The best way to shape infrastructure systems that are fit for the future is to place values and purpose at the centre of digital transformation.
The future is hard to predict. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, a crisis can suddenly alter how people live their lives and what they need from infrastructure. Most societal changes are slower, but even so it’s hard to be confident when planning infrastructure that the decisions we take today will be the right ones in the decades to come.
When there is the political will to invest more in infrastructure – as in the US, where spending of $1.2trn has been proposed over eight years in the bi-partisan bill in June 2021 – we have a responsibility to invest wisely. How can we give ourselves the best chance of making all that investment pay off? How can we make sure that we build the right things, and leave the world a better place?
If we are going to build back better, we need to do so with purpose. The purpose of infrastructure is human flourishing - and crucial to human flourishing is the health of the environment we all live in. That’s why we believe that infrastructure should be viewed and managed as a system of systems that supports both people and planet.
Using systems thinking and digital technology, we can reimagine infrastructure and how we manage it. We need to view infrastructure not as discrete projects or assets, but as operational systems that interact with other systems to deliver social, economic and environmental services. Digitalisation – the integration of digital technology into infrastructure – provides a fantastic set of tools for understanding, envisioning and managing these systems to achieve better system-wide outcomes.
The World Economic Forum’s recent white paper on Infrastructure 4.0 defines it as “forward-looking infrastructure that leverages technology and information to provide high-quality environmental, economic and social outcomes, and functions as a system within broader human and natural systems.”
To become capable of this, organisations will need to transform themselves and the way they work. They’ll have to become integrated, highly connected enterprises that bring together the right people with the right skills from across the client organisation as well as from the supply chain. They must align with clearly defined objectives and outcomes. And they will need to become much better at using data: defining data requirements according to desired outcomes and objectives, gathering and managing it effectively, and encouraging innovation from across the enterprise in the way data is used, with a view to achieving new efficiencies and performance improvements.
The transformation will require a guiding vision and organisational purpose, supported by leadership that is courageous enough to set about reinventing the infrastructure industry, taking the first steps and showing others what is possible. If we are going to rebuild and achieve the right outcomes for current and future generations, we must rebuild with a purpose. By using technology as an enabler, with a focus on improving outcomes for people and planet, it is possible to make infrastructure serve as a platform to connect the built environment, the natural world and human lives in a way that allows all three to thrive.
That means people and nature should be at the heart of how we design, manage, build and use our infrastructure. The enterprises that we set up to develop and manage infrastructure need to be oriented towards creating the economic, environmental and social outcomes that promote thriving communities. That has implications for everything from the cost-benefit analysis applied when developing infrastructure, to procurement and how value is promoted over the lifecycle of assets. It also should also inform digital strategy – how you manage information.
Some of the most complex problems we need to solve involve sustainability and resilience. For people to flourish, we need infrastructure that does not deplete our natural resources and add to climate change through unsustainable carbon emissions. We also need our infrastructure to be resilient against disruption of all kinds: there are already numerous stresses on infrastructure, including age-related deterioration, insufficient maintenance and consistent high demand. Climate-related physical impacts, from extreme weather to sea level rise and the spread of infectious diseases, amplify all these risks and add new ones. Infrastructure should be adaptable to resist or rapidly recover from all potential disruptions. When infrastructure is not resilient, services fail and society suffers.
In seeking sustainability and resilience over the lifecycle of infrastructure, which may be many decades or even centuries, you need to anticipate its future operating environment and how it may change over time. We have developed the ‘Future uncertainty toolkit for understanding and responding to an evolving society’ – FUTURES – which can help clients and stakeholders explore possible, plausible and preferable visions of the future, and work through the strategies, roadmaps and actions that will help get them there. The methodology helps clients and stakeholders develop solutions that are based on a long-term vision (such as net-zero carbon emissions) but that are flexible enough to adapt to a range of scenarios that may occur over the coming decades.
Traditionally, much of the industry’s focus goes into the construction of new infrastructure. However, most of the solutions that are likely to be required to create sustainable, resilient infrastructure in the long term are those that make our existing infrastructure systems perform better. Digitalisation provides the means to see where efficiency shortfalls are, address them, and improve performance. We need to transform our infrastructure systems to harness that power, improving the ability of infrastructure to adapt to change, deliver value for money, and provide dependable service.
- To read more about how digitalisation is transforming infrastructure, see our articles ‘Enterprises are needed to transform infrastructure - and the planet’ and ‘A new model for infrastructure’.