Adopt a user-centric view of infrastructure

Governments, owners, and developers still often view infrastructure as isolated physical assets and distinct projects. This contrasts with businesses and citizens—or the customers—who experience infrastructure as a background enabler in their daily lives, from their commutes to ubiquitous internet connectivity. Importantly, these customers have increasingly high expectations of flexibility, convenience and overall quality of life. To keep up with demands and catalyze greater economic growth, owners and developers should take a more user-centric view.

Consider user-centric airport planning, which optimizes for an airport’s capacity and also for public and private transportation routes into that airport, accommodating passengers and freight as well as airport employees. As owners assess how to get the best use out of their assets and maximize revenues, it is important to think about broader trends. For example, a rail station might evaluate evolving work and travel behaviors and decide to repurpose underutilized space to build a co-working area. Such thinking should also carry over into the evaluation and prioritization of an owner’s capital portfolio; in the airport scenario, an owner might cancel plans for a new parking garage and instead establish a partnership with a ride-sharing provider.

When companies and owners optimize their own position in the value chain, benefits are small and fragmented. A more systemic approach is needed. Simply put, we can unlock significant value by breaking down barriers between asset classes. Infrastructure organizations can take steps to structure themselves to break down siloes and be more user-centric. For example, the Scottish government now has a cabinet secretary with responsibility for transport, infrastructure, and connectivity – hence putting user-centricity at the heart of infrastructure decision-making.

Use technology to break down barriers between assets and systems

Technology will enable users to optimize the operation of both individual assets and of systems of assets. There was robust discussion throughout GII about the potential for digital twin technology to optimize all aspects of a project. Participants agreed that developing digital twins in the design phase, which can allow for much more targeted and efficient maintenance, is a must and should be augmented by the digital twin of brownfield assets. As adoption of digital twins increases, there is an opportunity to incorporate environmental, social, and economic considerations, alongside physical specifications, allowing owners to understand the full scope of potential outcomes.

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For example, digital twins can allow building operators to identify and switch out unreliable air handling units and improve efficiency or to update elevator programming to adapt to changes in building occupancy.

Technology also offers an opportunity to take a more systematic approach across assets. For example, traffic data can be linked to interactive road signs to temporarily increase road capacity (such as by opening additional lanes) in areas of congestion. Sharing data between assets depends on accomplishing digital alignment at an engineering level. Both the public and private sectors will need to prioritize interoperability for connecting different technologies, models, and data sources to effectively enable automated digital workflows. Greg Bentley, CEO of Bentley Systems, gave an example of how his organization is catalyzing these types of immersive connections and fostering collaboration between projects and asset types by delivering its digital twin web services through an open-source library.

“The definition of infrastructure is changing, and digital transformation will create convergence of assets.”

With the pace that technology is advancing, it will be important that owners plan and allow for adequate time for systems integration before commissioning projects, particularly of major long-term ones.

Consider regulatory and procurement changes to set the conditions for innovation

The shift in infrastructure usage is raising complex challenges for the public sector. For example, the increased prevalence of home-working and low-cost home delivery is causing increases in local congestion and air pollution from delivery trucks. These are issues that no single provider can solve and that the public sector can take a leading role in addressing.

First, local and national governments can lead the debate and act as a guiding mind on the future of infrastructure. For example, cities can develop mobility strategies, rather than just a transportation strategy. At the national level, governments are considering plans to substitute revenues from fuel-excise duty as electric vehicles replace traditional vehicles.

Second, the public sector can consider making bold moves to help shape the future of infrastructure—for example, specifying the production of digital twins in all public projects. Active discussion among GII participants revolved around the opportunity to introduce regulations that could help rationalize last-mile deliveries in city centers.

Third, the public sector has an opportunity to take on a larger role of integrating and distributing information in a way that individual asset owners cannot. For example, the public sector can aggregate data between asset types to allow transport providers to optimize journey times, better plan maintenance closures, and even define the optimum location for new facilities.

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Plan for changes in mobility as the biggest disruptor across all types of infrastructure

Time and again, participants raised the changing nature of mobility as the biggest disruptor across asset classes. Owners, operators, contractors, investors, and governments should examine how changes in levels of electrification, automation, and connectivity will touch every part of their business.

“I am primarily in the mobility business, not the asset-building business.”

The implications of mobility on commuting trends and car ownership are well-documented, but GII participants also explored some of the less obvious consequences that organizations should consider. For residential developers, autonomous vehicles can greatly increase mobility for senior citizens and may inform housing planning for this growing segment. For example, underground parking garages that have traditionally been part of multi-family building design could become obsolete. For emergency services providers, more battery-powered vehicles on the road is likely to mean more electrical fires, requiring new skills and equipment. For road builders, autonomous vehicles could allow greater traffic density and more optimization of road geometry as speeds become more predictable, potentially freeing up significant land. For power distribution companies, local networks can be designed to harness electric vehicles for use as storage units when not being driven.