Q. What’s the point of infrastructure?
It’s time we saw infrastructure differently, not as a series of projects, but as a system of systems that serve people and society, says Mark Enzer, Mott MacDonald’s chief technical officer.
What is the meaning of infrastructure and why is it here?
To get us from A to B? To provide us with food, water and energy? To give us places where we can live, learn, work and play?
Yes, all those things. And more. The essential overarching purpose of infrastructure is to make us, well, happy.
We’re not talking hedonistic happiness but about ‘human flourishing’. In other words, what it means to live well.
More than personal wealth or pleasure, it requires external conditions that are beyond the control of individuals but are related to the choices we make.
I believe we need to re-envision infrastructure as a platform for human flourishing because it provides the essential services on which people and society depend. It has a fundamental role in the social, economic and environmental outcomes that determine the quality of people’s lives.
System of systems
This thinking goes hand in hand with recognising infrastructure as an interconnected ‘system of systems’ that provides the physical foundation for our society.
Our built environment is made up of different layers – economic infrastructure (industry, transport, utilities), social infrastructure (homes, schools, hospitals) and the natural environment – that are all dependent on each other.
We have created an amazing, complex machine on which we are wholly reliant. Without it, our lives would be immeasurably worse. Society would not survive.
However, we don’t appreciate the relationship between the machine and our wellbeing. Therefore, when making decisions about how to manage the machine, we don’t set objectives in terms of the outcomes we want for people and society.
And although we understand each part of the machine, we do not understand it as a whole and therefore struggle to make it work better.
It’s not that seeing and treating infrastructure holistically is impossible. But we don’t see the interconnectivity because current infrastructure industry thinking is dominated by project delivery. We are so focused on constructing new assets that we forget what’s already been built.
Another reason why we don’t see the overall picture is that the built environment is an emergent system. While some elements of it are carefully planned, it has largely grown in an organic way, becoming more and more interconnected.
Better social outcomes
Establishing this systems-based view of infrastructure, existing as well as proposed, is more important than ever. In fact, it’s urgent.
As infrastructure and society are becoming more connected at an ever-faster pace, so risks of failure can cascade faster and wider than ever before.
There is increasing recognition that challenges like reducing carbon emissions to net-zero and making society resilient to the physical effects of climate change are systemic and require systems-based solutions. As will meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and renewed priorities on health and social care provision in the post-pandemic world.
By taking a systems-based approach, we will improve our ability to deliver desirable outcomes for people around accessibility, inclusion, empowerment, resilience and wellbeing. We will be able to integrate new assets properly into the existing system, and release available value from what we have already built.
The art of the possible
It’s going to require close co-operation and trade-offs between different sectors. Siloed solutions simply will not work.
Technology now makes systems-based thinking and action possible. With a new focus on developing infrastructure as a cyber-physical system, we will harness the potential of digitalisation to not only transform the delivery of new assets, but also unlock greater value from existing assets.
Digital technologies will help us to develop reliable social and environmental metrics, not just economic ones, for the performance of infrastructure – as a system and as a service.
Value must be defined accordingly. The ‘construction industry’ has traditionally defined value in terms of outputs and initial cost. A people-focused ‘infrastructure industry’ would consider value in terms of outcomes and whole-life cost.
Making a difference
If we envision, plan and manage infrastructure differently, we can make it what it should truly be: a platform for human flourishing.
I find the idea of enabling people and society to flourish incredibly motivating, and I am sure designers and engineers across the industry will, too.
It makes me think this is a job worth doing and I can make a difference. And as to the meaning of infrastructure and what’s it here for, suddenly it all makes perfect sense.
Mark Enzer co-authored Flourishing systems: Re-envisioning infrastructure as a platform for human flourishing, a paper published by Mott MacDonald in partnership with Centre for Digital Built Britain, Institution of Civil Engineers and Institution of Engineering and Technology.