India’s road and bridge infrastructure industry is estimated at $19 billion.
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Emerging trends in the time of disruption

In the new world order of constant disruption, global changes occurring in the infrastructure arena are germane to large economic growth regions like India. While India’s telecom infrastructure, built in the ’90s, catapulted the country to a seat at the table, today we have a unique situation. We need to not only catch up in providing high-quality core infrastructure but also contend with a world dynamically responding to changing technology, including the Internet of Things. Change is afoot on many fronts, from the type of players entering the fray and assets being developed, to the type of emerging sub-sectors.

In its nascent years, infrastructure development through private players and public-private partnership was led by construction contractors-turned-developers creating assets in many sec-tors such as surface transport, power generation,and ports. With more than 250-plus assets in operation, investors are now leading the race to purchase such assets and add operational, managerial and construction expertise. The near-term future will therefore include the professionalisation of these roles, hitherto the domain of construction contractors.

By now, we have circumnavigated the entire cycle, from a handful of greenfield assets a couple of decades ago to a versatile clutch of operating assets changing hands, to a second wave of rebuilding of restructured brownfield assets.

These will soon morph into more courageous commitments to build greenfield projects—a beginning is already visible in renewables and highways. Established firms that can realign their capital structures and access long-term capital through joint ventures will lead. Equally, new-age operators that have cut their teeth being financial owners of ready projects are also leading new projects. All said, one should expect a greater percentage of assets to be built, owned, and managed by both indigenous and global professionalised firms.

At the sub-sector level, eco-friendliness is driving sectors such as renewables, urban gas distribution, waste-to-energy conversion, and clean water. While the emphasis on renewables has resulted in a plethora of solar power projects,rapidly falling prices are a temptation for energy to follow the path of telecom in being proliferative and “cord-cutting”.Collaterally, transmission systems will need to adjust to changing usage patterns—lesser demand in areas using batteries and rooftop systems and huge high-voltage capacities to transport to under-electrified areas. Professional developer-led platforms co-founded with long-term investors will continue to lead. Although the equipment side of the solar business is dominated by international suppliers, there is a lot of room for local players to thrive, given the demand and the need to nearly triple capacity to 175 GW by 2022.Similarly, transmission equipment companies will also grow to match the growth in solar power.

With Mumbai and Delhi showcasing the success of citygas, more than 70 other cities are set to follow their example.Other new areas include waste disposal and waste-to-energyprojects, and the clean Ganga campaign for cleaner water-ways. These, combined with the planned 100 smart cities,will allow tier II and tier III areas to absorb and sustainurbanisation and help semi-urban and semi-rural areas grow exponentially. Being new, manyof these areas are spawning an entireecosystem of new businesses.

These predictive trends would be incomplete without including the regionalisation of the new normal world.A race to create regional frameworks that allow for economic influence, access to markets, and influence parity are already in the making, such as the Japan-India corridor to link Africa,West Asia and Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific. For this opportunity, Japanese technology and funding flanked by indigenous infrastructure developers who have ventured out of the country will have the edge.

In all these trends, lies an important are a that would lead to an even greater transformation—the quality of the workforce. It is perhaps more relevant for a populous country like ours. Building a workforce with skill sets that help absorb goals for technology orientation, sustainability, and risk management, while promoting employment,will perhaps be the biggest challenge. Firms that are able to do this will lead.Another requirement is the need for institutional banking channels to play a symbiotic role alongside developers and investors. Some of these approaches are already trending, with banks selling assets into joint partnership formats.Globally, the banking sector has played a central role in augmenting infrastructure capacity. Hopefully, this subtle change will allow all stakeholders to better manage the infrastructure build-out of the future.

Looking a little further, autonomous vehicles are all set to radically transform surface transport. India is already mulling regulations to allow testing of the technology. This will lead to a sea change in how roads are built for cars requiring lesser space and greater speed and the intense use of sensors and IT systems. While sceptics may question India’s readiness for such radical change, technology has helped us trump a lot of challenges in the past and this could well be one more bastion we break. After all, with the world embarking on creating networks to transport humans and goods, India achieving some of these goals is a given.

The article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of the magazine.

(The author is the founder at Siana Capital Management. She was previously CEO, IL&FS Investment Managers. The views expressed in this article are not those of Fortune India)