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Smart infrastructure for people and planet

It’s 2040 and infrastructure in many places across the world has advanced with the integration of digital technology that helps it run better for both people and the planet. In transport, health, utilities and elsewhere, a wealth of real-time data is available which is constantly analysed and used to gain intelligent insights that improve these systems and the services they provide. 

Purposeful investment of many trillions of dollars in the last two decades has re-engineered infrastructure systems to be more sustainable, more resilient, and to provide a more reliable, consistently high-quality service. Stakeholders – including investors, operators, consumers, regulators and communities – have instant access to information about the performance of infrastructure and the level of service it’s delivering. As a result, they are able to make better-informed decisions, small and large. Infrastructure owners have strengthened their partnerships with key stakeholders, creating closely aligned enterprises that work together to create a high-performing system.

Data analysis by both humans and machines means that underperforming or vulnerable elements of our infrastructure are quickly identified and improved. When people use infrastructure they are empowered by the information provided, and come to expect a seamless, personalised experience, with their data readily available and yet secure. People enjoy accessible, inclusive and sustainable transportation, and benefit from resilient and affordable energy, water and health services. Digital information is also being used to ensure infrastructure works in harmony with the natural environment. Energy use and carbon emissions from infrastructure are minimised – making a substantial contribution to the push for net-zero – and pollution and unsustainable resource use have been much reduced, as part of a dynamic, circular economy.

This is how.

Sustainability drove infrastructure strategy

Sustainability drove infrastructure strategy

In the face of growing climate threats and mounting public concern about climate change, infrastructure leaders across the world recognised their responsibility to pursue a range of sustainable outcomes, as spelt out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. They saw that to retain the confidence of their customers and of political leaders, infrastructure systems would need to be sustainable, meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations. The triple bottom line – people, planet and prosperity - became central to their decision-making, assisted by government policy that encouraged, incentivised or required private sector companies to uphold these principles. Transparency about environmental performance and societal outcomes became the norm in corporate reporting, with investors and regulators insisting on higher standards. Executives were rewarded and held to account according to these objectives, not just on financial metrics.

Read more: Moata People and Planet

Digital the key enabler

Digital the key enabler

Infrastructure leaders saw that a key enabler for achieving the outcomes that were required - including decarbonising their operations, becoming more resilient and providing social value - was to deploy integrated digital technology to gather intelligence from their assets and to use this across their business. They knew that most of the physical infrastructure that would serve people for the coming decades was already in place, and they began to focus on how they could understand and improve the way it operated as a system. Fitting and integrating digital systems, together with mapping out key processes and representing them digitally, gave leaders a fantastic set of tools for understanding and managing their physical infrastructure systems and making better decisions. Users of infrastructure were soon feeling the benefits, for example, in quicker journey times, shorter waits for health services, and reduced energy bills.

Read more: Digital transformation can help infrastructure rebuild with purpose

Silos broke down

Silos broke down

Infrastructure organisations were able to deploy digital technologies to improve their operations, their asset management, and their engineering. But the biggest leap forward came when these three activities were joined up rather than left to work in silos. Central to this joined-up approach were digital twins, containing up-to-date asset condition and performance information that could be easily accessed, analysed and visualised. This helped organisations make operational improvements, make maintenance smarter and extend asset life, and work out where new assets or projects would add value across the system. Organisations used internationally-agreed standards for creating their digital twins, making it easier to exchange information and forge productive links between infrastructure systems. This aided system resilience, so that when bad weather or adverse events hit, customers found that transport and utility services were less affected and were able to bounce back quicker.

Read more: Digital-first organisations at the heart of aviation’s recovery

Open and ethical data

Open and ethical data

As infrastructure owners became more adept at using data for insights and improvements, they came to appreciate the huge value of opening their data to researchers, suppliers, and others to drive innovation. Blockchain technology, open standards and effective governance frameworks contributed to better data protection which addressed privacy and security concerns; organisations were soon making anonymised data publicly available as a matter of course. This encouraged potential partners to step forward with artificial intelligence tools and other innovative ways of leveraging the information. Where innovations were proven to add value, the standardised, platform-based nature of digital twins meant that organisations were quickly able to incorporate them into their digital infrastructure as business-as-usual. User-friendly apps and displays were created that empowered the customer: for example, allowing them to make informed choices about which train or hospital or use, or the cheapest time to charge their electric car.

Read more: Digital Twins: better outcomes from connected data

Cities showed systems leadership

Cities showed systems leadership

After experiencing multiple extreme weather events, city authorities across the world came to the realisation that in order to safeguard the future of their communities, they needed to play a role in integrating local systems and infrastructure to make them smart, sustainable and resilient. They forged new partnerships with infrastructure owners and operators, facilitated the exchange of information through data platforms, and stimulated innovations and joint projects that would encourage better performance across city-wide systems. They developed new skillsets, and negotiated new powers where necessary, to enable them to play this role. This place-based systems approach allowed some leading cities to make the successful transition to low-carbon transport and energy, creating a pleasant, less polluted environment for their citizens and setting an example for others to follow.

Read more: A place-based approach to net-zero

Read more: Digital insights build smarter flood response in Bangkok

Capabilities were transformed

Capabilities were transformed

Through a combination of systems thinking and digital insights, infrastructure leaders were able not only to understand existing operations, but to envisage how their digital and organisational systems- might ideally be set up. Mapping the two against each other allowed them to start to build the capabilities they needed for a transformation towards the target model. A combination of process, organisation, technology and information changes were required, and new job roles, skills and ways of working were needed to support each of these. Infrastructure organisations knew it would take several years to make this transition, but each year along the journey they gained more organisational capabilities to complement their growing digital capacity.

Read more: A new model for infrastructure

Enterprises formed

Enterprises formed

Once infrastructure organisations were focused on system-wide outcomes, it no longer made sense for the supply chain to be engaged on a transactional basis with no stake in longer-term objectives. Infrastructure owners agreed lengthy or ongoing partnerships with key suppliers, with contracts and incentives that were designed to bring suppliers fully on board with the expected economic, social and environmental and economic outcomes. It soon became normal for design engineers to work alongside asset managers and technology specialists in enterprises that oversaw the whole-life performance of physical and digital assets and were responsible for ensuring both performed optimally.

Read more: Enterprises are needed to transform infrastructure — and the planet

Collaborative delivery

Collaborative delivery

The enterprise approach led to more collaborative forms of delivery, with organisations and their supplier partners working in a common data environment to digitally engineer solutions that were optimised for a wider variety of criteria. All the participants benefit from this collaboration, though enhanced skills, experience and understanding that adds to their collective ability to deliver. New projects to enhance the system frequently consisted of working with existing assets rather than constructing new ones. But whatever the nature of the physical infrastructure being delivered, organisations made sure to design and deliver digital and management systems alongside it, which could seamlessly slot into existing infrastructure. Artificial intelligence helped optimise designs to achieve the best balance of outcomes for people and planet.

Read more: Enabling data for Transport for New South Wales

Skills and roles developed

Skills and roles developed

As digital technologies became more and more integrated in infrastructure, a similar linkage grew up between digital and traditional infrastructure skills. Digital know-how became a routine part of the curriculum for young people in education and training; those with digital abilities came to see working in infrastructure as an opportunity, while those already in the sector saw how essential it was to acquire digital skills. New roles – especially relating to systems integration, data analysis and stewardship – sprung up throughout the industry. A new, diverse cohort of leaders made it to boardroom level, who were equally capable talking the language of digital and that of business performance, organizational transformation and sustainable success.

Read more: The people side of digital transformation

Systems are optimised

Systems are optimised

The results of digital integration were soon felt in the performance of systems and assets, across the whole lifecycle. Carbon was designed out at every stage: embodied carbon in construction, energy use and running costs were all much reduced, while smarter maintenance and adaptability meant that assets last longer. The digital and system infrastructure behind the physical assets helped build resilience against climate and other shocks. Customer-facing systems for payment and access were streamlined so that a flow of information is produced on usage that allows for fine-tuning of services and performance. Electrification and the rise of sustainable transport and energy resulted in better air quality and pleasant conditions for living in cities.

Read more: Public visualisation tool for the National Digital Twin programme

Multilateral investment

Multilateral investment

Once some cities in both wealthier countries and developing nations demonstrated the benefits of smart and connected infrastructure, others sought to follow. Governments and private sector investors recognised the value and potential returns from smart, sustainable technologies. Richer countries made funding available to development banks and other multilateral institutions that supported smart infrastructure investments in pursuit of the sustainable development goals.

Watch: What does it mean for development to be climate-smart?

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