It’s been notable during the COVID-19 pandemic that organizations that have embraced digitalisation have been able to mount a smarter, more resilient response than those that have not. Everywhere you look, digital technologies have enabled flexible and efficient forms of working, learning, commerce, communication, customer service, and the monitoring and control of assets; the accelerated adoption of technology into traditional practices has helped keep infrastructure and society running. By contrast, those without that digital capability have in many cases struggled.
Recent events have shown how digital supports society in responding to big challenges. As we now seek to “build back better” — and face up to other big societal challenges such as climate change — we will need to apply digital technologies in the same accelerated manner. Digitalisation will be a significant factor in our economic recovery and resilience.
That’s why I was particularly pleased to participate in the launch of the Coalition for Smarter Infrastructure Investments this week. It’s a movement promoting federal policies to modernise our nation's ageing infrastructure by unleashing the promise of digital technologies to build and maintain infrastructure in a way that is more timely, more equitable, and more green, all while increasing transparency and efficiency.
In America, infrastructure remains one of the least digitalised sectors of the economy. The use of digital technologies in the planning, development, delivery, operations, and maintenance of critical infrastructure severely lags other industries. Building back better will require adopting proven practices such as BIM, digital engineering, digital asset management, digital twins, and smart infrastructure — that are already widely accepted in countries throughout Europe and Asia — across all infrastructure lifecycle stages. The coalition, of which Mott MacDonald is a founding member, believes that this is the key to driving better outcomes such as productivity, sustainability, inclusiveness, and competitiveness.
With strong bipartisan support for significant investment in rebuilding America, we now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use digital technologies to modernise our crumbling infrastructure. For years, we've approached longstanding infrastructure and construction problems with the same outdated approach used over the last generation. Now is the time to adopt a 21st century mindset and leverage the potential of these technologies to boost productivity and effectiveness.
There are some compelling arguments for digitalising our infrastructure:
- It makes economic sense. Every dollar spent on infrastructure can drive up to double its value in economic growth over the long term. Digital infrastructure creates jobs and develops skills that will power our economy long into the future.
- It will promote sustainability and resilience. Digital construction technology already reduces carbon emissions by five million tons per year and safeguards natural ecosystems. Digital tools are invaluable in minimizing resource use in operation, extending asset life, and modeling the effect of weather events to reduce disruption.
- It will make our nation's infrastructure more accessible for underserved communities. For too long, our infrastructure system has overlooked marginalized groups and exacerbated inequality. Using advanced digital technologies to make every dollar spent on infrastructure go further will ensure underserved communities are not left behind this time around.
- It will improve productivity, safety, delivery schedules, and costs. Advanced digital technologies improve the efficiency of construction, lower operating and maintenance costs, and increase transparency. Better investment accountability will lead to sounder stewardship of taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, by cutting down on paper and modernising legacy systems, digital technologies can reduce project claims and increase productivity.
- It will boost our global competitiveness. If we fail to act, the United States risks falling behind competitors like China, which invests heavily in infrastructure improvements. In 2018, China spent 5.6% of its GDP on infrastructure, while the United States spent only 0.5%.
In summary, a digital transformation is needed to help us create smarter, more sustainable, more resilient infrastructure and communities. But this transformation won’t happen overnight. As well as money, it will require leadership, political will, collaboration, and effective change management.
Several actions would help in the short and medium term. These include the publication and sharing of quality data on multiple aspects of infrastructure performance, and the adoption of national and international standards on infrastructure asset management, BIM, programme and project management, quality, and risk management.
We need a national digital information programme to establish a framework to develop standards and formats for collating and sharing data, a strengthened role for economic regulators in driving up the quality and openness of infrastructure data, and digital engineering task forces to drive digital adoption across critical infrastructure. Upskilling, training, and jobs programs will be required too.
The good news is that America doesn’t have to figure this out on its own; we can draw on the experience of other nations. Advanced approaches to asset management, information management, digital twins, cyber-physical infrastructure, and smart cities are becoming more common in both developed and developing nations. In particular, the United Kingdom (Digital Built Britain, Digital Twin Hub) and Australia (National Digital Engineering Policy, Digital Engineering Framework) are each carrying out government-backed transformations to their infrastructure sectors, using international standards to increase productivity and create stakeholder value.
The Coalition for Smarter Infrastructure Investments can bring about similar changes in the US. The digital transformation of infrastructure will be a key enabler of value creation and resilience in our uncertain world. The US infrastructure sector, with strong government support, must seize this opportunity to build back better, with infrastructure that is smarter, more sustainable, and more resilient.