If coming generations are to prosper, we must design our built environment with future technology in mind, writes Lee Robb.
The forthcoming second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2) should look not only at our infrastructure needs today, but the potential technological advancements of tomorrow.
The civil engineers building our infrastructure today are using the fundamental forces of nature to benefit our society for years to come.
Current policy should provide the platform for future generations to capitalise on recent—and future—advancements.
Natural energy and nuclear fusion
Using natural energy sources and fusion technology to meet society’s energy demands is a reality for our energy production.
Recent breakthroughs in fusion energy research, alongside innovations in solar, wind, and costal energy, show a lot of promise for sustainable methods of energy production.
This is a huge achievement and cause for celebration. It shows what collaboration across the scientific, engineering, and industrial communities can achieve, and how serious society is in reducing our energy emissions.
The question is: what does society want to do with this energy?
The future is now
We need to plan and deliver infrastructure that meets both our and future generations’ needs.
Civil infrastructure typically has an intended design service life of up to 120 years. With only 27 years until 2050, we need to consider the future now.
While this presents a huge challenge, society does have the framework for what we need to achieve by 2030.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide the blueprint for our current infrastructure policies.
Over the longer term, our infrastructure policies need to develop the UN blueprint: progressively achieving today’s goals while providing for society’s future needs.
They need to maintain and progress the ethics and principles behind the SDGs, enabling new goals to be set for, and by, generations to come.
How does this look in practice?
So, what should our infrastructure look like?
This is a huge question that many industrial sectors and government departments need to answer.
The collective response should be a progressive systems approach that prioritises the right outcomes based on users’ needs.
Lessons from the transport sector
Our infrastructure should consider not only how we source our energy, but how we use it, now and in the future.
This reinforces the need to consider technology in assessing our infrastructure needs and developing our infrastructure policy.
Transport is the UK’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. To support the journey to net zero, system-integrated sustainable energy modes for transportation will be essential.
The right direction of travel?
Several jurisdictions, including Denmark, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and US states such as Michigan, are in the process of implementing infrastructure that enables users to access electrical transport.
Globally, the automotive industry is more commonly using lithium battery-powered transport or electrification infrastructure systems.
The move towards an electrical transport system is gaining momentum. But how do we know this is the right direction? How do we know we aren’t engineering a reliance on a technology that isn’t fit for our future purposes?
We need to use a systems approach to evaluate the whole-lifecycle footprint of such technologies.
What’s the CO2 footprint of mining, manufacturing, and energy production to sustain electric vehicles?
Have we considered waste disposal and reuse?
Are there potentially more sustainable options, such as biomass or water-based fuels, for which we could repurpose existing infrastructure and thus limit cost?
Biomass as an alternative
Future generations cannot rely on finite, mined energy sources.
The aerospace industry is moving towards biomass and solid waste to fuel aircraft. Is this a more sustainable pathway towards our 2050 climate targets?
It’s a compelling vision: fields of wheat using CO2 naturally, enabling carbon extraction and water to power transit.
All this while providing society with a sustainable food and water source, supplemented as required via hydrogen and biomass fuel production—which in turn use waste.
Is this a more viable option than lithium batteries and electrified infrastructure? Might both be part of the answer? And if so, how much do we invest in these technologies?
Investing for the longer term
2050 is a milestone, not the end of the journey.
The investment decisions we make now will shape the distant as well as the near future. And we need to consider what people in the future will need.
Will it be an electrical society? A biological one? Or both? Should we design our infrastructure for a higher reliance on one or the other?
I think I know which is the more sustainable system in the long term.
But the key thing is that we answer these questions now, before we invest too heavily in a dominated solution that only provides a stop gap, undermining the efforts of generations to come.
A systems approach to infrastructure policy can help find these answers.
In case you missed it
- NIA2: framing the challenge for the next 30 years of UK infrastructure
- Why the UK needs a systems approach to policy
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