Rebuilding public infrastructure with digital capabilities post-COVID

Ryan Oakes, Accenture Public Service global managing director, and Mark Lyons, managing director for Accenture Public Service in Europe, discuss the need to rebuild public infrastructure with digital capabilities

In many countries around the world, one doesn’t have to go far to find creaking bridges, crumbling roads, and jammed rail networks. It’s an unmistakable fact that much public infrastructure is simply worn out and in urgent need of a refresh.

Thankfully, these needs are drawing considerable attention from government leaders. Accenture recently polled public infrastructure leaders in the Americas, Europe and Asia, and found 80% were expecting spending increases to address this specific issue. Big funding initiatives, such as the landmark $1 trillion infrastructure bill in the US, the UK’s £22 billion infrastructure bank and Australia’s $110 billion infrastructure pipeline fund suggest that their expectations are warranted.

The COVID-19 pandemic has catalysed much of this focus on infrastructure. In the wake of the crisis, many national economic initiatives are focused on recovery and infrastructure builds are seen as an important part of delivering growth and new prosperity. Government leaders are facing a rare opportunity to reimagine infrastructure projects so that they are more attuned to community and economic needs and opportunities, citizen-friendly and sustainable in the long term.

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The role of digital transformation

The increased use of technology and data are key to infrastructure plans. “Building back better” will involve digital capabilities to help drive better services and new efficiencies. Yet, 67% of the infrastructure leaders we polled admitted they haven’t deployed any new technologies over the past three years. To put it bluntly, you cannot build smart future-proof infrastructure using outdated tools.

A platform approach

Along with infrastructure needs, new opportunities presented by digital capabilities can elevate project support and processes and bolster efficiency and accountability. Agencies often have numerous projects underway at any given time and should be looking to track and manage aspects such as timelines and costs from a single platform.

From a compliance perspective, the platform approach also makes sense. With a one-stop-shop for project data, project assessment and reporting can become both more transparent and more accurate. What’s more, real-time data could be used to identify and predict maintenance needs, resulting in more efficient, faster and successful projects.

Unfortunately, research suggests most infrastructure agencies are not far along in rethinking the role of data and digital tools. For instance, 30% of the public infrastructure leaders we spoke to say they have deployed machine learning for project prioritisation, selection, and planning. Just 19%, meanwhile, are using it for cyber security, particularly worrisome given growing transnational abilities to attack infrastructure systems.

Agencies should be starting to reimagine infrastructure by considering the number of ways data can improve projects. For instance, road investments can factor in how vehicles will respond, incoming traffic data scenarios, predictions of human behaviour in public transportation, and optimising CCTV camera locations to reduce traffic accidents and improve road safety.

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Laying a data foundation

Agencies should also be considering data flows, including the availability and quality of data in the context of their longer-term objectives and vision. Data will increasingly be at the core of future-proof resilient infrastructure, so this assessment stage is fundamentally important to long-term success. After all, data insights are only as good as the data that informs them.

The research found close to a quarter of respondents saw poor data quality around operational insights as a primary challenge during recent projects. Agencies particularly struggled to capture high-quality data on contractor performance and contract compliance, as they work through regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and other strictures specific to industry verticals or government functions. However, where agencies can enhance and expand their data capabilities, it is often to serve multiple areas of value, such as project oversight, contract management, citizen and customer experience, safety, schedule optimisation and tracking of sustainability metrics.

Partnering for success

Once data use cases and critically important datasets have been identified, agencies must determine what organisations to partner with. Breaking down silos and working with ecosystem partners reduces risk, as agencies can learn much from other entities that have implemented similar projects in the past. Moreover, ecosystems that are supported by mutually beneficial data platforms and agreements can facilitate faster development of solutions, while making it easier to put citizen needs and sustainability at the heart of all decisions.

Great waves of infrastructure spending as currently foreseen in many nations happen very rarely. Agencies should be seizing the opportunity to reimagine and expand possibilities, underpinned by sound data strategy, good digital tools, and the right ecosystem partnerships. The emerging wave of smart infrastructure should be highly resilient and aligned with sustainability and economic growth priorities. Digital and data capabilities need to expand rapidly to support infrastructure initiatives and are not likely yet receiving the attention deserved by this period of rare opportunity.

Written by Ryan Oakes, Accenture Public Service global managing director, and Mark Lyons, managing director for Accenture Public Service in Europe

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