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Enterprises pursuing outcomes
Digital transformation of the industry is assisting enterprise working and SAID itself, using shared data, digital models and common tools to achieve integration across organisational boundaries.
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Shovel-worthy projects

A systems approach changes the focus for infrastructure delivery from shovel-ready to shovel-worthy projects, supporting better social outcomes, says Mark Enzer.

In March 2020, the Institution of Civil Engineers launched an inquiry into why an increasing number of signature projects are delivered behind schedule and over budget and fail to meet the public’s expectations. In December it provided the infrastructure industry with ‘A systems approach to infrastructure delivery’. It’s a welcome contribution to the discussion about the future of the infrastructure industry, complementing the UK government’s ‘Construction playbook’, also launched in December.

The report takes its title from its main recommendation: that the industry adopts a systems approach to infrastructure delivery (SAID). “SAID is driven by the needs of users,” it says. “It places the onus on the owners and operators of infrastructure to translate those needs into clear outcomes around which assets and networks can be designed, delivered and operated as whole systems.”

This is a radical recommendation to an industry still focused on construction and delivery to cost, schedule, safety and technical quality as its principal performance metrics. These are still important, but a wider focus is required.

From delivering projects to delivering outcomes

Infrastructure exists to support social wellbeing, underpinned by a sound economy and a sustainable environment. Poorly performing infrastructure can result in faltering economic performance, environmental stress, and a weaker, less inclusive society.

Mature economies tend to have extensive, highly evolved, integrated and interdependent infrastructure systems that provide essential services to society – shelter, water, energy, transportation, protection from flooding, waste disposal, and more. Much of this existing infrastructure is many decades old and some has been in use for centuries. New construction adds only 0.5% by value, annually, to the existing asset base, showed a study of the UK water sector. Even the largest projects are ‘merely’ add-ons to existing infrastructure systems.

What have we got and how’s it working?

Creating new assets ought not to be the first, ‘go-to’ solution. Delivery should be focused on sustaining the optimal performance of infrastructure, so that it continues to meet society’s needs in the face of population growth, rapid technological advances and evolving risks such as from climate change. Where needs can’t be met and risks addressed solely by managing existing asset systems better, then there is strong justification for new projects: they will be shovel worthy.

A systems approach encourages the industry to think about integrating new assets into existing systems, and how they will perform in use. We support this shift, but our own thinking goes further. The industry should focus on infrastructure ‘in-use’, asking: how effective is existing infrastructure in meeting society’s needs?

  • how can infrastructure performance be improved for all members of society – do we know who infrastructure is failing, and how?
  • what interventions are required – changes to asset operation and management, upgrades or refurbishments?
  • who are the stakeholders and gatekeepers when changes are required, and how can we engage with them to enable performance improvements faster?

In answering these questions, we must consider social accessibility, inclusion, empowerment, resilience and wellbeing. These should be principal criteria for determining what ‘good outcomes’ look like, and used alongside conventional metrics to evaluate the whole life performance, value and success of infrastructure.

Enterprises pursuing outcomes

SAID promotes an ‘enterprise’ approach to project delivery. Enterprises are long-term commercial arrangements between infrastructure owners and their supply chains, in which all parties are aligned with and work towards common objectives and outcomes. Digital transformation of the industry is assisting enterprise working and SAID itself, using shared data, digital models and common tools to achieve integration across organisational boundaries.

A systems approach also addresses the digitalisation of infrastructure – the marrying of physical and digital assets to create smart infrastructure, using data to better understand the performance and condition of assets, identify needs and make better decisions, faster and cheaper. Creating high-performing, smart infrastructure is itself a delivery challenge, requiring multiple programmes of interventions on existing assets and systems, as well as hard-wiring new assets so that they are smart from the start. Doing so will truly enable the emergence of infrastructure focused on maximising the quality of life for citizens, rather than construction output relative to capital cost.

Keeping sight of society

Throughout the journey, society must remain clearly in sight – creating better connection between customers, communities, owners, operators and deliverers, throughout the lifecycle of infrastructure, with everyone aligned on the desired outcomes.

To that end, we have developed a model to use with all of our clients, to identify and embed practical actions enabling them to better contribute to the delivery of positive social outcomes. It sets three levels of ambition: compliance, opportunity and transformation. The most progressive infrastructure companies are already seeking transformation. SAID calls for all to do so.

Find out more about our social transformation model

Mark Enzer OBE is chief technical officer at Mott MacDonald and heads the Centre for Digital Built Britain’s digital twins programme

Key questions

In May 2020 the Centre for Digital Built Britain made the case for recognising the fundamental role of infrastructure in the social, economic and environmental outcomes that determine the quality of people’s lives, in a paper titled ‘Flourishing systems’. Mark Enzer was the lead author. It set out key questions under five headings, making the case that “we need to understand infrastructure better if we’re to manage it better.”

Infrastructure baseline

  • What infrastructure do we have?
  • What is its capacity, geospatial location and value?
  • What is the condition of the infrastructure?
  • What services does it provide?

Infrastructure performance

  • How well does the infrastructure perform as a system?
  • How well does the infrastructure perform as a service for end-users?
  • What is the connection between infrastructure performance and key national metrics?

Infrastructure impacts

  • What are the environmental impacts of infrastructure?
  • What are the social impacts of infrastructure?
  • What are the economic impacts of infrastructure?

Infrastructure use

  • How do people use infrastructure?
  • How do businesses use infrastructure?

Infrastructure systems data

  • What infrastructure systems data exists?
  • What is the quality and consistency of infrastructure data?
  • What additional data would enhance decision-making?
  • Which better decisions would improve outcomes?
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