From technological and materials innovations to the cost, scale and pace of projects, this is how we need to look at infrastructure going forward.
At the Australian Financial Review’s recent National Infrastructure Summit, the overarching themes were around collaboration, sustainability, digital transformation and designing more resilient infrastructure, says Michael Bell, Senior Policy Advisor at Engineers Australia.
“The sector has a really good understanding of challenges it faces,” says Bell. “But how do we move the dial, to have more difficult conversations so we can implement solutions to affect change?”
These are Engineers Australia’s top insights from the summit:
1. Greater collaboration is needed
Commonwealth, State and Territory governments need to collaborate and fund projects based on a shared vision of the future, says Bell.
One aspect discussed at the summit was how to boost collaboration through the procurement process within government.
“This could mean providing more access to projects for tier two and tier three organisations,” he says. “But how do we make sure it becomes common practice?”
Land-use planners, transport planners and others need to collaborate to lessen the reliance on inefficient transport modes and create more locally sustainable communities.
“Land development plans may exist, however, they don’t always provide sufficient attention to the transport system and the funding required to connect these developments,” says Bell.
2. Project governance and planning improvements
Collaborative, long-term planning of infrastructure is vital to economic prosperity, says Bell.
Rob Stokes, NSW Minister for Infrastructure, Cities, and Active Transport told the summit that planning should include reuse of existing infrastructure rather than building new things.
“This is a very critical aspect of planning,” says Bell. “Particularly when you look at space limitations, population growth and increased urban sprawl, which itself brings inequities if not approached correctly.”
This can be the case when land is developed further away from central business districts, but there is a reliance on these locations for work and education.
“If there isn’t sufficient employment or educational opportunities locally, and limited or no public transport infrastructure in place, inequality is created,” says Bell. “So we really need to take a systems view when it comes to planning.”
3. Best practice procurement
Because many infrastructure projects are often large-scale, small-to-medium enterprises are often locked out of opportunities.
However, when smaller organisations lead projects, the benefits range from increased job opportunities to heightened innovation.
“We therefore need to be looking at reforms on how we improve the tendering process, which can be quite lengthy and expensive,” says Bell.
This could include developing baseline infrastructure before proceeding to the next level, particularly when it comes to larger projects.
“More use should be made of staged tendering. For example, get someone to tender on the design aspect, then move on to tender at the next stage,” says Bell.
Infrastructure Sustainability Council CEO Ainsley Simpson thinks Governments should look beyond the cost of projects to the ongoing community benefits they could provide.
“If we simply look at the delivery stage… it’s fairly short-term when you are operating assets for 50 and 100 years,” she told the summit.
“We do need to send much stronger signals to all of our supply chains that this isn’t about lowest-cost tendering, value for money is whole of life.”
While cost is an important consideration in the procurement of publicly-funded projects, Bell says it’s important to take a holistic approach.
“If an organisation uses more sustainable materials – reducing the carbon footprint and emissions through the construction and life of the asset – there might be additional costs,” he says. “But we need to make sure these benefits are viewed more as a whole, rather than just ‘this is the best cost’.”
4. Digital infrastructure and innovation
Broad uptake of digital technologies at all phases of asset life cycles will enhance productivity in infrastructure delivery and operation, says Bell.
“Digital [uptake] helps with productivity improvement, which at its baseline is doing more with less,” he added.
While 3D models are somewhat the norm these days, there are other innovations that are ingrained in some organisations and yet to be explored by others.
“When we start looking at digital twins, and the use of industry 4.0 technologies such as sensors, there is a bit more disparity of [uptake across organisations],” says Bell.
However, when organisations have access to more data that is effectively harnessed, productivity improvements will be seen down the line.
An example cited at the summit was the use of sensors to identify faults in materials or structures that are not apparent to the human eye.
“If a door has a sensor attached to it, which picks up that it’s opening one millisecond slower than it used to, it can be quickly [identified], possibly saving maintenance aspects and labour costs,” says Bell.
5. A sustainable, decarbonised transport network
Transport itself is a large carbon emitter. But the carbon emitted in construction and embodied in materials is a crucial aspect to consider when it comes to creating a sustainable, decarbonised transport network.
Large infrastructure projects such as Sydney’s Metro West project, which is estimated to cost up to $30 billion, could be “over-engineered,” Committee for Sydney Chief Executive Gabriel Metcalf told the summit.
“If you build simpler, smaller, lighter stations, you are reducing costs because you’re reducing materials,” he says. “But you of course are also reducing the greenhouse gas impact of what you build.”
The use of more sustainable materials should also be considered in the design phase, says Bell.
“For example, as we move to public transport systems, how do we build those assets without as many heavy pollutants in them?”
6. Transport is a complicated and interrelated system
Transport and interconnectivity are extremely complex, says Bell, meaning that projects can’t be looked at in isolation.
“You need to look at the whole network, from how transport moves, the infrastructure that supports that, and the reason for the transport,” he says.
“A systems view is needed in the early stages of the decision-making process as to why we’re doing things, how they are going to integrate, and how we do it in the most sustainable way possible.