Time to plan for easy tech upgrades in built to last infrastructure

Nick Roberts | 03 Nov 2015 | Comments

Industry needs to work with technology companies to create infrastructure that is built to last 100 years but that can have its tech regularly upgraded, says Nick Roberts.

The relationship between technology and infrastructure is fascinating. Tech has already changed and enriched the way we live and work. We’ve shown ourselves to be very adept at evolving our use of it at a personal level, but less so when it comes to the scale and complexity of urban infrastructure. And it’s the latter we need to crack if we want to deliver more for less, to do things which aren’t currently possible and to transform how people use and interact with infrastructure.

But despite the excitement of being at the beginning of a new era of technology-enabled infrastructure, there’s a lot of inconsistency across our industry about what we actually mean.

Infrastructure is generally designed to last anywhere up to 100 years, whereas the pace of change in the tech world is much more rapid. Tech companies have built their business model around persistent evolution of their products, but we build to last.

Take the iPhone as an example, Apple has launched no less than nine models since the first in 2007. Although the original iPhone isn’t quite obsolete, with the complexity of modern apps and the ongoing evolution of hardware I doubt it will be usable for much beyond the most basic functions.

In this context who wants to spend millions of pounds on infrastructure which is reliant on tech which could be outdated before it has got a quarter of the way through its design life?

Perhaps one of our challenges is to figure out how we get the convergence right so we can incorporate technology that can be upgraded without having to completely redesign or replace the infrastructure around it. We’ve seen how smart phones and medical devices have converged to monitor bodily functions and open source data from infrastructure owners is increasingly providing travel data to help passengers manage their journeys, but I hope we can take it up to the level that there’s so much excitement about in our sector.

As we consider these challenges and seek to push the boundaries, risk comes into the equation and we’re conflicted between wanting something new and something that is proven and reliable. Taking ideas from one sector and applying them to another is one way to innovate whilst providing confidence that the core technology works.

As consultants, we often say to our clients that if you want to get the best from the supply chain that you need to bring us in at the outset so we can fully understand the challenge and work together to develop an effective solution.

Maybe we need to reciprocate the thinking. Rather than just knocking on the door of infrastructure owners with a tech-based solution, we perhaps need to bring them in at an earlier stage of development. So why not create alliances of tech companies (the experts in their products), consultants and contractors (experts in infrastructure and the application of technology in this market) and clients (who fund infrastructure and have responsibility for improving and operating it)?

We could also broaden this concept further to crowdsourcing ideas from end users. If we take a minimum viable product approach – which means creating and testing skeleton versions of new concepts to avoid introducing products that people don’t want whilst collecting valuable data for future development – we can reach creative solutions in a rapid and open manner. Having this joined up approach should help reduce risks as the solution is in development and provide confidence that it is the right way forward for the long term needs of the infrastructure users.

Technology-enabled infrastructure can’t and shouldn’t be something that always remains in the future. Over 25% of London’s job growth will come from technology so it needs to be part of our industry today. So let’s be innovative in the way we approach the introduction of tech as well as the solutions themselves, and take a proactive approach so we don’t simply go at a pace where we don’t even notice we’ve adopted it.