Long-Term Infra Strategy

The 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan lays special emphasis on harnessing transformative technologies and digitalization to build infrastructure for tomorrow.

By Avneep Dhingra

The true test of a nation’s infrastructure takes place in times of crisis. This holds particularly true in the case of Australia, which has been facing multiple crises in the form of bushfires, drought, floods, cyberattacks, and of course, the Covid pandemic, over the past couple of years. These events have tested Australians’ individual and collective resilience, pushing the decision-makers to think outside the box, and leading to the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan.

Setting a vision for 2036, the plan is a practical and actionable roadmap for infrastructure reform in the country. “Rather than simply projecting forward the status quo, infrastructure planning must set an ambitious vision for the country. It should anticipate and adapt to change, manage risk and deliver infrastructure that works towards — rather than against — the current and future needs of the community,” writes Julieanne Alroe, Chair of Infrastructure Australia, in her foreword. Infrastructure Australia is an independent statutory body that is the leading source of research and advice for governments, industry, and the community on nationally significant infrastructure needs. The 2021 plan has been jointly prepared by Infrastructure Australia and the Australian government.

Challenges and focus

Drawing a long-term infrastructure strategy can be tricky. Factors, such as the pace of technological change, shifting geopolitical relationships, new consumer expectations, a trend towards localization, and climate change can render the strategy ineffective in a few years. Perhaps that is why the plan clearly lays out its focus areas which include population growth, adaptation to climate risk, building resilience, stimulating employment, driving economic productivity, embracing a diversity of places, and social equity. Further, it identifies Infrastructure Australia, governments, industry, individuals and the communities as the four key stakeholders.

Digital as default

Among other things, the 2021 plan stresses on harnessing transformative technologies and digitalization to build infrastructure for tomorrow. Digital and data tools and practices are key to unlocking substantial productivity gains and efficiencies across infrastructure planning, delivery, and operations. However, like in many other countries, the infrastructure and construction sector has one of the slowest adoption rates of technology, innovation and digitally supported ways of working in Australia. Perhaps that’s why, over the past 30 years, the sector has become 25% less productive compared to industries like mining, manufacturing, retail, and transport (2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan).

The plan recommends federating data from public and private works, creating and maintaining relevant standards, incorporating open data collection and provision as a standard requirement in tenders, establishing more seamless cross-stakeholder data sharing, storage and access arrangements, and maintaining accurate and valuable spatial information. It also recommends kick-starting “digital by default” in infrastructure by ensuring that all federally-funded projects adopt innovative approaches across their lifecycle, including Building Information Modeling (BIM), digital engineering, embedded sensors and digital asset management.

“Australia’s technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, with innovation occurring in many areas like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), robotics and autonomous vehicles. Innovative technologies are transforming everything from traffic management, environmental monitoring, waste collection and resource recovery to how we build, monitor and interact with infrastructure. Data and digitalization are particularly significant in areas like transport, where it is now common to use apps to provide real-time data on when the next train or bus is arriving,” says Cristina Savian, Founder, BE-WISE Australia. Savian mentions the example of an ABAB Asset Management Technical Working Group project called “Digital Road Map Generator”, under which new ways are being explored to enable digital data-driven methodologies to shift to digital asset management practices for all built assets.

2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan

The infrastructure plan suggests developing and implementing productivity roadmaps supported by modern methods of construction, including design reuse, standardized design elements, digitalization, modularization, prefabrication, offsite construction, frame agreements and bulk procurement.

Models for development

The 2021 infrastructure plan also calls for developing jurisdiction- wide digital twins of the built environment by creating or strengthening related capabilities and cross-departmental functions. It suggests that the owners of state and territory digital twins should be tasked with identifying, collecting, collating, or providing data from the infrastructure sector for third-party use, which can help in areas like e-planning and modernizing cadastral systems. It’s noteworthy that governments in Australia are now beginning to recognize the power of these digital replicas. Some of the prominent projects include New South Wales’ Spatial Digital Twin, Queensland’s SEQ Digital Twin and Victoria with its Fishermans Bend Digital Twin pilot and the Digital Twin Victoria.

“Every single country that I have been to wants digital twins. They are all investing in digital technologies at different levels. Some countries provide grants for the implementation of new technologies, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, where costs can be offset for using and buying new technologies. In other countries, they might not offer such grants, but they do issue country-level standards that help to implement new technologies,” says Igor Starkov, Co-founder and CEO, EcoDomus.

2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan

Savian informs that the government in the state of Victoria will be investing $30 million in digital twins. “This is the century of digital technologies, so everybody is trying to invest in them while supporting local companies as opposed to overseas companies,” explains Starkov.

Spatial acknowledgment

The ambitious infrastructure plan acknowledges that in a complex and interconnected environment, spatially constraining analysis to a defined place can support effective decision- making and allow a systemic consideration of risk. Placebased planning is cross-sectoral and involves community collaboration. Hence, it can consider the way society, the economy and environment come together to shape a distinct physical location. Focusing on the interconnections between infrastructure assets and networks in a specific place and analyzing the associated risks can support more effective decision-making and allow these risks to be systemically considered.

The infrastructure plan suggests developing productivity roadmaps supported by modern methods of construction, including design reuse, modularization, prefabrication, offsite construction, and bulk procurement

Australia has a long history and world-leading approach to geospatial capabilities — positioning, Earth Observation, infrastructure, and analytics.

Geospatial data and technologies merge natural and built environments and uniquely and seamlessly integrate many digital models. From digital twins, apps providing real-time data about various transport modes to advanced IoT devices used on construction sites, geospatial data play a crucial role in ensuring Australia’s sustainable and prosperous future,” says Savian.

Setting a vision for 2036, the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan is a practical and actionable roadmap for infrastructure reform in the country

Future oriented

The 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan provides not only a massive opportunity for growth but also sets a 15-year roadmap for infrastructure reform, prioritizing more collaborative models of delivery to support productivity and innovation, harnessing transformative technologies and digitization, delivering public value, embracing diverse geography, empowering customers, and leveraging data. “With this manifesto, I can confidently say that the future for Australia looks bright over the next decade, especially for all of us, driving the adoption of technology across the most important industry of our society, our built environment,” concludes Savian.