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Facilitate greater working away from the office by enabling 5G investment and make space for active transport use across cities. These were some of the findings from our call for evidence on the future of infrastructure spending in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As governments around the world survey the damage caused by Covid-19, many will be looking to identify quick win items to support a social and economic recovery. Eyes will naturally turn to infrastructure investment because it is:
No wonder then that the UK Government is set to make announcements in the coming days for an economic stimulus package based around infrastructure and construction. But what should a package look like? And is there an opportunity to reinvent our infrastructure systems for the future, so that we don't see filling in potholes as a cause of celebration but as a peculiar cure to a symptom that shouldn't exist in the first place?
Over the last few weeks, ICE, on behalf of the Infrastructure Client Group, have undertaken a call for evidence which drew in views far and wide from across the infrastructure and construction landscape. Thank you to the over 75 individuals and groups who submitted evidence or gave up their time to be interviewed.
One of the key questions asked as part of that call for evidence was what the new priorities for the infrastructure we need to build may be. Recognising that both social behaviours and expectations may have shifted due to Covid-19, this question sought to draw out key insights from the infrastructure community.
There was strong support for some of the areas we identified in the Green Paper:
Alongside these areas, there was also support for investment to make public spaces safer from future disease transmission. This includes retrofitting assets to make them touch free in the public realm and investment in better ventilation. This would not only safeguard against potential future waves, but transition towards a public realm that limits the potential spread of future epidemics and pandemics.
While these are near-term investments, there was strong and concerted feedback that Covid-19 does not overshadow the long-term drivers that previously existed: population growth, resilience and principal among them – rapid de-carbonisation and achieving net-zero.
The Committee on Climate Change made this point strongly last week, while in 2020 global emissions are expected to fall by a record 5-10%, the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown are only temporary. A sharp fall in global emissions in 2020 will not address the cumulative problem of rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. CO₂ emissions must be cut consistently year after year until they reach net-zero globally to slow and halt global warming.
Given the UK is not making adequate progress in preparing for climate change, any stimulus should have achieving net-zero at its heart. For this to be truly effective will require a plan, not a collection of uncoordinated announcements.
Another strong theme from the call for evidence, was the need to take the opportunity to both plan new assets and retrofit existing assets to make a National Digital Twin a reality. As one response put it, there is a need for: 'Developing connected digital twins to help model the effects of changing infrastructure investment decisions to follow the joint objectives of managing Covid-19 adaptations and the pursuit of net zero targets. '
Getting a greater understanding of the infrastructure system in use through digitalisation, can unlock multiple benefits including allowing asset owners to better test, plan, predict, manage and make interventions of their assets as part of the wider infrastructure system. We will increasingly live in a world where infrastructure is used more flexibly, we need to move to an approach where we understand the impact of that flexibility on assets and plan accordingly.
A shift to viewing some of the enabling technologies for digitalisation &ndash such as sensors, as an asset class and a programme requiring investment, will go a long way. This must sit alongside a re-skilling programme that embeds digital skills across the construction and infrastructure ecosystem.
These areas then provide the framework for a stimulus that not only facilitates a socio-economic recovery but ensures that recovery builds a more resilient and sustainable Britain.
Sign up to the State of the Nation 2020 virtual launch event and keep up to date with our Covid-19 and the new normal for infrastructure systems programme.
A full White Paper with recommendations on how to transform the delivery of infrastructure, will be published in late July.