal cost has become a zero-sum game.

To understand why that is, consider the major industrial revolutions in history, writes Rifkin in his books, The Zero Marginal Cost Society and The Third Industrial Revolution. The first major shift occurred in the 19th century when cheap, abundant coal provided an efficient new source of power (steam) for manufacturing and enabled the creation of a vast railway transportation network. Meanwhile, the telegraph gave the world near-instant communication over a globally connected network.

The second big change occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, when inexpensive oil began to displace coal and gave rise to a much more flexible new transportation network of cars and trucks. Telephones, radios, and televisions had a similar impact on communications.

Breaking Down the Walls Between Sectors

Now, according to Rifkin, we’re poised for the third big shift. The eye of the technology disruption hurricane has moved beyond communications and is heading toward—or as publishing and entertainment executives might warn, coming for—the rest of the economy. With its assemblage of global internet and cellular network connectivity and ever-smaller and more powerful sensors, the IoT, along with Big Data analytics and artificial intelligence, is breaking down the economic walls that have protected the energy and transportation sectors for the past 50 years.

Daimler is now among the first movers in transitioning into a digitalized mobility internet. The company has equipped nearly 400,000 of its trucks with external sensors, transforming the vehicles into mobile Big Data centers. The sensors are picking up real-time Big Data on weather conditions, traffic flows, and warehouse availability. Daimler plans to establish collaborations with thousands of companies, providing them with Big Data and analytics that can help dramatically increase their aggregate efficiency and productivity in shipping goods across their value chains. The Daimler trucks are autonomous and capable of establishing platoons of multiple trucks driving across highways.

It won’t be long before vehicles that navigate the more complex transportation infrastructures around the world begin to think for themselves. Autonomous vehicles will bring massive economic disruption to transportation and logistics thanks to new aggregate efficiencies. Without the cost of having a human at the wheel, autonomous cars could achieve a shared cost per mile below that of owned vehicles by as early as 2030, according to research from financial services company Morgan Stanley.

The transition is getting a push from governments pledging to give up their addiction to cars powered by combustion engines. Great Britain, France, India, and Norway are seeking to go all electric as early as 2025 and by 2040 at the latest.

The Final Piece of the Transition

Considering that automobiles account for 47% of petroleum consumption in the United States alone—more than twice the amount used for generators and heating for homes and businesses, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration—Rifkin argues that the shift to autonomous electric vehicles could provide the momentum needed to upend the final pillar of the economic platform: energy. Though energy has gone through three major disruptions over the past 150 years, from coal to oil to natural gas—each causing massive teardowns and rebuilds of infrastructure—the underlying economic model has remained constant: highly concentrated and easily accessible fossil fuels and highly centralized, vertically integrated, and enormous (and enormously powerful) energy and utility companies.

Now, according to Rifkin, the “Third Industrial Revolution Internet of Things infrastructure” is on course to disrupt all of it. It’s neither centralized nor vertically integrated; instead, it’s distributed and networked. And that fits perfectly with the commercial evolution of two energy sources that, until the efficiencies of the IoT came along, made no sense for large-scale energy production: the sun and the wind.

But the IoT gives power utilities the means to harness these batches together and to account for variable energy flows. Sensors on solar panels and wind turbines, along with intelligent meters and a smart grid based on the internet, manage a new, two-way flow of energy to and from the grid.

Today, fossil fuel–based power plants need to kick in extra energy if insufficient energy is collected from the sun and wind. But industrial-strength batteries and hydrogen fuel cells are beginning to take their place by storing large reservoirs of reserve power for rainy or windless days. In addition, electric vehicles will be able to send some of their stored energy to the digitalized energy internet during peak use. Demand for ever-more efficient cell phone and vehicle batteries is helping push the evolution of batteries along, but batteries will need to get a lot better if renewables are to completely replace fossil fuel energy generation.

Meanwhile, silicon-based solar cells have not yet approached their limits of efficiency. They have their own version of computing’s Moore’s Law called Swanson’s Law. According to data from research company Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), Swanson’s Law means that for each doubling of global solar panel manufacturing capacity, the price falls by 28%, from $76 per watt in 1977 to $0.41 in 2016. (Wind power is on a similar plunging exponential cost curve, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy.)

Thanks to the plummeting solar price, by 2028, the cost of building and operating new sun-based generation capacity will drop below the cost of running existing fossil power plants, according to BNEF. “One of the surprising things in this year’s forecast,” says Seb Henbest, lead author of BNEF’s annual long-term forecast, the New Energy Outlook, “is that the crossover points in the economics of new and old technologies are happening much sooner than we thought last year … and those were all happening a bit sooner than we thought the year before. There’s this sense that it’s not some distant risk or distant opportunity. A lot of these realities are rushing toward us.”

The conclusion, he says, is irrefutable. “We can see the data and when we map that forward with conservative assumptions, these technologies just get cheaper than everything else.”

The smart money, then—72% of total new power generation capacity investment worldwide by 2040—will go to renewable energy, according to BNEF. The firm’s research also suggests that there’s more room in Swanson’s Law along the way, with solar prices expected to drop another 66% by 2040.

Another factor could push the economic shift to renewables even faster. Just as computers transitioned from being strictly corporate infrastructure to becoming consumer products with the invention of the PC in the 1980s, ultimately causing a dramatic increase in corporate IT investments, energy generation has also made the transition to the consumer side.

Thanks to future tech media star Elon Musk, consumers can go to his Tesla Energy company website and order tempered glass solar panels that look like chic, designer versions of old-fashioned roof shingles. Models that look like slate or a curved, terracotta-colored, ceramic-style glass that will make roofs look like those of Tuscan country villas, are promised soon. Consumers can also buy a sleek-looking battery called a Powerwall to store energy from the roof.

The combination of solar panels, batteries, and smart meters transforms homeowners from passive consumers of energy into active producers and traders who can choose to take energy from the grid during off-peak hours, when some utilities offer discounts, and sell energy back to the grid during periods when prices are higher. And new blockchain applications promise to accelerate the shift to an energy market that is laterally integrated rather than vertically integrated as it is now. Consumers like their newfound sense of control, according to Henbest. “Energy’s never been an interesting consumer decision before and suddenly it is,” he says.

As the price of solar equipment continues to drop, homes, offices, and factories will become like nodes on a computer network. And if promising new solar cell technologies, such as organic polymers, small molecules, and inorganic compounds, supplant silicon, which is not nearly as efficient with sunlight as it is with ones and zeroes, solar receivers could become embedded into windows and building compounds. Solar production could move off the roof and become integrated into the external facades of homes and office buildings, making nearly every edifice in town a node.

The big question, of course, is how quickly those nodes will become linked together—if, say doubters, they become linked at all. As we learned from Metcalfe’s Law, the value of a network is proportional to its number of connected users.

The Will Determines the Way

Right now, the network is limited. Wind and solar account for just 5% of global energy production today, according to Bloomberg.

But, says Rifkin, technology exists that could enable the network to grow exponentially. We are seeing the beginnings of a digital energy network, which uses a combination of the IoT, Big Data, analytics, and artificial intelligence to manage distributed energy sources, such as solar and wind power from homes and businesses.

As nodes on this network, consumers and businesses could take a more active role in energy production, management, and efficiency, according to Rifkin. Utilities, in turn, could transition from simply transmitting power and maintaining power plants and lines to managing the flow to and from many different energy nodes; selling and maintaining smart home energy management products; and monitoring and maintaining solar panels and wind turbines. By analyzing energy use in the network, utilities could create algorithms that automatically smooth the flow of renewables. Consumers and businesses, meanwhile, would not have to worry about connecting their wind and solar assets to the grid and keeping them up and running; utilities could take on those tasks more efficiently.

Already in Germany, two utility companies, E.ON and RWE, have each split their businesses into legacy fossil and nuclear fuel companies and new services companies based on distributed generation from renewables, new technologies, and digitalization.

The reason is simple: it’s about survival. As fossil fuel generation winds down, the utilities need a new business model to make up for lost revenue. Due to Germany’s population density, “the utilities realize that they won’t ever have access to enough land to scale renewables themselves,” says Rifkin. “So they are starting service companies to link together all the different communities that are building solar and wind and are managing energy flows for them and for their customers, doing their analytics, and managing their Big Data. That’s how they will make more money while selling less energy in the future.”

The digital energy internet is already starting out in pockets and at different levels of intensity around the world, depending on a combination of citizen support, utility company investments, governmental power, and economic incentives.

China and some countries within the EU, such as Germany and France, are the most likely leaders in the transition toward a renewable, energy-based infrastructure because they have been able to align the government and private sectors in long-term energy planning. In the EU for example, wind has already overtaken coal as the second largest form of power capacity behind natural gas, according to an article in The Guardian newspaper. Indeed, Rifkin has been working with China, the EU, and governments, communities, and utilities in Northern France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg to begin building these new internets.

Hauts-de-France, a region that borders the English Channel and Belgium and has one of the highest poverty rates in France, enlisted Rifkin to develop a plan to lift it out of its downward spiral of shuttered factories and abandoned coal mines. In collaboration with a diverse group of CEOs, politicians, teachers, scientists, and others, it developed Rev3, a plan to put people to work building a renewable energy network, according to an article in Vice.

Today, more than 1,000 Rev3 projects are underway, encompassing everything from residential windmills made from local linen to a fully electric car–sharing system. Rev3 has received financial support from the European Investment Bank and a handful of private investment funds, and startups have benefited from crowdfunding mechanisms sponsored by Rev3. Today, 90% of new energy in the region is renewable and 1,500 new jobs have been created in the wind energy sector alone.

Meanwhile, thanks in part to generous government financial support, Germany is already producing 35% of its energy from renewables, according to an article in The Independent, and there is near unanimous citizen support (95%, according to a recent government poll) for its expansion.

If renewables are to move forward …, it must come from the ability to make green, not act green.

If renewable energy is to move forward in other areas of the world that don’t enjoy such strong economic and political support, however, it must come from the ability to make green, not act green.

Not everyone agrees that renewables will produce cost savings sufficient to cause widespread cost disruption anytime soon. A recent forecast by the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that in 2040, oil, natural gas, and coal will still be the planet’s major electricity producers, powering 77% of worldwide production, while renewables such as wind, solar, and biofuels will account for just 15%.

Skeptics also say that renewables’ complex management needs, combined with the need to store reserve power, will make them less economical than fossil fuels through at least 2035. “All advanced economies demand full-time electricity,” Benjamin Sporton, chief executive officer of the World Coal Association told Bloomberg. “Wind and solar can only generate part-time, intermittent electricity. While some renewable technologies have achieved significant cost reductions in recent years, it’s important to look at total system costs.”

On the other hand, there are many areas of the world where distributed, decentralized, renewable power generation already makes more sense than a centralized fossil fuel–powered grid. More than 20% of Indians in far flung areas of the country have no access to power today, according to an article in The Guardian. Locally owned and managed solar and wind farms are the most economical way forward. The same is true in other developing countries, such as Afghanistan, where rugged terrain, war, and tribal territorialism make a centralized grid an easy target, and mountainous Costa Rica, where strong winds and rivers have pushed the country to near 100% renewable energy, according to The Guardian.

The Light and the Darknet

Even if all the different IoT-enabled economic platforms become financially advantageous, there is another concern that could disrupt progress and potentially cause widespread disaster once the new platforms are up and running: hacking. Poorly secured IoT sensors have allowed hackers to take over everything from Wi-Fi enabled Barbie dolls to Jeep Cherokees, according to an article in Wired magazine.

Humans may be lousy drivers, but at least we can’t be hacked (yet). And while the grid may be prone to outages, it is tightly controlled, has few access points for hackers, and is physically separated from the Wild West of the internet.

If our transportation and energy networks join the fray, however, every sensor, from those in the steering system on vehicles to grid-connected toasters, becomes as vulnerable as a credit card number. Fake news and election hacking are bad enough, but what about fake drivers or fake energy? Now we’re talking dangerous disruptions and putting millions of people in harm’s way.

The only answer, according to Rifkin, is for businesses and governments to start taking the hacking threat much more seriously than they do today and to begin pouring money into research and technologies for making the internet less vulnerable. That means establishing “a fully distributed, redundant, and resilient digital infrastructure less vulnerable to the kind of disruptions experienced by Second Industrial Revolution–centralized communication systems and power grids that are increasingly subject to climate change, disasters, cybercrime, and cyberterrorism,” he says. “The ability of neighborhoods and communities to go off centralized grids during crises and re-aggregate in locally decentralized networks is the key to advancing societal security in the digital era,” he adds.

Start Looking Ahead

Until today, digital transformation has come mainly through the networking and communications efficiencies made possible by the internet. Airbnb thrives because web communications make it possible to create virtual trust markets that allow people to feel safe about swapping their most private spaces with one another.

But now these same efficiencies are coming to two other areas that have never been considered core to business strategy. That’s why businesses need to begin managing energy and transportation as key elements of their digital transformation portfolios.

Microsoft, for example, formed a senior energy team to develop an energy strategy to mitigate risk from fluctuating energy prices and increasing demands from customers to reduce carbon emissions, according to an article in Harvard Business Review. “Energy has become a C-suite issue,” Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s top environmental and sustainability executive told the magazine. “The CFO and president are now actively involved in our energy road map.”

As Daimler’s experience shows, driverless vehicles will push autonomous transportation and automated logistics up the strategic agenda within the next few years. Boston Consulting Group predicts that the driverless vehicle market will hit $42 billion by 2025. If that happens, it could have a lateral impact across many industries, from insurance to healthcare to the military.

Businesses must start planning now. “There’s always a period when businesses have to live in the new and the old worlds at the same time,” says Rifkin. “So businesses need to be considering new business models and structures now while continuing to operate their existing models.”

He worries that many businesses will be left behind if their communications, energy, and transportation infrastructures don’t evolve. Companies that still rely on fossil fuels for powering traditional transportation and logistics could be at a major competitive disadvantage to those that have moved to the new, IoT-based energy and transportation infrastructures.

Germany, for example, has set a target of 80% renewables for gross power consumption by 2050, according to The Independent. If the cost advantages of renewables bear out, German businesses, which are already the world’s third-largest exporters behind China and the United States, could have a major competitive advantage.

“How would a second industrial revolution society or country compete with one that has energy at zero marginal cost and driverless vehicles?” asks Rifkin. “It can’t be done.” D!


About the Authors

Maurizio Cattaneo is Director, Delivery Execution, Energy and Natural Resources, at SAP.

Joerg Ferchow is Senior Utilities Expert and Design Thinking Coach, Digital Transformation, at SAP.

Daniel Wellers is Digital Futures Lead, Global Marketing, at SAP.

Christopher Koch is Editorial Director, SAP Center for Business Insight, at SAP.


Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

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IDC 2018 Predictions: If You’re Not In The Cloud, You’re Isolated From Innovation

Susan Galer

IDC Research just released its top ten 2018 predictions, outlining why every company must operate like a digital-native enterprise. Frank Gens, IDC senior vice president and chief analyst, shared an expansive to-do list for CEOs, line-of-business and IT organizations during a webinar entitled, “IDC FutureScape: Worldwide IT Industry 2018 Predictions.”  His central message was that business is rapidly entering the Cloud 2.0 phase where public cloud is the best and increasingly only platform that every company’s ecosystem will use to hyper-connect industries for accelerated digital transformation journeys with technologies like AI, machine learning, IoT, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and blockchain.

“Companies must re-architect operations around large-scale digital innovation networks, in effect becoming a new corporate species. We’re going to see a massive jump in the number of digital services and the pace of innovation. This is the ticking clock running inside the heads of CEOs in every industry, driving them quickly along digital transformation journeys,” said Gens. “Cloud everywhere for everything is what we’re likely to see over the next several years. Companies need to assess their cloud supplier’s ability to support an expanding range of use cases. If you’re not in the cloud, you’re isolated from innovation.”

These are IDC’s top ten 2018 IT predictions:

  1. By 2021, at least 50 percent of global GDP will be digitized, with growth driven by digitally-enhanced offerings, operations and relationships. By 2020, investors will use platform/ecosystem, data value, and customer engagement metrics as valuation factors for all enterprises.
  1. By 2020, 60 percent of all enterprises will have fully articulated an organization-wide digital transformation strategy, and will be in the process of implementing that strategy as the new IT core for competing in the digital economy.
  1. By 2021, spend on cloud services and cloud enabling hardware, software and services doubles to over $530 billion, leveraging the diversifying cloud environment that is 20 percent at the edge, over 15 percent specialized compute, and over 90 percent multi-cloud.
  1. By 2019, 40 percent of digital transformation initiatives will use AI services; by 2021, 75 percent of commercial enterprise apps will use AI, over 90 percent consumers interact with customer support bots, and over 50 percent of new industrial robots will leverage AI.
  1. By 2021, enterprise apps will shift toward hyper-agile architectures, with 80 percent of application development on cloud platforms using microservices and functions, and over 95 percent of new microservices deployed in containers.
  1. By 2020, human-digital (HD) interfaces will diversify, as 25 percent of field-service techs and over 25 percent of info-workers use AR, nearly 50 percent of new mobile apps use voice as a primary interface, and 50 percent of consumer-facing Global 2000 companies use biometric sensors to personalize experiences.
  1. By 2021, at least 25 percent of Global 2000 companies will use blockchain services as a foundation for digital trust at scale; by 2020, 25 percent of top global transaction banks, nearly 30 percent manufacturers and retailers, and 20 percent of healthcare organizations will use blockchain networks in production.
  1. By 2020, 90 percent of large enterprises will generate revenue from data-as-a-service, selling raw data, derived metrics, insights, and recommendations — up from nearly 50 percent in 2017.
  1. Improvements in simple (“low-/no-code”) development tools will dramatically expand the number of non-tech developers over the next 36 months; by 2021, these non-traditional tech developers will build 20 percent of business applications and 30 percent new application features (60 percent by 2027).
  1. By 2021, more than half of Global 2000 companies will see an average one-third of their digital services interactions come through their open API ecosystems, up from virtually zero percent in 2017, amplifying their digital reach far beyond own customer interactions.

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This article originally appeared on Forbes SAPVoice.

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