Infrastructure is one of the least technologically transformed sectors in the economy. And the challenges that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated just how badly critical infrastructure needs digital modernization. As a result, there is a global consensus that critical infrastructure needs innovation to solve some of the big challenges that governments face today, including resiliency in emergency scenarios, the impacts of climate change, increasing urbanization, and the aging of infrastructure systems.
These challenges facing critical infrastructure around the globe, and the need to modernize infrastructure in the face of worldwide shifts, changes, and difficulties were the focus of a panel discussion during this year’s Autodesk University entitled, “Beyond Bricks and Mortar: Digital Transformation Approach to Infrastructure.” This session focused on “…the transformative potential of digital technologies” and how they could be used to “…design, build, and maintain transportation, energy, water, and utility systems.”
At its core, infrastructure resiliency refers to the capacity of a community’s systems – such as transportation, utilities, or communication – to foresee, adapt, and promptly bounce back from disruptions like natural disasters.
But resiliency isn’t just about bouncing back from challenges like natural disasters. It’s also about thriving and remaining available during them. As Fope Bademosi, a Circular Economy and Construction Researcher at Autodesk, explained, “…these systems are not just passively enduring challenges, but actively thriving amongst these challenges.”
Why is this important?
In 2022 alone, there were 521 natural disasters worldwide, resulting in $313 Billion in global economic losses.
According to Bademosi, by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. This influx of people into cities is projected to increase the risk of natural disasters and extreme weather events. That’s because each natural disaster that impacts one of these population-dense city centers is capable of causing significant property damage and impacting countless lives.
This is a challenge that will only increase as the populations of cities continue to grow and as natural disasters increase in frequency and ferocity in the face of global climate change. In 2022 alone, there were 521 natural disasters worldwide, resulting in $313 Billion in global economic losses. Those numbers could increase in the coming years.
But as Bademosi explains, there’s a silver lining. Any investment towards making critical infrastructure more resilient today will see a massive return in the future when disasters strike. “Investing wisely today can lead to substantial savings tomorrow,” she noted. “For every $1 we allocate to hazard mitigation, we can promptly save up to $8 in disaster costs.”
It’s clear that investing in modernized infrastructure that is more resilient and capable of weathering natural disasters and other emergencies is not only essential, but also financially sound. But to better understand what needs to be done, and how nations around the globe can improve their infrastructure, we first have to understand the current state of infrastructure around the world.
The current state of infrastructure
The state of infrastructure around the globe needs updating to keep up with the growing demand of rising populations and urbanization. Using the U.S., Europe, and Asia as examples, let’s dive deeper into the three main infrastructure systems to illustrate where our infrastructure stands globally.
Due to rapid urbanization and aging infrastructure, cities worldwide are dealing with congested roads and worsening maintenance issues. According to Bademosi, it is projected that $1.4 trillion in yearly road infrastructure spending from now until 2040 will be needed to keep up with the pressure of urbanization. In the U.S. alone, six percent of bridges need significant repair or replacement, which is estimated to cost approximately $313 billion.
In Europe, there is a pressing need for $500 Billion in infrastructure investments by 2040 to keep up with the growing urbanization needs. And the transportation infrastructure in Asia is not exempt. They are rapidly expanding and experiencing exponential growth. To meet their infrastructure needs by 2030, they need $26 Trillion in investment.
According to Bademosi, nearly 800 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia lack electricity. But this isn’t only a challenge in the developing world. The U.S. faces its own challenges with outdated power plants and expensive grid modernization.
Water and sanitation
Access to clean water, which is necessary for human survival, is unfortunately limited to multiple areas around the globe. According to Bademosi, as of today, 2 billion people lack safe drinking water worldwide, 3.6 billion people use unsanitary methods for waste disposal, and about 1.4 million people die annually from preventable diseases caused by poor water and sanitation.
How did the state of the global water and sanitation infrastructure get to this point?
According to Bademosi, “There has not been enough money invested in the past to help improve the current state of infrastructure in water and sanitation needs”. She goes on to explain that this has caused neglect and differences between urban and rural areas. To fix this issue, it is estimated that 4.5 billion dollars will be needed by 2040.
Why digital transformation is crucial for future infrastructure growth
Funding aside, digital transformation is crucial for achieving more sustainable, efficient, and resilient infrastructure that can meet the demands of increasing populations and rising urbanization. However, digital transformation is more than just implementing technology, but rather seamlessly integrating technology and innovation into every aspect of a project – fundamentally changing how things are built today.
According to Autodesk’s 2023 State of Design and Make report, 70 percent of leaders in the AEC industry believe digital tools are crucial for future growth. And for good reason. The incorporation of big data, analytics, cloud computing, AI, and other advanced technologies is already revolutionizing the way critical infrastructure is designed and constructed today.
The Putrajaya Line Project – A case study in modernization
In recent years, GAMUDA, one of the largest engineering and infrastructure companies in Malaysia, has undertaken a significant digital transformation. They have moved away from traditional paper-based methods and now use digital platforms and advanced technologies across the entire AEC lifecycle of their infrastructure projects.
The Klang Valley Mass Rapid Transit Putrajaya Line Project is a prime example of this digital evolution. GAMUDA has implemented tunnel insight, which is an advanced tunneling management platform that utilizes big data, AI, and cloud computing to manage the project, emulate operations, and provide real-time insights from the tunnel boring machine sensors, ensuring unparalleled precision and efficiency.
This project is expected to form the backbone of the public transit system in Malaysia’s Klang Valley. This transit project will not just help reduce traffic, but also improve livability in the region by lowering carbon emissions.
But how can other governments and their industry partners take the leap towards digital transformation?
A roadmap for the future
According to Bademosi, “”Integrating digital technologies is not just a trend, it is the next frontier in creating sustainable, resilient, and advanced infrastructure systems. As we look to the future, it is evident that digital technology will be at the heart of every innovation”
The benefits of harnessing new technologies and transforming infrastructure seem limitless. But government agencies and industry partners may not know where to start.
According to Bademosi, it begins by gauging the current state of critical infrastructure systems and what is needed for the future. What are the strengths, weaknesses, and potential opportunities available for infrastructure? Next, it’s important to foster collaborations across government agencies, industry leaders, and the communities that will be impacted by the proposed project.
Industry partners and government agencies then need to empower their workforce with the training they need to deploy these technologies on future projects. Once training is complete, they can begin to experiment with these new technologies on smaller pilot projects, using them as workshops to test strategies.
Lastly, they should monitor, adapt, and refine any planned approach and bring any lessons learned or best practices to bear in future projects.