Build Back Smarter

By Terry Bills, Global Transportation Industry Manager, ESRI

Infrastructure investment is likely to receive new attention as a means of recovering from the COVID related economic recession and a way of stimulating a jobs recovery. Economic activity during this pandemic has fallen even more precipitously than it did in the crash of 1929. So there will be a strong need to recover lost jobs and rebuild the workforce, which has never fully recovered from the great recession of 2008. With interest rates at all-time lows, we should use the opportunity to rebuild our basic transportation infrastructure—roads, bridges, ports, airports, and rail systems—to provide the multimodal networks to support the supply chains of the future.

But before we craft large scale infrastructure investment programs, we should understand how we can be more effective in the planning, design and construction of our basic infrastructure. For currently, US infrastructure is the most expensive to construct anywhere in the world. Any number of studies have documented the high costs and large inefficiencies of US Infrastructure compared to Europe or Asia.
Perhaps one of the most damning findings was from a paper presented at a Brookings Institution Conference, which found that between 1960 and 1980, the cost to build one mile of highway tripled (https://brook.gs/3j0HSTs). And similarly the Bureau of Labor Statistics has documented further declines in US infrastructure labor productivity over the last twenty years. While there are many reasons often cited for the high costs of US infrastructure, let me suggest one reason that does not receive as much attention – our inability to leverage information and technology through the infrastructure lifecycle. And it is precisely this area where our European and Asian colleagues have focused their attention with considerable results.

Roughly fifteen years ago the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) interviewed a large number of US based architecture and engineering firms to understand their use of technology, and software platforms for designing and constructing infrastructure. The focus of the publication was on the lack of interoperability between software platforms used in the planning, delivery and management of infrastructure projects (https://bit.ly/31gKB5g). Several of the key findings are worth repeating here:

• Effective data and information communication can reduce project delivery time by 20% to 50%
• Poor communication between systems wastes up to 30% of project costs
• Effective data management from the early project stages could save up to 14% of O&M costs

The key takeaway was the inherent inefficiency in the US infrastructure industry, largely driven by the lack of interoperability of platforms and systems used in infrastructure. Another way to put that is that we are not very effective at practicing what the Europeans refer to as whole lifecycle information management.

The goal of whole lifecycle information management is to capture the typical inefficiencies and information loses as we move between the various stages of a project. Often, we utilize different software platforms, and we often start over with having to recreate data for use in these different platforms. It is the area under the curve in the illustration above that represents the potential efficiency gains if we take our information systems more seriously from the early stages of a project.

This has been the focus in Europe under the banner of BIM, and the growing requirements that all large government funded projects follow BIM standards and procedures. The UK government has mandated BIM Level 2 Compliance on government projects, as have a large number of other European governments. The European Commission has established task forces to move the procedures forward for EU wide adoption, recognizing the productivity gains to be achieved. In the case of the UK, they were estimating a 20 percent project savings associated with implementing BIM procedures, and while not every project has hit this mark to date, the results have been impressive, nevertheless.

At heart, the European approach to BIM has recognized the importance of information and information management to achieve better infrastructure results. BIM standards outline the need to create what is called a common data environment to manage the disparate data, and the use of interoperability tools to ensure that data can be shared between different software platforms, as well as move through each of the lifecycle stages. In addition to more seamlessly moving data and information through the lifecycle, another key advantage is that the same data can be shared among organizations, contractors and others, to ensure greater collaboration, and ultimately timely access to the data by whoever needs it.

While the core of BIM procedures involves the integration of information from geographic information systems (GIS) typically used in the planning process, together with the design files from both 2D and 3D design tools, the real value of the approach comes when this data is further integrated with other business systems. Scheduling and project management systems together with financial systems are important during construction, while asset management and financial systems play a larger role after commissioning. It is this approach to effectively leveraging information and technology that can deliver the greatest results in the delivery of our infrastructure.

In terms of adoption, we are significantly behind our European colleagues, and in part, this helps account for our greater costs of infrastructure compared to other parts of the world. It is long overdue for US infrastructure to learn from these examples, and to understand the importance of information through all stages of the infrastructure lifecycle. From better use of data and information in the initial decisions of what infrastructure to build and where, to more efficient delivery of our infrastructure projects, to the preservation of those assets over time, the role of information is paramount. It is time to start treating that information as the most valuable asset we have to more effectively deliver our infrastructure for the next century.

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