PART 2. A pivotal moment for infrastructure


2 minute read

Eight in 10 of the industry professionals consulted by AECOM agree that this is a pivotal time for civil infrastructure.

The industry needs to play a vital economic and societal role in supporting technological progress and shaping the communities of tomorrow. Our respondents share a willingness to embrace challenges and develop fresh approaches to longstanding problems.

There is a clear desire for collaboration and knowledge sharing. This includes a desire to work with other stakeholders, to learn from the industry’s successes and failures, and to take inspiration from elsewhere. But this must be done sooner rather than later.

Breaking point

Rapid urbanization and population growth are already putting increasing strain on the infrastructure of major cities — and beyond — and that strain is set to increase. In 1990, less than 15 percent of the global population lived in cities with populations of more than a million. According to forecasts by The Economist, that number is projected to rise to more than 27 percent by 2030. By then, nearly nine percent of the population will live in mega cities of 10 million or more.1 

The European Environment Agency (EEA) expects Europe’s urban population to reach nearly 575 million in 2030, an increase from approximately 547 million in 2015.2 North America’s cities will experience similarly brisk growth, with the number of urban dwellers on the continent growing from 300 million to 345 million during the same period.3

The problems aren’t unique to the developed world. In China, for instance, 100 million rural workers are expected to move to cities between 2014 and 2020.4 How do we provide current and future infrastructure for this growing population?

New tools to deliver infrastructure faster, smarter and better

The emergence of new technology will certainly help the industry respond to the demands of societal change. Recent years have seen some hugely exciting developments.

Transportation is being completely transformed by digital railways and autonomous vehicles. Hyperloop transportation systems — high-speed “pod” travel between cities — will follow.5At the same time, beyond transportation, we have entered the era of the smart city. The pioneers of high-tech, intelligent urban environments, such as Chicago, Amsterdam and Singapore, are using emerging technologies — from data analytics to sensors and the internet of things (IoT) — to govern better, increase environmental sustainability, and improve the networks and systems that support the everyday lives of residents.67

And yet, to make the most of the new tools available, the industry needs to learn how to overcome some significant emerging challenges.

It's 16 years before High Speed 2 is fully open to Leeds and Manchester. That’s a long time. If you go back 16 years, Apple had just launched the iPod. It seems a lifetime ago. So I think the issue for us is around thinking, ‘Well, what would a railway look like in the 2030s?’ We can’t predict what’s going to happen but we are giving this consideration into the way we design the railway system as a whole.

Mark Thurston, Chief Executive Officer High Speed 2
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Managing external pressure

For many industry professionals, their ability to adapt to a changing society will be reduced by external factors. More than one-quarter of respondents to our survey see political upheaval or economic headwinds as potential stumbling blocks to progress in the next five years.

Meanwhile, respondents question the industry’s resilience to a growing range of modern-day threats, including climate change and cyberterrorism.

Figure 5/

Respondents who think the following could significantly impact or restrict the industry’s ability to deliver major civil infrastructure projects in the coming five years

Planning and delivery

Respondents to our survey reveal that even major civil infrastructure projects that come to fruition encounter problems, with four in 10 running into significant difficulties, causing major delays They also indicate that approximately one-quarter of projects fail to get going until at least five years after the agreed start date.

Respondents suggest a variety of reasons for this inefficiency. Above all, they point to governance issues: late-delivering partners; unrealistic time frames; poor communication; and ineffective working relationships.

Figure 6/

Proportions that say these are the top reasons why major projects run over their expected time frames

Today’s rapidly growing infrastructure demands create a sense of urgency. Stakeholders are under pressure to deliver projects quickly — often at the expense of clarity and adequate planning.

Voters want to see things moving at lightning speed. We need to build an understanding and manage expectations about how quickly and effectively we can implement change.

Therese McMillan, Chief Planning OfficerLos Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro)

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Poor project and program management is also a major concern. A large majority of respondents feel that many tried-and-tested approaches fail to meet the requirements of today’s increasingly vast and complex civil infrastructure programs.

A logical inference is that the industry needs to run major infrastructure projects very differently. The entire process should be reviewed — not just funding, but how projects are planned and delivered, how roles are allocated, and how different organizations work together.

Figure 7/

Respondents who rank their organizations as “good” at the following aspects of project delivery

An important part of any review of project delivery should be around communication. Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents say that most civil infrastructure projects are a long way from achieving seamless integration between providers. They single out competitive tendering, which is intended to get the best possible value for taxpayers but often imbalances the responsibilities and risks underwritten by different project partners.

Clear communication is also undermined by shielding information from rival bidders. A lack of dialogue means delays and complications.

There are cultural drawbacks, too. Civil infrastructure companies engaged in bidding wars are discouraged from sharing best practices with their competitors. And innovations that give a competitive advantage are rarely brought out into the open.

Industry professionals do, however, have some ideas about how to speed up project delivery with different approaches and technologies already in operation around the world. A combination of ideas and methods may be required, and the industry should seek inspiration from the successes and failures of recent years to find the best practice.

The logic was that you can only do so much to speed up the construction phase. Increasingly, we are seeing the value of trying different approaches. We’ve spent a lot of time reviewing environmental permitting processes, on planning processes and everything in between.

Peter Rogoff, Chief Executive OfficerSound Transit
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Key to better project delivery is the need to troubleshoot at the early stages of the project life cycle, where delays are most frequent and red tape can prevent new projects from getting off the ground.

Industry professionals also believe that stronger enabling legislation can help accelerate project delivery, while the same percentage call for earlier approval of environmental and other enabling works in the process (see Figure 9).

The broad range of solutions that respondents came up with underlines the reality. There is no single way to enhance project delivery.

Figure 8/

Proportions of respondents that agree with the following statements about project delivery

A global perspective

Infrastructure innovation

With broad acknowledgment around the globe that tried-and-tested ways of working are no longer producing results, innovation is rising up the agenda.

No country for old approaches

Internationally, infrastructure professionals voice disillusionment with traditional industry approaches to project delivery.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of European respondents believe that tried-and-tested approaches to project management are no longer meeting the demands of today’s large and complex industry programs.

Some 72 percent of APAC-based professionals and 69 percent of those in North America share the same view.

New world, new ideas

North America and APAC-based professionals show a strong appetite for adopting new industry approaches and techniques.

In both regions, around 80 percent of respondents believe that alternative technical concepts offer the best opportunity for civil infrastructure projects to adopt innovative solutions from private contractors.

However, less than two-thirds (62%) of European industry professionals feel the same way.

For insight on delivery approaches, see:Delivering Future Infrastructure: Faster, Smarter and Better

The talent question

Any serious discussion on the future of infrastructure must address the talent question. In our view, civil infrastructure must take urgent steps to modernize, get better informed and arm itself with future-proofed skills.

One-quarter of the survey respondents cite skills and talent shortages as key obstacles to progress, and about one-fifth say that difficulties sourcing the right talent cause major delays (see Figure 5 and Figure 6).

The construction workforce in Hong Kong is aging. We need employees who can work with new technologies such as BIM and who have knowledge of innovative construction materials and methods.

Albert Cheng, Executive Director Construction Industry Council, Hong Kong
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Employers display confidence in sourcing and retaining the core talents — engineering and project management. Attracting individuals to the profession who possess skills in technology and innovation is a far greater challenge.

It may be a question of image. As civil infrastructure struggles to integrate new technologies and practices, its reputation as an industry for top IT and computer science graduates suffers. That doesn’t have to be the case — after all, the sector’s challenges and opportunities are as inspiring, complex and demanding as those in any industry.

Figure 9/

Respondents who think the following would make a noticeable difference to infrastructure project delivery

A global perspective

Skills shortages and changes

While the ability to innovate is highly prized, different countries recognize that they are at varying stages of the re-skilling journey.

Innovators wanted worldwide

Workers with skills in innovation are in high demand around the globe.

Some 39 percent of North American industry professionals rank innovation among the top three skill requirements of the infrastructure industry in the next five years. In addition, 38 percent of APAC survey respondents and 33 percent of European participants are in agreement.

The brain drain continues

In each of the regions surveyed, the largest economy is winning the war for talent.

Skills that are designed to maximize innovation and new technologies are in especially short supply in the U.K. and Canada, where only around 45 percent of respondents feel comfortable with the infrastructure industry’s current innovation skill level.

In contrast, German respondents place their industry’s skill level at 80 percent in this area, while in the U.S. the figure is 66 percent.

For insight on training and securing the right talent, read: Skills 2030: Securing the Talent to Build our Future Infrastructure

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Part three: Building the resilient future
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