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Infrastructure investment: thinking in systems

1 February 2021: As part of a new series on infrastructure and the economy, ICAEW Insights speak to Dr Jennifer Schooling OBE, Director of the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, to join the dots between infrastructure, the economy, the planet, technology and communities.

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The Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) was established 10 years ago by two Cambridge University professors. “Professor Robert Mair and Professor Kenichi Soga are civil engineers. They recognised that infrastructure, and construction in general, were not picking up on the data revolution. CSIC was set up to transform infrastructure and construction through smarter information, and help the sector grasp the opportunities data brings and capitalise on them,” says Schooling, who was appointed Director of CSIC in 2013.

CSIC works collaboratively with partners to accelerate the development of smart infrastructure solutions and services to real industry challenges and drive sustainable impact in infrastructure – both new and existing. 

“Much of our infrastructure was built more than 50 years ago and a large portion was built well over 100 years ago,” she reminds us. “A significant amount of it is in somewhat uncertain condition. That doesn’t mean it is about to fall down. It means that it has had 150 years of life and it’s got no medical record documenting structural health and performance.”

Many of these older assets were designed for very different circumstances and use patterns older than those in which they now find themselves. “If we can monitor and measure their performance, then we can get a much better handle on how much life these assets have left – and how much more value can we secure from them,” she says.

“Ensuring our infrastructure is effective and sustainable is vital for the growth and wellbeing of society. We need to know when to spend money to maintain the numerous and interconnected assets that combine to create our infrastructure. It’s not just a case of maintaining the system but maintaining it in such a way that is as minimally disruptive as possible to the vital services that our infrastructure system provides.”

Schooling talks in terms of infrastructure assets as providers of a service within a system; “Network Rail has something like 28,000 bridges, of which 14,000 were built before 1914, and they still operate today. It does not own bridges because it loves bridges; it owns bridges because it has to get trains across gaps,” she says. 

“A beautiful bridge may be spectacular as an engineering feat but really it is just part of this bigger system of providing a service. We are moving away from the idea that we've just got to maintain all these physical assets, to the idea that we've got to provide a service to customers. Making this shift enables you to start to perceive and map the assets and their importance in a slightly different way. That's where the value of understanding the condition of an asset comes in – because it's part of this critical system which provides a service.”

The construction industry is on a similar journey to manufacturing in terms of understanding how data helps with designing and building assets that will serve the purpose for which they are built, and how to achieve the necessary lifespan to serve that purpose. Schooling references the aerospace industry where, for a generation, aircraft assets have been traded on a use – or flying hours – basis rather than an ownership model, with repair, maintenance and overhaul packages leading the sales conversation rather than the sale of the aero-engine itself.

“That’s the perspective we’re coming from when considering the value of data in infrastructure and construction,” she says, pointing out that it is not always about adding brand new status projects – albeit that adding infrastructure to the existing stock is clearly a part of the mix.

“We usually add about 0.5% by value per year to our existing infrastructure system. So, it will take us 200 years, at that rate, to replace it – assuming we didn't need to grow it. But we know we need more and more from our infrastructure all the time,” she says. It all needs maintaining, and it needs to be maintained in terms of the modern context: energy use, low carbon, climate change, an ageing society with mobility challenges, technology, connectivity and the shifting nature of society, for example.

How far have we come in putting social needs at the heart of our infrastructure, whether it be maintained existing assets or new additions? “Infrastructure is only there to serve society,” she says. “For governments to be successful, and for the societies they run to flourish, they need effective and sustainable infrastructure. And in places where the infrastructure is missing, it's very difficult to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals around health and poverty, for example. It's no coincidence that we've seen a massive drive in China to build new and better infrastructure.”

The modern context for these infrastructure initiatives also includes climate change and resource constraint. “Sand is in limited supply,” she reminds us. “We have to be more efficient in how we build things, and about what we build, and about how we spend our resources on maintaining existing assets. If we follow the lead of the manufacturing industry in using data to inform decision-making before we build, we can calibrate our design models better and we can then reduce the amount of material that we design into a project.”

Simply following the lead of the manufacturing industry will only get us so far – that sector does not have the weather or the ground to contend with. “The ground is inherently uncertain, but we can manage that uncertainty better if we have better data,” says Schooling.

She is mindful that the construction industry has tended to focus on money as a performance measure until recent years because money is easy to count. “Everyone knows how to count money and we have really good processes for it,” she says. “But increasingly, we're starting to see both major project funders, and also insurance firms, asking companies to state what their climate risk liability is in order to secure funding. Aspects of climate risk liability will include projected carbon emissions and embedded carbon. So, we're going to have to learn, as a society, to count carbon better.”

She continues, “One of the challenges we have in infrastructure construction is the number of different processes and different companies involved in a project, each of which generates its own information and data. We don't yet have a good mechanism for counting the real carbon quantities embedded in what has actually been built, as opposed to potential carbon from what was designed.”

Projected concrete use and actual concrete use are usually two quite different numbers with the latter often being much larger than the former. This can be due in part to material waste, but also to other factors such as the amount of temporary works required, which may not be fully accounted for at the design stage.

Schooling is adamant that we need to get the outcomes of good research into practice much more quickly. She asks: “How do we create an ecosystem that facilitates early adoption in real applications – because we can't solve the climate crisis by good research sitting on a shelf for 10 years?

“And we need to make sure that we're measuring, monitoring and rewarding the right behaviours. We are talking about an asset that is going to be operated and managed for at least 60 years, and often 100 to 120 years or more. So, we need to shift the mindset and look at procuring for whole-life value.”

She reminds us that we must measure something to be able to improve it and make sure it works well as part of a system to serve society well. Schooling concludes: “We simply don't measure enough – yet.”

Read more about the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, follow them on Twitter @CSIC-IKC or email them at csic-admin@eng.cam.ac.uk.

About Dr Jennifer Schooling OBE

Dr Jennifer Schooling has been CSIC Director since 2013. She is a member of the Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG) and the Infrastructure Client Group’s Digital Transformation Task group (DTTG). She was on the steering group for the ICE State of the Nation Reports in 2017 and 2020. Jennifer is founding Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Smart Infrastructure and Construction Proceedings journal (ICE). She also serves on BSI and ISO committees developing standards for digitalisation in the built environment. She was awarded the OBE for services to engineering and digital construction in 2019 and was the recipient of the 2019 ICE President’s Medal.

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