From fossil fuel power plants to endless concrete freeways, infrastructure is a primary contributor to the climate crisis. However, by employing the right strategies and technologies, smart infrastructure development can also produce some of the most substantial gains for sustainability.
Infrastructure has the ability to shape society’s behaviors — fewer freeways in favor of more public transport for example. There is also a need to adopt technological solutions to increase the sustainability of infrastructure projects. Yet the industry has struggled to implement the necessary changes. For example, construction, the backbone of infrastructure, is by some measures the second least digitized industry in the economy, highlighting a dire need for change
The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Infrastructure explored this topic in its recent report Transforming Infrastructure: Frameworks for Bringing the Fourth Industrial Revolution to Infrastructure. Here are some lessons for applying tech innovations to infrastructure.
Infrastructure assets can be very big and very expensive, and part of the industry’s current inability to embrace innovation comes from an overabundance of caution. Making procurement models more open and integrating pioneering technologies along the way can help address this issue.
The Michael Tippett School in the London Borough of Lambeth, completed in 2008 under the United Kingdom’s Building Schools for the Future program, is an example of a project that utilized a unique procurement model to introduce newer, greener, solutions. The procurement process specified desired outcomes, including a compressed construction schedule and adaptable interior spaces, rather than tight design directives, which allowed the designer to integrate an emerging building material-laminated timber.
Laminated timber can reduce construction time up to 25 percent and use up to one-third the energy production of steel and one-fifth of concrete in addition to using significantly less carbon-intensive assembly methods.
The project-specific benefits included quick onsite assembly, rather than long and laborious concrete pouring, and the ability to completely reconfigure the walls to meet new needs. The society-wide benefits of increased use of timber building materials are clear. As innovations like laminated timber develop, having more open procurement models can encourage their application more broadly.
A major innovation inhibitor in infrastructure is the dearth of effective data sharing frameworks between the public and private sectors, as well as a lack of private intellectual property protections stemming from public investment. Using open-data approaches to provide the private sector with propriety government data and access to publicly-funded intellectual property rights can spur innovation.
The public sector also needs to improve private sector intellectual property rights for innovations designed with public sector data, funding and intellectual property rights in order for the innovations devised by the private sector to become commercially viable. Combining this with a more engaged private sector could lead to better creation and adoption of new technologies that can also promote sustainability.
The Sustainable Electrification of Transport (SELECT) center at Utah State University is one instance of this solution in action. SELECT, a public-private-academic consortium, is working to speed the transition away from fossil fuel use by pioneering in-road charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. This allows electric cars to charge while driving on the road rather than relying solely on fixed charging stations.
Advanced data analytics is another emerging technology area that cannot only enhance the design, development and management of infrastructure, but also increase sustainability by improving efficiency and safety.
One example of an organization that has embraced data analytics in infrastructure planning, and reaped the benefits, is the Central Electricity Authority of India, which is leveraging the Capacity Planning Solution (CAPLAN) model to help it meet international climate commitments and better integrate renewable energy sources into its electricity grid.
The model leverages technical, economic and environmental data along with policy and regulatory considerations to give long-term guidance on where the government should plan transmission lines, generation units and battery storage facilities. Additionally, it provides optimized scheduling for developing new power generation capabilities.
Governments must also provide policy and regulatory frameworks that improve the commercial viability of new technology. This often takes the form of smart city frameworks, with best practice examples combining citizen engagement, clear goals and a strategic plan. However, even without such comprehensive frameworks, ensuring that government agencies have the vision, strategy and the desire to embrace new technology can also make a huge difference in the race for technological transformation.
Bangladesh’s Solar Home System program showed how valuable proactive government efforts can be. Led by the Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL), a semi-independent unit of the Finance Ministry, the government partnered with small business and microfinance institutions to provide home solar panels to rural communities. Between 2003 and 2014, the program installed 3 million solar panel units providing electricity for 15 million people, all while helping the domestic solar power industry become competitive with other, dirtier, sources of energy.
The program was a major factor in increasing rural electrification which leaped from 26.7 percent of households in 2003 to 81.3 percent in 2017 providing the nation with sustainable growth driven by emerging technology and a focus on sustainable generation.
Commuters waiting on a delayed metro train, a business owner waiting on a shipment held up at an overburdened port, or a family desperate for a reliable energy supply may seem to be the biggest beneficiaries of the brave new world of Fourth Industrial Revolution infrastructure. But we can all reap the benefits of a world that uses exciting new infrastructure technologies to address a climate crisis that threatens our very future on this planet.
By working together across industries, and encouraging public and private cooperation while being responsive to the needs of the public, a technological transformation of the infrastructure industry not only has the potential to revolutionize the ways we plan, build and maintain infrastructure, but it also puts infrastructure on the path to leading the charge for building a more sustainable world.
Katherine Davisson is head of Cities, Infrastructure and Urban Services and Joseph Losavio is specialist in platform for shaping the future of Cities, Infrastructure and Urban Services, World Economic Forum. This article is related to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting on Jan. 21-24, 2020
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.