As global leaders look for ways to stimulate the economy, infrastructure investment has been hailed as both a short-term and long-term solution for recovery. However, there is one upcoming challenge. Over the next 20 years, global infrastructure investment is expected to fall short of demand by nearly $20 trillion. This is factoring for the projected global population growth of two billion people.
Still, investment alone may not be enough. According to a recent World Economic Forum article, “The main problem is that infrastructure is “resource inefficient”… Projects are poorly managed with no centralized authority, which causes costs to increase.”
Innovators in this sector see this not as a challenge but as an opportunity. They’re ready to rise to the occasion and find new ways to accomplish more on tighter budgets. In a recent webinar, leaders from Autodesk discussed how infrastructure construction is a rapidly evolving sector. Speakers included Theo Agelopoulos, Senior Director, Business Strategy & Marketing, Dustin DeVan, Vice President of Industry Strategy, Construction, and Kevin Halter, Director, West Area Construction Sales, each of them contributing their unique perspective to the topic. If you’re wondering what to expect from the future of infrastructure construction, watch the webinar and read the highlights below.
Opportunities Abound for Innovators in Infrastructure
Population growth will be the major factor behind infrastructure in the future. “What’s driving a lot of demand in construction and infrastructure is that the population growth expected over the next 20 years is going to go from roughly six, seven billion to close to 10 billion,” Theo said.
This means the need for infrastructure will grow, too. Forecasts estimate that the worldwide investment need will be $97 trillion by 2040—but the actual investment will only be $79 trillion.
What’s more, a population shift is expected in the coming years. Massive urbanization is predicted, with people moving to cities primarily because that’s where many will find employment. By 2050, up to 68% of the global population could be living in urban areas.
So that’s the challenge—and the opportunity—for innovators. To find ways of developing the infrastructure that a highly urbanized world will need and doing so on a budget that falls somewhat short of demand.
Impact of COVID-19 on Infrastructure Construction
Amid the global economic crisis caused by COVID-19, the infrastructure industry as a whole has proved surprisingly resilient. Post COVID-19, the U.S. infrastructure output growth rate for the next four years has been adjusted to 2%, a small downturn. As of now, many infrastructure projects are actually accelerating. On the jobsite, workers are extending hours and closing down larger sections of incomplete highways because reduced traffic allows them to get the job done more quickly and with increased safety.
“There is some concern about infrastructure projects for industry verticals that have been greatly impacted by COVID-19, such as airport infrastructure and public transportation,” Kevin noted.
“In my personal opinion, now’s a great time to invest in infrastructure across the board – road, highway, public transportation, and airport infrastructure. It’s hard to build infrastructure when everything’s slammed with tons of people and traffic. It’s much easier when things are quieter.”
Opportunities for Infrastructure Construction During an Economic Downturn
Now is the time to act for construction firms specializing in infrastructure. Currently, many municipalities are using lulls in traffic to roll out new projects. It’s work that has been classified as essential, and now, workers are able to do the work more quickly, and safety has improved in some respects. “Cities, counties, and states, do not want these construction projects to stop,” Kevin added. “They want them to continue because there are fewer people on the roads right now. You remove that safety hazard of someone driving by a jobsite and getting into an accident.”
Despite an economic downturn, in the future, it’s likely that the industry will see a short-term uptick in infrastructure projects as governments seek to combat the economic crisis. “I think all you’ve got to do is go back and look at past recessive economies, and generally those stimulus bills are put in place because it drives immediate job growth,” Theo said.
“So it’s an exciting time for all of us in the infrastructure construction business. Most of those projects are generally what we refer to as ‘shovel-ready projects’ because they can execute immediately.”
Safety in the Age of COVID-19
Though traffic declines have improved safety to an extent, COVID-19 has brought about another wave of safety concerns with social distance guidelines in place. So what kinds of safety improvements is the construction industry seeing on account of the pandemic? In addition to jobsite protection for workers, digitization is among the biggest changes. Paper forms, field reports, and other materials are moving to connected, cloud-based software. This way, construction firms can minimize the number of people on site, and they’re also able to avoid group meetings, which helps to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We’re seeing new best practices emerge, new digitization of this industry,” Kevin said. “It’s accelerating things and placing heightened importance on employee safety and well-being.”
Connecting Design to Construction Phases
In many ways, social distancing truly has proved a key driver behind the improvement of construction practices. It has forced the adoption of widespread digitization, which streamlines the entire process from design phases to building and beyond. “If the project is all digital in the beginning—in design—and then it moves to all paper during construction, you’re going to lose that data,” Kevin stressed. “It’s never going to get to the facilities and maintenance teams. So you’ve got to have that transfer of data from one phase of the construction process digitized, in the cloud, and accessible for mobile devices.”
Digital engineering produces a vast amount of information, which means that when transferring this information from digital to physical mediums, there is a lot of room for inefficiencies to crop up. This new wave of cloud-based information transference between engineering and the jobsite means that the process is becoming much more organized than ever before.
The shift to digital is an ever-changing process, but the future of infrastructure calls for fully cloud-based data management. How will this digital transformation take shape? “It really starts with providing a file storage system that is connected with your workflows,” Dustin noted. “So anyone who’s looking to digitalize their company so that they can have access to every piece of data that their company is creating, and that is created through their applications—you can do that with Autodesk’s portfolio of products.”
Right now, this is a major effort in the entire construction sector, with more design and building firms moving their data to the cloud. For instance, Departments of Transportation in states across the U.S. are demanding this sort of data accessibility because city and county inspectors need easy access to the latest sets of designs and the latest data. By moving everything to the cloud, they can designs, documentation, photos, and even drone footage of the project in progress. The move to digital streamlines the process in a variety of ways—such as giving workers on the jobsite mobile access to the information they need. It also revolutionizes the way administrative and office tasks are handled.
“These processes are going to be changing and evolving, and technology’s going to help you manage your business without having to hit print or come to the office,” Dustin said. “It’s not going to be a field transition. There are technologies that are going to allow you to have a remote office workforce.”
Long-Term Benefits of Going Digital
Some of the short-term benefits of going digital have already been outlined—reduced risk of COVID-19 transmission, for example, and an overall more streamlined information handling system. But there are other long-term benefits that will arise from this transformation.
One way that digitization will help is that early adopters of this technology are likely to see their profits go up. This is because digitization provides a much better client experience—which makes it a great selling point likely to win firms more work.
Another benefit? Employee satisfaction. “It’s more fun,” Kevin said. “It is more enjoyable to be partnered on a jobsite and accomplishing these tasks and problems that arise when you act as one team. You’re in it together. Projects are more profitable, they’re done faster, they’re done to schedule, and people are working together and growing in the same direction.”
Happy employees are more productive employees—and cloud-based construction technology not only helps teams coordinate better, but also helps to improve workers’ lives. The ability to complete tasks remotely in an efficient way offers workers a safer environment and reduced work hours, which allows them to spend more time at home with their families or doing whatever else it is that they enjoy when they’re not at work.
Beyond happier employees, technology is a way to retain top talent. The future of infrastructure relies on young people. They are the up-and-comers who have been joining the workforce—and they’ve grown up in a highly technological world, which means they’re not only tech-savvy, but they expect their workplaces to employ similar types of technology. Workplaces who use technology to improve workflows and productivity are overall much more attractive to job seekers.
“If you want your company to be around in 10 or 15 years, you’re going to have to attract talent,” Dustin said. “And the workforce that is coming to the market, there is an expectation that they’re not printing out work. A lot of this generation, they don’t print out anything. They take notes on their iPhone, and they want to store it on the cloud. If you’re going to be able to recruit and replace any part of your retiring workforce, you have to make these changes.”
How Firms Can Adopt New Technology
Shifts in the way a business works are never easy—but upgrading technology is a worthwhile venture. Still, for many, it can seem like an overwhelming task. The experts at Autodesk recommend a gradual rollout.
“It’s about starting small and scaling fast,” Theo said. “So that would be my primary advice, pick and be very prescriptive about the problem you’re trying to solve and do it really well.”
One of the best ways to get started when adopting new technology is to map out the things that your current technology is capable of accomplishing. With this information, it’s possible to spot the gaps and shortfalls within the current system, and thus, you’ll be able to develop a roadmap for improvement.
From there, the best course is to make upgrades one step at a time. Designate someone within your organization to spearhead the project—and be mindful of everyone within the organization who will be using the new technology. Allow workers to have input as new features are developed and rolled out—and explain the reasoning behind the transition, which is the long-term viability of the firm, and the organization’s ability to operate remotely at scale. This not only helps workers understand how the new technology works, but it also gets them engaged in the upgrade process, which smooths the transition for everyone involved.
How Autodesk Is Investing in Infrastructure
Autodesk has made vast investments in the future of infrastructure. For proof of that, look no further than the numbers. Right now, there are 1.5 billion drawings hosted on the Autodesk Construction Cloud™, and there are more than $56 billion in projects on the BuildingConnected preconstruction platform.
“As part of our construction strategy, we are looking at each segment of the industry and figuring out how to tailor our tools and offerings so they work for our customers and produce positive outcomes,” Dustin said.
Autodesk’s connected construction technology includes productivity tools like PlanGrid, which means that all construction data, checklists, and design changes are automatically synced for the entire team to access. To learn more about how Autodesk Construction Cloud can meet your current and future infrastructure construction needs, schedule a demo.
The future of infrastructure has big things in store. Despite an economic downturn, construction is still going strong, with more opportunities for innovative and adaptable businesses than ever before. All of that is combined with a new wave of technology certain to streamline the process from the earliest proposal and design stages all the way to project completion.