How to meet the challenges of a changing future? Data and foresight are key

Today I avoided road congestion by using a drone to fly to work, I returned a parcel to the other side of the country via hyper loop delivery and saved my client millions of dollars by 3D printing a new inpatient hospital ward.

While none of this is actually true, these are all things that may be possible in the not too distant future. There are major changes on the horizon that will transform the way we live, work and connect with each other and manage our scare resources. The infrastructure we plan today will need to anticipate this future and the ways new technology will overcome our current constraints.

So how do we plan for changes if we don’t know what they will be or when they will happen?

The key lies in data. Data will enable us to assess the impact of new technologies on the use of existing assets and help us optimise today’s infrastructure to avoid investment in soon to be obsolescent assets.

We already have the technical capacity to collect enough data to make this possible. Whenever a person commutes to work they are almost certain to be connected to the internet, whether through phone, watch or laptop; car, train or bus. We can track travel patterns directly from GPS or indirectly using public transport cards and road tolls.

This information can help us understand how a change in consumer patterns will impact the effectiveness of our infrastructure. For example, recent modelling done by KPMG for Infrastructure Victoria found just a 5 percent reduction (similar to reductions seen during school holidays) in morning peak traffic can result in a doubling of travel speed.

By collecting and analysing these types of metrics we can more accurately assess the value of infrastructure investments and account for the real impact of new technologies, such as autonomous cars as they are integrated into traditional networks. If we are to plan ahead for changes in the way we live, work and travel, then new projects will need to be developed with data being as critical as engineering.

While data allows us to assess the impact of new consumer patterns on the functionality of existing infrastructure, we still need to work out how consumer patterns are going to change. If we are going to plan our investments on long timelines then there are an enormous number of variables that need to be accounted for. These include population demographics, migration expectation, economic outlooks, climate change statistics, consumer health data and more.

The number and complexity of forecasting these variables and their impact on consumer trends, cannot become an excuse for short-sighted planning. State, federal and local governments need to work together to develop whole-of-city plans for infrastructure investments, using all the available data. These plans should involve the private sector and encourage innovative solutions to overcapacity based on this analysis.

The rise of ride sharing services is one example of a private sector solution that has changed the way we use transport networks. While regulators took time to arrive at a clear position on ride sharing in Australia, they did eventually side with the innovative business model. Looking towards the integration of autonomous cars, we can see that regulators have an opportunity to plan for the future and ask how they can help companies bring new solutions to the market in the fairest and safest way.

Governments must not allow the uncertainty of changing consumer patterns and new technology stall their planning for long-term infrastructure solutions. If all levels of government work together and include private enterprises in their vision, it will be possible to optimise the use of our current assets and forge a long term plan for future investment.

While I have not had the privilege to fly to work by drone or use a hyper loop, I look forward to the day when I can. If we integrate these technologies into a holistic and long-term vision for infrastructure investment that day will not be far away.

Read: Rethinking infrastructure planning – preparing for an unpredictable future


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