By Steve Cockerell

By 2050, the world’s population is expected to increase by about 2 billion people, from 7.9 billion to 9.7 billion. And, while growth rates vary greatly across different regions, in the eyes of the United Nations, the future of the world’s population is most definitely urban. Around 55 percent of the world’s population live in urban areas, and in the United States the figure is already 80 percent. And, it is the combination of a growing population and increased urbanization that is placing a huge amount of strain on the infrastructure assets that support nearly every aspect of life. However, I would argue that it is our roads, railroads, and bridges that will be most affected. As for the foreseeable future, these critical networks are the only way to keep our cities, and our countries moving. 

Our Future Must Be More Sustainable

Carbon dioxide is now widely recognized as the primary driver for climate change, and around 70 percent of the world’s emissions can be traced to infrastructure. Every infrastructure asset, large or small, has a carbon impact when it is built – through the design, materials, and construction methods we adopt, but also throughout their operational life, through the carbon-heavy behaviors they support.

With figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicating that transport accounts for around one-fifth of all global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, it is road vehicles that account for three quarters of the 8 billion ton total number. Nearly half, 45.1 percent, is you and me, with passenger movement including cars, motorcycles, buses, and taxis that are the culprit, while at the other end of the scale, rail, and transit emits very little – only 1 percent.

So who’s problem is it? Rachel Skinner, the current president of the UK’s Institution of Civil Engineers, recently said, “There is no path to delivering net-zero by 2050 that doesn’t run through de-carbonizing transport,” and continued, “Significant reductions in carbon emissions need to start now.” So, while it requires political and economic support, as well as social change, it is the professionals that design, build, and operate the world’s infrastructure that have the greatest potential to make the changes necessary – to reimagine the future of infrastructure, for a better tomorrow.

Make Change Part of Your Strategy

Something we cannot ignore is the effect that COVID-19 has had on all our lives over the last year to 18 months, and the fact that, like it or not, the suffering, destabilization of the global economy and upending of the lives of billions of people around the world has forced everyone to change.

It has seen rail networks and stations turn into ghost towns and our streets during lockdowns and “stay-at-home” orders to become deserted. The projects we work on have changed, with adjustments to project schedules, and in extreme cases, complete cancellation. It will also change the way assets are operated in the future, requiring new processes to be adopted to ensure the trust of passengers is restored, so people feel safe to return to public transport, their offices, and public places.

I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how big a negative effect the global health pandemic would has had on our lives, but we must also recognize that it has created a lot of new opportunities, and can be a business driver for change for the better. For example, many now expect that working from home will become part of a better work-life balance, so communication and collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Bentley’s ProjectWise 365 are increasingly important for many. 

I think most will agree that the global pandemic has been a wake-up call, that change happens and sometimes we have no power over it. Equally though, the experience of the last year has shown what we can do when forced, and is an indicator to the level of opportunity that change provides if it is part of a strategy for delivering better business outcomes versus a reaction to challenges encountered.

Reimagine the New Normal Now

“Now is the time to start reimagining our industry and how organizations can emerge in the next normal from a position of strength,” said McKinsey & Company’s report from May 2020 titled How construction can emerge stronger after coronavirus. We have to find safe, sustainable ways of overcoming the challenges we encounter in what is a very complex industry, and in the short term they advocate increased digitization, remote working, and a greater reliance on BIM – advancing it to include 4D and 5D simulation to re-plan and reoptimize project schedules.

The report also identifies digital-twin solutions as a means of providing current and ongoing feedback plus insight to the decision processes. Longer term, the case for digital tools proven to increase productivity becoming even stronger, an acceleration and automation across the design and construction phases, including through the increased use of off-site construction, where working in more easily controlled environments makes it easier to keep people safe and can drive up quality.

This mirrors our belief at Bentley Systems that there is a lot that we can do to help our users deliver improved business outcomes through the use of advanced digital technologies that support activities across the lifecycle of infrastructure assets. That might be through smarter decisions that help target project investment, optimize design, enable the use of different materials or methods of construction, save money, or enhance safety. But, the bottom line is that the decisions we are making today really do matter for a better tomorrow.

Data-driven Decisions with Digital Twins

The infrastructure industry is not unfamiliar with change. Around 30 years ago, triggered by CAD and hardware advancements, we saw the shift from desktops to servers, to today where mobile technology and cloud-based storage and solutions are key elements of most organizations’ going digital strategy.

Almost in parallel, the way we design, build, and operate infrastructure has evolved along with how the professionals involved make decisions, and in turn the outcomes possible. Most, if not all, have moved from what they were doing on paper in 2D to CAD. Many rely less on drawings and reports, and instead choose to leverage 3D modeling, which has seen building information modeling (BIM) standards and processes proven to deliver productivity and quality improvements.

However, BIM is of course much more than simply using 3D models during design – perhaps to identify and resolve clashes between existing and proposed assets – with large numbers organizations extending the value that managed information, standardized processes, and digital workflows deliver into procurement and construction. Increasingly, Bentley users have been advancing techniques to include 4D for the “digital rehearsal” of construction, and 5D – where time, cost, and carbon calculations are an integral part of the decision-making process.

Moving beyond BIM, fueled by the increasing amount of data we collect, create, and consume in our day-to-day tasks, and the volume of connected devices delivering so-called big data and the Internet of Things (IoT), we are already seeing more and more decisions being made based on the insight gained directly from data, and it is why at Bentley we believe that infrastructure digital twins will be the next big digital disruption in our industry.

Bentley’s digital twin capabilities are already enabling organizations to visually immerse their teams in the decision-making process, run all manner of analytics to predict and produce different outcomes, and importantly track and manage the constant change we see not just across the delivery of a project but also throughout an asset’s operational life.

Our iTwin technology enables the federation of data and deliverables from engineering and design, with live or near real-time data streams from IoT connected devices in operations to connect the physical asset in the real-world with its digital counterpart – its digital twin. From the conceptual stage, through planning and into engineering, design, and construction, and ultimately operations and maintenance, it is that link – that connectivity – that really makes the difference. 

ASCE: America’s Infrastructure Report Card

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) publishes a report on America’s infrastructure. At a high level, the 2021 Report Card shows that while we recognize the need to repair aging and inferior infrastructure, we are still not investing in what they call the backbone of our economy. In real terms this failure to act costs every American household $3,300 a year. Multiply that by the roughly 132 million U.S. households predicted to exist at the end of 2021, and you are talking about significant costs and consequences to the economy.

In the case of roads, which ASCE scored a grade D, over 43 percent are in poor or mediocre condition. The United States has been underfunding its roadway maintenance for years, resulting in a $786 billion backlog of road and bridge capital needs, but the bulk of the backlog, some $435 billion, is in repairing existing roads. As the backlog of rehabilitation needs grows, American motorists are forced to spend nearly $130 billion each year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs, while congestion means each commuter pays over $1,000 every year in wasted time and fuel.

America’s bridges scored slightly better with a grade C, but still the report said that out of the 617,000 bridges across the country, 42 percent were over 50 years old, and 7.5 percent are structurally deficient or in poor condition. A situation that brought the health of America’s bridges back into focus in May 2021 was the news of a crack discovered through routine inspections of the I-40 bridge over the Mississippi River, in Memphis, Tennessee. While it is fortunate a potential disaster was averted there, regrettably it is not always the case – when bridges fail the results can be catastrophic. Currently the repair backlog is estimated to be $125 billion, and ignoring further degradation over the same period, at current investment levels, would take 50 years to clear.

Rail and transit fared no better, scoring grades B and a D – respectively. As with many countries, the U.S. rail network is divided into two categories, freight rail, and passenger rail. In spite of both being part of the same integrated system, with similar challenges each has to overcome, freight is able to maintain a strong network using shippers’ fees to invest an average of $260,000 per mile of track, passenger rail requires government investment, and the lack of federal support has led to the current state of good repair (SGR) backlog of $45.2 billion.

With transit, the situation is worse. Currently, there is a $176 billion transit SGR backlog, which is nearly four times as much as rail, and the deficit is expected to grow to more than $250 billion by 2029. Meanwhile, transit ridership is declining, a trend compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic – which saw APTA report that stay-at-home orders had caused some agencies to experience a 70 percent passenger decline. Failure to address the shortfall for both passenger rail and transit only exacerbates ridership declines, as cuts in service mean trip delays and reliability issues become more frequent – it is a downward spiral, unless we make a change and reimagine the future.

Reimagine Infrastructure in the United States: How to Build Better

Over the past decade, China has invested more in infrastructure as a percentage of GDP than any other country, spending 5.6 percent in 2018 versus the United States’ 0.5 percent. Recently though, decision makers at all levels of government have recognized the critical role that America’s infrastructure plays in supporting the quality of life for citizens, and the country’s economy.

Many have championed smart infrastructure policies and investment, and as a founding partner of the Coalition for Smarter Infrastructure Investments (CSII), Bentley is promoting federal policies to modernize America’s aging infrastructure with Congress right now. You can learn how your firm can participate at www.infrastructurecoalition.org but the group’s main message is that by unleashing the promise of proven technologies, infrastructure can be built and maintained in ways that are more timely, equitable, efficient, transparent, and sustainable.

With the World Economic Forum ranking the United States 13th in its annual Global Competitiveness Report, the group states that by grasping the opportunity to replace outdated methods with current technologies by going digital, it can help improve safety, productivity, and delivery times, as well as lower operating and maintenance costs, to level the playing field and ensure America’s infrastructure is competitive on the world stage.

The Future of Infrastructure Here Today

It is not going to be easy, and for sure there will be twists in the road, gaps in the track, and bridges to cross, but I think we’re at a tipping point. Today, there is clear evidence within the projects our users around the world are engaged upon, that going digital, including with the use of digital twins, is already reimagining the future of infrastructure. That Bentley’s most innovative and visionary owners, operators, consultants, contractors, and inspectors are leading the way in terms of delivering different and improved outcomes across the infrastructure asset lifecycle, including:

  • Foth is going digital with Bentley. to improve roadway conditions and traffic flow, as well as providing nonvehicular access, to University Avenue in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Hired to develop a comprehensive transportation plan for the roadway, and faced with technical, engineering, and coordination challenges — compounded by aggressive timelines and intense public involvement, Foth used Bentley’s open applications to coordinate modeling, reduce conflicts, and expedite design by an estimated 50 percent, saving over half a million USD in construction costs. Foth’s digital twin approach optimized data accessibility and increased the efficiency of its interactions with the public and stakeholders, to deliver an innovative, multimodal roadway design that is projected to realize 32 million USD in ROI for the owner over the next 25 years.
  • Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and Collins Engineers. With over 20,000 bridges in the state of Minnesota, it is important to inspect each one regularly so that they can be properly maintained over the course of their life. With the majority of engineers office based, inspectors found it difficult to relay what they were seeing in the field through pictures and reports, so MnDOT and Collins began working with Bentley with the objective of using technology to improve the inspection workflow. Microsoft’s HoloLens2 and Azure Remote Rendering leveraged within Bentley’s AssetWise Inspections, provided a unique way of bringing the bridge into the office. Today, digital twins of the state’s bridges accurately represent the physical asset in the real world, putting increased levels of information at the fingertips of engineers. Harnessing the power of digital twins has transformed the inspection process, making the measurement of cracks and defects possible in the safety and comfort of the office, and saving up to 40 percent in total costs.
  • Highways England (HE), the government-owned company charged with operating, maintaining, and improving England’s motorways and highways, recently announced its Digital, Data and Technology Strategy in support of their wider strategic business plan. In it, HE sets a 4-year approach to how they will achieve their key objectives of providing safer, smoother, and more reliable journeys for their customers. Already using digital twins to improve the design and test the strength of their strategic road network for the benefit of the road users and operators, HE uses maps to navigate its “smart motorway digital twin” to access critical asset management information, enabling better decision-making across the organization.
  • Italferr S.p.A. is going digital with Bentley. On August 14, 2018 in Genoa, Italy a 210-meter section of the 1,182-meter Morandi Bridge over the Polcevera River suddenly collapsed, killing 43 people, destroying buildings below and resulting in multiple casualties. Italferr, the consulting and project company of Italian Railways, established a connected data environment to manage the flow of multidiscipline data and establish clear operating methods, emphasizing collaboration. Defining standards, templates, and basic criteria to create and curate a digital twin, including all the information required to form the basis for design, construction, and operation. The creation of efficient operational methods within a BIM environment enabled Italferr to reduce design costs, accelerate design decisions, increase accuracy, and improve communication among the multidiscipline team. And, on August 3, 2020, some of the pride of the nation returned, with the inauguration of the new Viaduct San Giorgio.
  • Skanska, Costain, STRABAG Joint Venture (SCS JV) is going digital with Bentley. SCS JV were contracted to perform civil works on the first phase of High Speed 2, a new high-speed rail network that will run through London, Manchester, and Leeds, and form the backbone of Britain’s transport network. SCS JV is working in a connected data environment (CDE) with Bentley’s open applications, streamlining workflows allowed the team to shorten design review time by 20 percent, saving an estimated USD 700,000. SCS JV was able to identify potential errors earlier in the process, saving over a million dollars in construction costs. And, by extracting data directly from its digital twin of the project, its 5D+ approach helped increase the accuracy of material quantities, while measuring the cost in CO2 to improve the sustainability of design and construction.

Project of the Future – The Path Ahead

A lot of the topics covered within this opinion piece are encapsulated in the Global Infrastructure Initiatives summary report from its 2021 summit, which shares the voices and perspectives of business leaders from across geographies and sectors.

The Project of the Future highlights how targeted infrastructure investment can drive different and improved outcomes. How climate change and carbon reduction, while a social, economic, and political issue, is an engineering problem to solve, and with the inclusion of decarbonization, sustainable materials and methods, we can define new criteria for project success.

It looks at how organizations need to adopt a more collaborative approach, including moving from experience-based to data-driven decision-making. And, at Bentley we believe that digital twins, which provide timely access to data infrastructure professionals can trust, deliver new levels of insight to the challenges they face, and in turn improves decisions throughout the lifecycle of infrastructure assets that support every aspect of our lives.

Today, Bentley users are advancing infrastructure, driving the industry’s evolution from its origins of 2D drawings and reports, through 3D models, visualization, BIM processes and standards, to the point where digital twins, driven by data that improves business outcomes, will fast become common place.

At Bentley we believe that digital twins are the next big digital disruption in our industry, and through the examples shared, I hope you see that they aren’t the stuff of science fiction. Digital twins really do exist, and are already helping to save Bentley users time, money, and effort. Helping to reduce risk, increase productivity, and improve the quality, resilience, and sustainability of the assets being designed, built, operated, and maintained.

Through infrastructure digital twins, the future of transportation is being reimagined by our users today, to deliver a better tomorrow for everyone.

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