• COVID-19 has revealed the importance of resilience
  • We need a new vision for infrastructure as a platform to help humans flourish.
  • It must be people-focused – recognising the fundamental role of infrastructure in the social, economic and environmental outcomes that determine the quality of people’s lives.

COVID has been a cruel teacher, yet we must heed its lessons. If we want to ‘bounce forward’ and build a better world post-pandemic, then we must up our game on systems-thinking in every sector, and definitely in the built environment.

And if we think that COVID has been bad, then we know that climate change will be worse. Therefore, we must be ready to face global systemic challenges, like achieving net-zero carbon emissions and building climate change resilience, with systems-based solutions.

But systems-thinking is not enough. It must be driven by a much stronger focus on delivering genuine improved outcomes for people and society.

So the central ideas in this article are very simple and surprisingly radical: that the purpose of infrastructure is human flourishing and that infrastructure is a system of systems.

We must envision and manage infrastructure accordingly.

This vision embraces four interrelated elements:

1. People – a focus on outcomes and human flourishing

COVID-19 has forced us to focus on human wellbeing. In infrastructure, we talk about the need to focus on outcomes but it is not always clear that we mean ensuring infrastructure makes people’s lives better and helps to maintain their wellbeing. However, now is the time to go the next step and ensure it helps humans to flourish by delivering better interconnected social, environmental and economic outcomes.

The 'use' of infrastructure is at the heart of everything, because people are.
The 'use' of infrastructure is at the heart of everything, because people are.
Image: Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure & Construction

COVID-19 has laid bare just how complex and inextricably linked our infrastructure has become. We have already started to manage the various sectors, such as transport or energy, as systems and even to see the interconnections between social and economic infrastructure and the natural environment. Now to solve global systemic challenges like climate change, we need to take the next step, and start to manage it as the ‘system of systems’ that it is. This will help us to get the most out of what has already been built as well as delivering new assets.

Our built environment is an interconnected system of systems.
Our built environment is an interconnected system of systems.
Image: Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure & Construction

3. Sustainability – a focus on the long-term viability of infrastructure

We must ensure that our evolving needs can be met by the built and natural environments for as long as we want society to exist. Infrastructure systems must be made sustainable, secure and resilient in order to the meet the Sustainable Development Goals and ensure the long-term viability of society.

Infrastructure underpins sustainable development.
Infrastructure underpins sustainable development.
Image: Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure & Construction

4. Digitalisation – a focus on developing the cyber-physical system

Digital transformation is about better decisions, based on better analysis of better data, leading to better outcomes for people, ultimately enabling society to flourish.

Bringing digital and physical assets together creates cyber-physical systems – smart infrastructure. We must recognise digital assets, such as data, information, algorithms and digital twins, as genuine ‘assets’, which have value and must be managed effectively and securely. In time, as data and digital assets become valued, data itself will be seen as infrastructure.

Our infrastructure needs effective connections between physical and digital assets - to become a cyber-physical system.
Our infrastructure needs effective connections between physical and digital assets - to become a cyber-physical system.
Image: Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure & Construction

New assets as interventions on the wider existing system

In mature economies we’ve been seriously building and connecting up infrastructure for over 200 years. Now, assets and networks are inextricably linked so our built environment has effectively become a system of systems.

Yet for the most part we’re unaware of this fact, and that prevents infrastructure from being developed and managed to best effect. Thinking about ‘infrastructure’ is dominated by ‘construction’. In the UK, construction annually adds only circa 0.5% by value to infrastructure as a whole. The quality of the services delivered to the economy, environment and society is determined by the 99.5% of infrastructure that already exists.

Construction of new assets is important – to accommodate population growth and demographic shifts, address climate change, deliver increased digital and physical connectivity and achieve a higher level of resilience against various potential disasters including future pandemics. But to make a significant difference to service quality and value, measured in outcomes for people relative to whole-life investment, the focus should be on the infrastructure that already exists. New projects should be seen as ‘interventions’ on the wider, existing system.

Managing infrastructure as a system of systems

While each new asset was built to a plan, the vast, wonderful, complex system of systems that has emerged has neither an overall design nor a strategy for its interconnections, resilience or long-term outcomes.

This needs to be addressed. Silos in policy, investment, development and operation decision-making produce sub-optimal outcomes. We must understand and address the connections and interdependencies between infrastructure sectors and systems. We must also facilitate discussion between the infrastructure industry, government and society about what outcomes are desired from infrastructure and set those outcomes as the objectives for the industry.

A sustainable system to sustain society

We face pressing challenges in the form of resource constraints, pollution, severe environmental stresses, the impacts of climate change and large-scale migration. Currently, our system of systems is resource-hungry and wasteful, vulnerable to environmental, social and economic pressures, and at risk from accidental or malicious security breaches.

In its 2020 Global Risks Report (and consistently for the last decade), the World Economic Forum places the failure of critical infrastructure among the top 10 risks to the global economy, ranked by likelihood and severity of impact.

Infrastructure must be made sustainable, secure and resilient. It must work within its fair share of the planet’s means. Inputs of energy and materials and waste outputs must be within the environment’s capacity.

Digital technology can help here, enabling us to:

  • Manage assets through their lifecycles
  • Manage material resources through many lifecycles – a key enabler of the circular economy in infrastructure
  • Understand and manage complex trade-offs that are required between sectors – for example to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions

Infrastructure must get smart

Making better use of asset and systems data is central to this vision: better analysis of better data enables better decisions, producing better outcomes, improving the way we function as organisations, deliver new assets and operate, maintain and use existing assets.

Accurate and accessible records of our infrastructure and built environment will aid present and future decision-makers. Digital twins have been used successfully in the manufacturing and aerospace industries for this purpose and they promise to release similar value in infrastructure.

National digital twins’, envisaged as ecosystems of connected digital twins, have the potential not just to mirror, but also to help manage and get more from the system of systems.

Transformation is within reach

To make this vision a reality we need coherent strategies at a national level both for infrastructure and for data.

As a result of digitalisation, we’re better equipped now than ever in human history to achieve these objectives and desired outcomes. But it requires socio-technical change, including structural and cultural changes within the infrastructure industry. Initiatives such as Project 13, which advocates a collaborative enterprise model, show that this too is possible.