Populism is raging. Work models are being disrupted. Shopping patterns are evolving. Technology companies are replacing traditional institutions. And massive debates that pit the right of the individual as opposed to the common good are exploding everywhere. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what society will want in the next few days or years, let alone what it will need in the coming decades.
Now overlay some of the big macro trends that are changing the world around us. Demand for action on the climate agenda, growing pressure from economic and climate migration, intensifying trade issues, persistent supply chain challenges, political gamesmanship, and new strains of COVID-19 are all having massive, short and long-term impacts on the world in which we operate.
Just consider how these trends are influencing the way people live, work and play. And what that means for the infrastructure that supports those activities and demands. What does that mean for future city and regional development plans? What does it mean for housing? What does it mean for that new metro system that is currently under construction?
The big question on every infrastructure player’s mind, therefore, is which changes are temporary and which are indelible. The uncertainty is creating challenges for short-term decision making (do you sign that multi-year commercial property lease?). It’s also creating massive problems for long-term planners (how do you know which technologies will still be relevant in just 10 or 20 years’ time?). Nobody wants their investments to face technological obsolescence.
The only way to know (to some degree of certainty) what society will need in the future is by listening. And we mean listening in the broadest sense. Listening to both strong and weak signals and knowing the difference between them. That means more engagement with stakeholders and community groups. It means becoming more citizen/customer-focused instead of procurement-focused. It means no longer looking at planning as simple transactions but rather as ecosystem enablers. It means thinking about the future rather than just repeating the successes (and failures) of the past.
Data and analytics will be key to conducting that listening, learning how society is actually changing and creating a greater understanding of future trends and needs. Making sense of society’s stated preferences and their real preferences. But infrastructure planners will also need to embed a level of flexibility to mitigate those uncertainties that can’t be analyzed away. Maintaining the trust of people, given our new power to listen, is also vital. Privacy continues to migrate up the priority list.
What we cannot do is retain the status quo, despite its comforting familiarity. The future may be opaque. But what is perfectly clear is that it is unlikely to look anything like yesterday. New ideas, new models and new approaches will be required – and are fast arriving. The way in which we deliver on the needs and demands of today while planning for the possibilities of tomorrow will set the stage for years to come.
Over the coming year, expect infrastructure planners to become much more focused on stakeholder engagement, data and analytics, and new technologies. And expect this to lead to greater certainty, flexibility and collaboration in future planning and investment.