The pressing questions we need to answer around agile infrastructure

How infrastructure and buildings are conceived, planned and built is never how they are actually used.

An abandoned railway. With agile infrastructure we will plan to avoid obsolescence.
An abandoned railway. With agile infrastructure we will plan to avoid obsolescence.
  • Updated: 05 October 2016
  • Author: Ross AgnewDirector Asset Management Advisory, KPMG

Why? Because if we shift our perspective from being planners and designers of infrastructure to its users we suddenly recognise that our needs and wants change much faster than our models.

Demand for infrastructure services are dynamic yet we continue to consider demographic and historical usage as the basis for all future planning.

Winston Churchill said ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us’ and the same is true of both economic and social infrastructure. But there are two sides to this truism. Yes, infrastructure is an enabler but it can rapidly become a constraint when we build it to last well beyond what we can realistically predict.

How might a technology business design infrastructure? They would design it knowing that user needs will change. They would create a system with flexibility to allow users to benefit from the latest upgrades – and to ensure that when the next generation of hardware comes along it can be rolled out smoothly.

Does infrastructure have to be so different?

Like consumer technology new infrastructure will often first delight the user then it will rapidly become accepted as the status quo and then become mundane and ultimately obsolete. But at the moment that obsolescent kit can hang around for decades. It’s as if my children were still using the ZX Spectrum I grew up with rather than an iPad.

Surely the way in which we design, develop and build our infrastructure needs to change. BIM is a step forward but isn’t much more than a digitisation of existing practices and an automation of conventional decision making.

What if we re-imagine the prevailing approach and build agile infrastructure? Infrastructure that is not just designed to accommodate change but is responsive and can flex to the changing needs of the user. Infrastructure that recognises both the inevitability and unpredictability of societal and economic change.

How can we create agile infrastructure?

How can we revolutionise how we consider, design build and manage our infrastructure? How can infrastructure be designed and built around the needs of multiple users and change throughout its life?

I’d like today’s engineering community to begin thinking about some of these questions and how we change standards to respond to this dynamic environment.

How can designers determine what needs to be long lasting and what temporary? What skills should tomorrow’s engineer accumulate - for instance how can we incorporate the insights of the social sciences as well as the physical sciences?

If we as an industry don't start to answer these questions, if we don’t do better at meeting the needs of our ultimate customers, sooner or later – probably sooner – others will move into this space.