Analysis

Reframing infrastructure to put people first

21 June 2020 | By Mark Enzer

Can we change the way we view and manage our infrastructure? Lead author of the collaborative paper Flourishing systems, Mark Enzer, chief technical officer at Mott MacDonald and head of the National Digital Twin programme at the Centre for Digital Built Britain, makes the case for putting people first.

Our current national crisis brings many challenges for infrastructure and construction organisations, but also unprecedented opportunity for lessons learned. The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the value of data and digital, and the power of government, industry, academia and the wider society working together against a common threat towards a shared goal.

Digital provides a lifeline for people, enabling families to stay in touch and businesses to operate and even thrive remotely. The experience has also demonstrated the interconnections and interdependencies between our economic and social infrastructure and the importance of creating resilient, sustainable and secure infrastructure systems upon which essential services depend.

The paper Flourishing systems: Re-envisioning infrastructure as a platform for human flourishing (May, 2020),  makes the case for a systems-based, people-focused view of infrastructure with the emphasis on connections, sustainability and digitalisation. This collaborative paper started with the question: ‘What does it mean to live well?’ – and the question has never been more relevant. Now, as we begin to create strategies for the post-pandemic society and economy, taking tentative steps from total lockdown to get back to business, our industry faces systemic challenges that require collaborative action.

Improving how we collect, curate and connect data brings opportunity to create new digital assets of value for owners, operators and end users of infrastructure and enable better decisions which produce better outcomes for people and the environment.– Mark Enzer

Built on an emerging consensus, Flourishing Systems advocates a fundamental shift in how we view and manage our infrastructure. It puts the wellbeing of people and the planet first, then asks how we can use systems thinking and innovation to deliver the social, economic and environmental outcomes needed to live well. 

Infrastructure is crucial to the wellbeing of society and the economy, providing the essential services on which people and society depend. We have created an incredible and complex machine on which we wholly rely. Without it, our lives would be immeasurably worse. Simply put, society would not survive.

Reframing our infrastructure to be people-focused recognises the fundamental role of this interconnected system of systems in the social, economic and environmental outcomes that determine the quality of people’s lives. Importantly, this system needs to work for as long as we want our society to continue – making the whole issue of sustainability key.

Within our sector there is increasing recognition that complex challenges – such as achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions and making society resilient to the physical effects of climate change – are systemic and, therefore, require systems-based solutions. This shift is essential if we are to meet renewed priorities of people and society in the post-pandemic world.

Our sector is advancing on its journey of digitalisation, but we still need to ensure that digital assets become properly valued and managed. Making better use of assets and systems data is central to the digital transformation that will unlock economic benefits estimated at £7bn a year for the UK (Deloitte, New technologies case study: data sharing in infrastructure – a final report for the National Infrastructure Commission, November 2017).

Improving how we collect, curate and connect data brings opportunity to create new digital assets of value for owners, operators and end users of infrastructure and enable better decisions which produce better outcomes for people and the environment.

The vision for effective digitalisation of the whole of the built environment is within reach: increased adoption of BIM lays a strong foundation in information management for the industry; integrating technologies including the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality within smart infrastructure will enable efficiencies, improve productivity and inform better decision-making.

The just-published report by the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) in partnership with the Construction Innovation Hub, “Pathway Towards an Information Management Framework: A Commons for a Digital Built Britain” (20 May, 2020), sets out the technical approach for the development of an Information Management Framework (IMF) to enable secure, resilient data sharing across the built environment, marking a critical milestone towards the ecosystem of connected digital twins that we call the ‘National Digital Twin’. There is an open consultation underway on this proposed approach – and I encourage you to have your say.

This opportunity cannot emerge from siloed thinking. Only by recognising our infrastructure as a system of systems which facilitates human flourishing will we be able to better plan and manage infrastructure, setting objectives in terms of outcomes for people – social, environmental and economic outcomes. Then we can hope to face the biggest systemic challenges of our age.

The paper Flourishing systems: Re-envisioning infrastructure as a platform for human flourishing is jointly published by the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB), the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) at the University of Cambridge, with the support of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Its development was supported by more than 30 key experts and influencers from industry, government and academia.

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