Reconcile long planning cycles with rapidly changing expectations and usage patterns.

Most economists agree that the right infrastructure investment is a vital stimulus of economic development, especially when the outcomes result in improved mobility. However, the long planning cycles are constraining our ability to deliver projects at a pace that keeps up with changing user needs and new mobility models, which are increasingly driven by rapid advances in technology.

Rethinking the planning process

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For example, it took 12 years to come to a decision on adding a third runway at Heathrow, and it is expected to take another 18 years to complete the project. Meanwhile, the technological advances of smaller jets capable of long-range flights have some questioning the long-term viability of the airport industry’s hub-and-spoke model. The speed of change—for example, the commoditization of automobiles, thanks to car-sharing services and the introduction of autonomous vehicles—already exceeds the ability of most planning agencies to react. As one participant observed, “Innovation and cities don’t find each other so often.”

To adapt to ever-evolving technology, infrastructure planners and public officials need to improve the speed of decision making, streamline regulatory or political processes that can cause delays, and increase the flexibility of their plans. Once in motion, it is essential that they frequently assess the viability of long-term plans to ensure that, once completed, they will have the desired impact. “We need to build infrastructure that retains flexibility for change over time,” said MTR Corporation CEO Lincoln Leong.

Regarding long-term strategic planning, we need politicians that are visibly willing to take the lead and passionately convince the public against short-term interests.

Make better use of digital technology (especially that which is already proven) to understand needs.

Creating a ‘smart city’ from the ground up in India

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The same technologies that are changing infrastructure usage patterns also deliver a tremendous data-gathering platform to predict what will be needed in the future. Collection of this data, combined with tools that facilitate stakeholder collaboration, offers the potential to make planning more transparent, informed, and inclusive. This approach also allows planners to segment projects into smaller modules, targeting quick wins in user experience that will drive public support for additional investment. Truly “smart” cities will make much more data publicly available to foster a more bottom-up approach to finding the best solutions when planning infrastructure.

The greatest contribution of new technology is not changing our approaches to the planning process but rather changing our approach to gathering data that informs what communities and users need. So technology will not replace our existing staff. It enables and requires our existing staff to be even better planners.

Internet of Things sensors are also starting to supply tremendous amounts of new information—including operational, usage, and maintenance data—that enable planners to optimize a project’s design for greatest efficiency over the full life cycle of the asset. For example, the Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport invested in a new visual occupancy system in the parking garages that uses sensors to determine if a space is occupied or not. This system helps passengers find spots more efficiently, sends data to inside the terminal to predict passenger volumes and staffing needs, and increases parking revenues.

Imagining construction's digital future

The industry needs to change; here’s how to manage it.

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With infrastructure operators aggressively testing new technologies across the world, planners need to be even more attuned to global innovation and the significant benefits of mainstreaming proven technologies. As Atkins former Global CEO Uwe Krueger attested, “Our industry has woken up and is embracing technology in a completely different way. With all the digital tools available today, we can do scenario planning that future-proofs the planning process.”

We identified five ways the construction industry can transform itself over the next five years. This infographic, derived from our article “Imagining construction’s digital future,” identifies the innovations that are poised to shape the future of the industry.

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Evolve the public-sector procurement process to focus on outcomes.

The public sector should move rapidly to tendering for desired outcomes and value provision rather than for specific solutions. For example, in New Zealand, a road project was tendered based on the actual performance of the road instead of the area of pavement laid. In the US state of Maryland, the government went to the market and said, “Whoever provides the best solution to relieve congestion on a 17-kilometer stretch of road will win the $100 million tender.” The winning plan increased pavement on only 7 kilometers of the road. Combined with the deployment of advanced technology for traffic management, the contractor achieved substantial improvement with less disruption.

Australia established an independent statutory advisory board, Infrastructure Australia. Through a comprehensive framework of business case development and assessment, Infrastructure Australia creates an evidence-based list of priority projects to be considered for federal funding. By providing transparency to the public’s needs and values, an outcomes-based tender can foster a spirit of cooperation between the private and public sectors that would otherwise default to defensiveness and protectionism.

“Australia needed to change the status quo—the way it was purchasing infrastructure, the way it was funding infrastructure. But behind all that, we needed to understand the outcomes that we wanted from infrastructure a lot better. Consensus starts when everyone has a broad understanding that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. If you’ve discussed with enough people the outcomes you’re all trying to achieve, you are probably going to win a lot of allies and get a project moving.”
—Mark Birrell, Chairman, Infrastructure Australia

The public sector also needs to consider which risk factors the private-sector players can control and are willing to take. For example, Infrastructure Ontario helps to manage risk by creating a lower-cost insurance pool for contractors and facilitates discussions on projects where the private sector evaluates risk.