The “Programmable World” Will Bring the Best of the Virtual World Into the Physical One

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The Accenture Federal Technology Vision highlights four technology trends that will have significant impact on how government operates in the near future. Today we look at Trend #2, Programmable World: Our Planet, Personalized.

What is a “programmable world?” Consider what’s going on at Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, Fla. In line with the base’s ambition to be the “Installation of the Future,” the Air Force has created a digital twin of Tyndall. In March 2022, the base unveiled its new Hololab, which is the portal to access Tyndall’s digital twin and conduct “what if” scenarios and explore how new designs might look.

Using the digital twin, base planners and engineers can locate and design new flight line facilities, or better understand security vulnerabilities and conduct resilience planning. For example, planners and engineers can use the digital twin to perform storm surge modeling and simulate the effects of a big storm on the base’s critical infrastructure or conduct a range of active-shooter scenarios to optimize preparation and response planning.

This impressive technology is just one example of our increasingly programmable world – a world in which the control, customization, and automation of software is being embedded throughout our physical environments. And it will give Federal agencies greater intelligence and adaptability to tackle complex issues, including climate change, public safety, geopolitical tensions, and population health.

By overlaying integrated digital capabilities across our physical surroundings, agencies can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of Federal operations. Many see promise here: 94 percent of Federal leaders believe that programming the physical environment will be a strategic competency in the future.

And most take this even further, seeing this as not just an opportunity but a necessity. Almost all (98 percent) Federal leaders believe that leading organizations will push the boundaries of the virtual world to make it more real. That means there will be a greater need for persistent and seamless navigation between the digital and physical worlds.

We’ve been building toward the programmable world for years, with proliferating IoT networks. The global 5G rollout adds more fuel to the fire, setting the stage for more adoption of low-power, low-latency connected devices. And researchers across enterprise and academia alike are working on transformative technologies, like augmented reality glasses, new methods of manufacturing, and new kinds of smart materials. These trends – alongside advances in natural language processing, computer vision, and edge computing – will help embed digital interactions as an ambient and persistent layer across our physical environments.

Practical Outcomes

What will a programmable world mean to Federal leaders in practical terms? Consider three key use cases: smart workers, smart environments, and smart materials.

  • Smart workers — Federal workers perform all kinds of highly specialized tasks, from surgery and fixing complex machinery to securing our borders and flying jet airplanes. Technologies like augmented reality can give them superpowers to create a more agile, insight-driven workforce. In some cases, AR may be used to guide remote workers. In other instances, access to real-time information is the key to higher performance. Already, AR is being used to train both fighter pilots and case workers to better address unique situations.
  • Smart environments — A fully programmable world offers the ability to create life-like digital models of facilities or equipment. These models can then be used to explore options and run planning scenarios across a complex environment. Jet engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce, for example, is collecting real-time engine data from its airline customers to model performance in the cloud using digital twins. Using the digital twins, the company hopes to reduce unnecessary maintenance and ground time, as well as develop more sustainable flying and maintenance practices that could lower carbon emissions.
  • Smart materials — Even the materials we use to manufacture objects can be programmed to respond to interactions, and to provide deeper and more immediate insight. A Veterans Affairs Department research team at the Advanced Platform Technology Center in Cleveland, for example, developed a smart bandage that applies electrical stimulation to treat chronic wounds, also known as pressure injuries, that would otherwise struggle to heal on their own. It also records temperature readings and impedance across the wound, which inform the clinician how well the wound is healing.

Next Steps for Federal Agencies

For Federal leaders, taking advantage of the programmable world will require exploration, experimentation, and development. Agencies can start by developing a deeper understanding of the three layers that comprise the programmable world – the connected, the experiential, and the material.

Many are already investing in and deploying the foundational, connected layer; consider the push toward 5G, which is poised to be game-changing in terms of its speed and low latency.

Then, the experiential layer is about creating natural computer interfaces linking the physical and digital worlds. In the absence of keyboards and microphones, a focus on human-centered design can help create these connections by exploring how users approach and learn how to interact with new experiences, such as through the trial-and-error process of using gestures to direct complex systems.

The final layer requires understanding of how new generations of manufacturing and materials will bring greater programmability into our physical environments. Agencies can look to partner with startups and universities to stay at the forefront of real-world technology innovation in the material realm.

Cybersecurity must stay a priority at every layer. The programmable world holds tremendous promise, but it also vastly expands the attack surface available to cyber threats, putting critical networks and infrastructures further at risk. Holistic, smartly architected security frameworks, such as zero trust, will be critical to protecting these hyper-connected environments.

The increasing programmability of the material world promises to reshape Federal operations. We’re about to live in environments that can physically transform on command, that can be customized and controlled to an unprecedented degree, and that can change faster and more often than we have ever seen before. With these environments, a new arena for government innovation will be born.

Read Trend 2 of the Accenture Federal Technology Vision 2022 to explore how agencies can further prepare for the programmable world.


  • Bill Marion – Managing Director – Defense Portfolio Growth & Strategy and Air & Space Force Lead
  • Jessica Bannasch – Digital Platforms Technology, Solutioning & Delivery Excellence Lead
  • Rick Driggers – Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity Lead
  • Jessica Powell – Managing Director
  • Scott Van Velsor – Managing Director – DevSecOps Practice Lead