Over the past year there have been high-profile deals signed across the region for new transport technologies such as ride-hailing apps, driverless vehicles, flying taxis and the Hyperloop, all of which are poised to revolutionise the sector.

 Hyperloop system

Hyperloop system

Hyperloop system

As the region embraces the future, it has the opportunity to lead the world with new methods of transportation. “We could do things in the Middle East at a much more rapid pace that they can do in other parts of the world,” says Pierre Santoni, infrastructure and transport division manager at US-based Parsons. “That is an advantage for us because we can be a test bed for new technology as one of the most forward-looking parts of the world.”

Adopting new technology is nothing new, but as the region has developed in recent decades and its infrastructure has caught up with the rest of the world, it is now planning to be a world leader. “For the past 20 years, the region has been very keen on new technologies and gizmos,” says Santoni. “Now we are seeing that translate more into a forward-thinking approach. Before, people wanted the latest and the greatest, but now not only do we want to be on par with the rest of the world in terms of technology, we want to be 10 years ahead of the rest of the world.”

Santoni says it is important for project owners to consider these changes when planning new developments. “Clients want to future-proof investments because they realise they have invested in infrastructure and now they want to make sure it is going to be used for generations to come,” he says.

Smart thinking

There are multiple factors that have driven the sea change in transport thinking. “There are several things happening,” says Santoni. “We are in an era of low oil prices and that forces the hydrocarbons-based economies to rethink the way projects are financed and think about smarter ways of implementing projects. This is great because we can all collectively as an industry look at innovation, look at how we optimise the management and the development of existing assets and new assets. In parallel, you combine that with the technology drive that is coming from the wider world, where we see some of these technologies like drone taxis and driverless cars coming to the Middle East.”

Engineering firms will play a critical role in the development of new technologies and how they are implemented. “We have a great role to play,” says Santoni. “Just because we don’t sell the actual technology doesn’t mean we are not involved in helping clients formulate and shape their policies, and that is a very important part of this technology drive. We help them adapt and plan for those future trends and there is a lot of that thinking going on at the moment.”

Although the fast pace of change means picking future trends can be challenging, some new technologies are more likely to be utilised than others. “If we are realistic, we are going to see the greatest impact of technology in the way we manage transportation, such as trip-sharing, which would enable us to maximise the use of existing networks and reduce carbon emissions,” says Santoni. “It will provide cheaper access to transportation for a lot of people, reduce the number of cars on the road, and give more space for other modes of transportation. The other technology is automated vehicles: they are definitely something we are going to see.”

Disruptive technology

Another new technology that is being developed is the Hyperloop. Two companies are working on bringing the technology to market, and Parsons is on the technical advisory board for Hyperloop One, which recently completed studies for Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) and port operator DP World.

“The Hyperloop is probably the most exciting thing we are working on at the moment,” says Santoni. “The technology is under development; it is great to be at the forefront of that new disruptive approach to transport. You can turn cities in the UAE into metro stops, 10-12 minutes between each city – Al-Ain, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Fujairah. It will be phenomenal. Lots of research and development will go into preparing the systems and making sure they work in a safe and sustainable way. This is probably the most disruptive technology we are going to see coming to the Middle East.”

Disruption means the construction sector will have to build things differently, but Santoni argues it will still create opportunities. “There is still going to be a lot of work for everybody, but we have to realise the world is changing, so we have to evolve,” he says. “We are not going to be doing the same work in five or 10 years that we are doing today.” 

These changes will not only benefit the construction industry. “Disruptive technologies will help promote social integration and better access to technology, industry and services for just about everybody,” says Santoni. “There is a strong social benefit to all this; it is the role of governments and to a lesser extent us as industry partners to support their efforts, because you don’t want that technology to be isolating, you want it to be integrating.”