By Frank Zeichner, CEO IoT Alliance Australia
The transformative power of digital technologies discussion is happening in every boardroom and on every construction site in Australia.
Yet despite well-established business cases, we’re lagging and slow in our uptake and use of the smart data that is essential for Australia’s future prosperity. At stake is our economic productivity and net zero emissions targets, our talent pipeline and our international competitiveness. What’s up for grabs is greater productivity and better value for money, more sustainable and resilient infrastructure and better outcomes for people and communities.
Historically, the adoption of digital technology tools has been slow. This slow growth has been highlighted by several landmark studies over many years, most recently by Infrastructure Australia in its 2022 Infrastructure Market Capacity report, which notes that construction sector multifactor productivity has been stagnant for 30 years.
Collaborative leadership between government and industry is critical. Governments, as regulators, owners, funders and beneficiaries of public infrastructure, have a crucial role to play in driving the transition towards a ‘digital by default’ approach. This means moving away from the current ‘digital by exception’ mindset and embracing new technologies and digital practices from design through to procurement, construction, handover and maintenance to improve outcomes and boost productivity.
Australia has the potential to be a world leader in digital technologies and data tools in infrastructure and construction, but without holistic planning and implementation of cuttingedge technology, our efforts will continue to be disjointed. The challenges of a joined-up approach while considerable are not insurmountable.
In the 2019 financial year alone, the opportunity cost (i.e., the potential foregone construction output from a 30-year period of relatively weak productivity performance) was roughly $35 billion. Two years later, the opportunity cost had blown out to $47 billion. To put the size of this loss into context, the $47 billion figure for FY2021 alone dwarfs the cost of some of Australia’s largest current infrastructure projects (Australian Constructors Association, Disrupt or Die: Transforming Australia’s construction industry 2022).
A digital by default approach across infrastructure and construction will act as an enabler for policy priorities across government and deliver better value for money outcomes, supporting pathways to net zero, leverage infrastructure as a productivity lever, support better social outcomes and prepare for the future of work – and a future that’s made in Australia.
A net zero future
The application of digitalisation throughout the project lifecycle – from design through to construction, handover and maintenance is critical to reduce whole-of-life operations and measure, report and manage carbon emissions. Climateworks Centre estimates that the construction and operation of physical infrastructure assets for transport, energy, water, waste and communications directly contributes to 15 per cent of Australia’s annual emissions.
These assets also influence an additional 55 per cent of annual emissions through the activities they enable (Infrastructure Sustainability Council, Climateworks and Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, Reshaping Infrastructure for a Net Zero Future 2020).
Are we ready yet?
National coordination is vital to accelerate social and economic progress, deliver transport and communication connectivity, support strategic regional development, enhance creativity and culture, and realise a competitive position alongside our global counterparts.
To support the transition to digital by default, Consult Australia backs the calls by other bodies, including IoT Alliance Australia and Infrastructure Australia, for the Australian government to play a leading role in being a catalyst for infrastructure’s digital transition. Guided by the essentials below, the first step is to scale-up best practice and coordinate existing leadership. The Government can (and
should) drive policy to build capability and procurement that supports innovation.
• A national approach to information frameworks and requirements applied across infrastructure assets
• Projects and programs recognising information as an asset that informs effective insights-driven action and investment throughout the project lifecycle
• All major contributors to infrastructure delivery have clear digital transformation strategies
• All infrastructure projects and programs to identify minimum critical data sets for design, construct and operate phases (and for carbon emissions tracking of infrastructure projects and adopt digital twins)
• Programs adopting development and procurement approaches that enable innovative infrastructure solutions and collaborative delivery models.
To kick this off, Consult Australia released the Digital by Default green paper as a trigger for nationwide collaboration. I encourage all stakeholders to join us as we take the lead in making Australia ready (and able).
This article is based on the ‘Digital by Default’ green paper produced by Consult Australia and supported by IoTAA.