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How is technology changing the way we plan infrastructure investment?

Technology and planning for infrastructure investment

Over the past decade, the availability of data and the digitization of services has changed the way people use and view infrastructure.


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Infrastructure development used to be a ‘bricks and mortar’ proposition

However, over the past decade, the availability of data and the digitization of services has changed the way people use and view infrastructure. Indeed, in many sectors, the availability of good data is just as important to building a new asset as the availability of resources.

In the health sector, for example, new models of care are forcing decision-makers to rethink the assets they develop. “In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, healthcare was defined by the availability of hospitals and primary health clinics,” notes Mark Britnell, Chairman of KPMG’s Global Healthcare practice. “As we move into the twenty-first century, hard infrastructure is starting to give way to softer infrastructure needs such as health information systems, artificial intelligence and — increasingly — robotics.”

Rather than travelling long distances to visit a primary care physician, for example, some communities in rural Australia are piloting holographic consultations, in which a doctor can be summoned — live and in real time — into the home of a patient. In Japan and Singapore, robotic care providers are being used to supplement elderly care both at home and in care facilities. “New technologies are changing the model of care that has existed for decades,” adds Mr. Britnell.

Similar disruption is taking place in the transportation sector. In the past, consumer choice was fairly binary: in a large number of countries, you could either take a car or you could take public transit. Today, the combination of real-time traffic information, routing information and sophisticated apps are allowing travelers to choose from multiple routes using multiple different modes of transport. And this is altering the way infrastructure is planned and developed.

As Andreas ‘Zac’ Zachariah, CEO and Founder of TravelAI suggests, this shift  is forcing transportation authorities to rethink the way they plan and develop new infrastructure. “Planners often know where someone starts their journey and where they end, but they don’t know very much about the route they took or the modes of transport they used to get there,” he notes. “But for the citizen, it’s all about the route — that’s what dictates the cost, the speed and the comfort of their journey.”

As a result, the way infrastructure owners and authorities think about investment is changing. “There’s an increasing desire to use technology and data to improve the understanding of what’s happening in the network and in the system,” adds Mr. Zachariah.  

The availability of data is also changing the way planners think about individual assets. “Customer data is helping owners understand how customers use their assets, where people are dwelling longer, where they are getting congested, how they are moving around the asset,” notes Ben Foulser, Associate Director in the Infrastructure Advisory practice at KPMG in the UK. “And that  is allowing planners to design major assets like railway stations and airports to be more efficient and more convenient for passengers.”

This, in turn, is forcing infrastructure owners and planners to rethink the way they collect and use data. “Infrastructure decision-makers are recognizing that the data and processes they used in the past are no longer fit-for- purpose,” adds Mr. Zachariah. “They are thinking about how their existing data can be complemented by new technologies and new data to improve their understanding of use and demand.” 

Planners often know where someone starts their journey and where they end, but they don’t know very much about the route they took or the modes of transport they used to get there,” he notes. “But for the citizen, it’s all about the route — that’s what dictates the cost, the speed and the comfort of their journey.  

In the past, the richness of the available data was often a challenge. Mr. Zachariah’s company — TravelAI — was created to support decision-makers as they evolve their approach to, bringing mode and geography agnostic digitization tools to the transportation sector. Their first app was developed to help authorities understand cyclist travel patterns.

“There’s almost no data about how pedestrians and cyclists actually travel through the urban and rural environment,” he says. “We wanted to understand not only their routes, but also how they then interact with other forms of transportation.

Do they cycle to a train station and then, on the other side, walk to their office? We wanted to understand the real narrative of how people travelled around a city and, in doing so, help authorities better plan their investments into cycle paths, transit and roadways.” As a result, new dynamics and new choices are emerging for infrastructure planners. “Once you have the right data to fully understand how people are travelling and what they are looking for, you can start to make important decisions about how you manage the overall network,” added Mr. Foulser. 

While consumer preference and demand are important factors in the decision-making process, the challenge for many infrastructure authorities is to balance what the customer data is telling them against data and trends within the wider policy environment. “Transport authorities have a number of objectives they are trying to achieve — air quality, reduced congestion, affordability, public health and economic stimulus,” adds Mr. Foulser. “You can’t just start cutting out busses because people are taking more Ubers. It’s a much more complex decision-making process.”

As  Mr. Britnell points out, the availability of improved data and the adoption of new forms of service delivery will not remove the need for hard infrastructure assets. “You’ll always need hospitals and clinics. There is only so much care that can be provided in someone’s home — so the hard infrastructure will always need to be built,” he argues. “But we also need to use the data at our disposal to understand how those assets will evolve in the future.”

“As infrastructure authorities start to adjust the system to respond to new trends and technologies, they will need to take a much more dynamic approach to the way they collect, analyze and understand data,” says Mr. Zachariah. “Going forward, the key to infrastructure planning and decision- making will be in the data.”

Ultimately, the key to building robust, resilient and valuable new infrastructure assets will be in the quality of the data available to the decision-makers, whether they be policy makers, developers, investors and customers.

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