The future of engineering is enormously different from the industry’s past, according to the recently released Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019.
The state of play for engineers in Australia is rapidly changing, said Infrastructure Australia’s Executive Director of Policy and Research Peter Colacino. The “new normal” is an environment of elevated activity, as well as ever-increasing pressure on the engineering profession to provide high-performing talent.
“For engineers, it is absolutely not business as usual,” said Colacino, one of the authors behind the recently released Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019.
“Some people have been describing an ‘infrastructure boom’ underway. This is not the case. It’s not a boom – it’s a new normal of elevated activity. And if you’re an engineer, that means there’s more work than ever before and obviously, as a result, pressures on the profession. Right now, there are not enough engineers to deliver the work that we need to have done.”
Sybilla Grady, Policy Advisor at Engineers Australia, agreed with this analysis.
“The audit recognises that rapid technological change, economic productivity and population growth demands accessible, quality, affordable infrastructure and that this demand is set to continue,” she told create.
“[Infrastructure Australia] have called the growing dependence on quality infrastructure the ‘new normal’. This means that a strong pipeline of engineers to engage at all stages of infrastructure project lifecycles will be critical in mitigating cost blow outs, and ensuring reliable, economical and accessible infrastructure now and into the foreseeable future.
“Engineers Australia wholly supports the key messages, challenges and opportunities described in the report.”
Layers of change
So what has changed since the last report in 2015? How can the demands on infrastructure – by its very nature built for decades of performance – have shifted so dramatically in the five short years of the audit cycle?
The observation from Infrastructure Australia, Colacino said, is that the pace of change is greater than ever. Then there’s the fact that the level of interconnectedness between changes is rising as well.
In order to illustrate this point, Colacino gave the example of electric vehicles and their effects on the infrastructure around them.
“Electric vehicles are not just a change for the actual driving experience,” he told create.
“They also represent enormous change in terms of noise. They have implications for roads in terms of wear and tear, because of the vehicle mass. They have new charging infrastructure requirements, with implications that flow into the energy sector. The energy sector then needs to work more closely with the telecommunications sector to manage demand dynamically. So while the pace of change is increasing, the complexity and interconnectedness of that change is also increasing.”
Hence the wide-ranging observations and recommendations within the audit, which include the fact that there is a lack of user-based information around infrastructure across the country, making it difficult to measure user-focused outcomes.
This is despite $39 billion being spent on infrastructure in the 12 months to December 2018, and $100.9 billion on transport infrastructure alone in the few years since the last audit.
“Not building a monument”
The Infrastructure Audit found there are a number of areas where the country can improve. Population growth is driving infrastructure discussions around roads, public transport, health, education and green space, particularly in major cities. The energy affordability crisis is shining a light on the energy sector, and the lack of satisfaction around NBN performance is raising questions around our telecommunications capabilities. Sustainability, security and quality of water supply is still an issue, despite decades of drought experience.
There is a general finding that all infrastructure must be better maintained, updated and developed to ensure a more user-centric performance model, and this can be accomplished through the use of technology and data.
“The 2019 audit has a more user-centric focus and recognises that growing economic, social and environmental interdependencies will require early, ongoing and multidisciplinary engineering expertise in infrastructure planning and delivery to ensure innovative and resilient infrastructure,” Grady said.
“As the audit has recognised, there has been considerable progress made by government since the last audit. However, some long-term issues remain, such as a growing maintenance backlog, a need to consider diversification of funding models and greater transparency in infrastructure planning.
“However, as our relationship with technology and the environment changes with population growth, economic expansion and more frequent and extreme weather events, the way we live, work and travel must be underpinned by innovative and well-designed infrastructure, which, of course, is dependent upon engineers.”
Grady said it’s good to see that Infrastructure Australia called out the need to embrace new data technology. As we move towards a more connected, electric and automated future, a real-time analysis of our infrastructure assets will create far greater efficiencies. That’s not just for the managers of the infrastructure but also – and more importantly – for its users.
“There is greater need for secure data sharing,” Grady said.
“Engineers are trained in risk management and cost benefit analysis, and they are critical to sound infrastructure planning. Our population is expected to reach 31.4 million by 2034, and with most people opting to live in our major cities, it will be these cities that experience the greatest opportunities. However, technology will increase safety and promote greater connectivity for regional Australia as well.”
Colacino said the report flags the fact that engineering is facing an exciting period of change and opportunity. A train station built 40 years ago, he explained, didn’t consider Uber. And it certainly didn’t consider the potential for autonomous vehicles … or the needs of electric vehicles that commuters have parked in the car parks, or the expectation of those commuters to have real-time transport updates on their smartphones.
“Focussing on users means it’s important for engineers to realise that they’re not building a monument,” he said.
“Whether they’re on a concrete pour or whether they’re in a control centre building a railway, they should be focused on the fact that it will be used by people. Whatever the engineer is building should be integral to the life of its users and should add to their life, rather than create new barriers.”