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Infrastructure planning in a fast changing world


By: David Jenkins

One of the biggest dilemmas in the modern world is between our need for long term planning and adapting to a time of rapid change.

Electoral cycles are short and news cycles are becoming shorter. Digital technology is disrupting established business models and consumers are dealing with everything from hacked data and biometrics to working from home. Social media has become a juggernaut and is undermining faith in established institutions, while the sheer volume of data is doubling every two years.

Against these trends some key principles remain. The characteristics of some of our physical infrastructure, for example, might seem unchanged by the dynamics of short-termism. A road or a bridge built today will be required to deliver the same utility for several decades, although it may be upgraded and repaired through its lifecycle.

These assets are not immune to change, however. Climate change and the need for sustainability are driving infrastructure planning now and creating business cases for the retro fitting of older assets. Demographic changes also must be factored into planning so that long term assets are built for communities which will continue to need them.

All of these factors create challenges for long term infrastructure planning. Will a transport system which represents a multi-billion dollar investment still be needed in a era where more people will work from home and autonomous vehicles rule our roads? Will climate change mean that plans for new housing infrastructure in particular regions will be obsolete? Will those roads and bridges you build today be in the right place in thirty years time?

To meet these challenges infrastructure managers need to cut out the noise and the distractions but also hone in on the dynamic trends which are relevant to their task. In doing this, engagement with stakeholders and understanding data will be the keys to any success. This will require listening to communities and collaborating and being prepared to change plans based on their feedback.

Validating the way forward will also leverage insights created from data. For many organisations, this is a whole new project which demands the aggregation and identification of relevant data and the implementation of analytical tools.

Finding the way forward will require two very different set of skills. Engineers and infrastructure managers will need to engage and listen to stakeholders more intensively than they have done in the past, when plans often replicated what had been done. Those are ‘soft’ skills around communication, but they need to be supplemented with data analytics, often based on data collected by the new generation of sensors in the Internet of Things.

Both of these skill sets will help infrastructure managers better understand change, and how infrastructure assets will need to be respond. It means that decision makers and elected members will need to be more open than they may have been in the past to canvassing a diversity of information as they make their decisions. Planning in isolation at a time of rapid change presents as a risk factor, and as a potential one way street to irrelevance, obsolescence, and waste. Engaging with stakeholders and leveraging data can help planners understand the roadmap to the future. The ultimate destination may change and the way forward may not be entirely clear now, but establishing a process can give some certainty to plans not just for today, but also the future.

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