Reimagining digital transformation in place and infrastructure projects

Written by Kate Taylor, Senior Partner - Place, Infrastructure and Housing, TPXimpact

The term ‘digital’ can be polarising, especially when it comes to our built environment, housing and infrastructure. Once-hyped ideas such as smart cities, seen as a potential game-changer in making our buildings more liveable, transport smoother, and parks more data-driven, have fallen by the wayside.

Despite the potential of tools such as data lakes, sensors, and monitoring systems for our built environment and housing stock, both public and private organisations tasked with shaping our physical landscape have been resistant to change. Whether it’s the ballooning budgets of projects like HS2 or the staggering expenses tied to planning documents for the Lower Thames Crossing, it’s evident that the current approach to place and infrastructure isn’t delivering results.

The heart of the problem is how the industry perceives digital transformation as a second thought. This is especially evident when considering technologies like sensors, decision-making dashboards and AI analysis, which enter the picture after policies are set, ground is broken, homes are built or funding is finalised. When these digital initiatives fail to address problems as promised, they’re swiftly abandoned and people fall back to the safety of familiar, traditional ways of working.

But the real power of technology doesn’t reside solely in the data, tech, gadgets and platforms but in purposefully designing and crafting policies, projects, and programs with the digital world in mind from the outset. Only by reconceiving our strategies for designing and executing place, housing and infrastructure projects can we genuinely boost productivity, promote housing growth and cultivate the societal progress we desperately need.


Embracing innovation

Place, housing and infrastructure projects are pivotal to ensuring our society can function. But remain trapped in traditional delivery models f dominated by fields like engineering, surveying, planning, and architecture. Sectors such as banking and healthcare have embraced digital transformation, but when it comes to those working on our built environment, the industry has fallen behind. Without substantial changes, we risk our economic prosperity, continuing our housing crisis, and the well-being of future generations.

To overcome these blockers to innovation, a shift in mindsets is desperately needed. Conventional approaches, marked by inflexible systems and siloed expertise, have resulted in costly setbacks and inefficiencies. We need to embrace agile methodologies that nurture innovation and foster collaboration from the outset. By bringing together design, data, and technology experts into both policymaking and project delivery, we can inject fresh perspectives and create meaningful transformation.


Rethinking policies

One of the fundamental issues with current ways of working is how reactive policy formulation and funding distribution are. Decisions are too often made without considering the real needs and challenges faced by those delivering on the ground or the communities living there. Funds allocated for place and infrastructure projects frequently go unused or fail to achieve their goals due to poorly guided assumptions and a lack of recognition that projects, forecasts and outputs inevitably change. 

To fix this, we need to adopt an end-to-end approach to policy, taking into account implementation challenges right from the start. Collaborative efforts across governmental bodies and greater financial decentralisation are crucial for empowering local stakeholders and optimising the impact of investments.

Data must also play a central role in guiding these decisions. By harnessing standardised digital frameworks and embracing data-driven decision-making processes, we can ensure that resources are directed where they’re most needed and that outcomes are accurately evaluated. To do this, we must provide local authorities and other stakeholders with the necessary tools and skills to collect and analyse data on delivery, policy outcomes and impact throughout the project lifecycle, enabling them to make continuous enhancements and adaptations.


Accepting complexity and uncertainty

In a landscape defined by challenges, complexity and dependencies, outdated approaches founded on false assurances are no longer tenable. Rather than depending on inflexible methodologies, we must embrace a mindset of humility and exploration. Agile principles provide a roadmap for navigating through uncertainty, enabling us to evolve and adapt as we go.  We also need greater transparency and accountability in technological utilisation, including a commitment to investing in ethical AI models that prioritise openness and public confidence.


Working with people

Finally, genuine interaction with the public needs to be at the heart of successful placemaking and housing infrastructure initiatives. Citizen involvement is too often superficial or steered to fit predetermined objectives. To create greater trust and credibility, we must overhaul the structure and methodology of public engagement and focus on democratic principles and subsidiarity. This means offering opportunities for people to give authentic input at regular stages of the policy and project lifecycle. It also means instituting feedback channels to guarantee that decisions are shaped by the community’s needs and preferences.

The obstacles confronting the built environment and infrastructure sectors may seem daunting. However, they certainly aren’t insurmountable. Through design thinking, the adoption of agile methodologies, and citizen engagement, we possess the capacity to construct communities that are not only more efficient and resilient but also more equitable. This transformation hinges on shifting our mindset from regarding digital as a mere assortment of tools to recognising its role as a powerful agent for transformation and change. Only through this shift will we unlock the potential of our place and infrastructure projects and build the future we need today. 

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