How will sustainable urban infrastructure advance in the next 15 years?
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Raymond Steege
SR VP Director of Strategy and Development for E&IA and Transportation Sector Lead

Scenario planning the uncertainties that will influence the development of sustainable and resilient urban infrastructure.  

How should we imagine tomorrow’s cities? It’s a key question being debated around the world and Wood is bringing its voice to the forefront of the conversation. It’s about the cities and towns we live in, the buildings we work in and call home, and the ways we plan and build transportation infrastructure, so it has the flexibility to adapt to changing technology.

The challenges are no secret. The world, after all, has become increasingly urbanized. About half our population already lives in cities and those numbers are projected to increase substantially over the next two decades. Yet, the vast majority of urban infrastructure needed to support that population growth is not even built. Even today, only half of city residents are estimated to have convenient access to public transportation.

Technology, meanwhile, is developing at such a rapid pace, traditional designs for today’s infrastructure may quickly become irrelevant for tomorrow’s needs. Shared mobility – like bike, scooter and ride sharing – is already disrupting urban transportation. There are fare payment systems that can make public transit and multimodal travel effortless. Autonomous vehicles? They might become standard sooner than we think. Time will tell.

One thing is for certain: Cities must be able to accommodate future technologies not yet imagined, as well as new modes of transportation and, as transportation experts, we must design infrastructure that can adapt.

No one can predict the future, but urban leaders, policy makers and transportation planners must work hand in hand. We know, for example, that people embrace and, in fact, demand technology for smoother, more efficient transit. They’ll also pay a monetary premium for “quality of life” options – like tech-enabled, toll-based express lanes that run adjacent to public highways, enabling commuters, commuter buses and emergency vehicles to bypass traffic congestion and get to their destinations quicker.

In 2019, BAI Communications surveyed 2,500+ rail commuters in five global cities – Hong Kong, London, New York, Sydney, and Toronto. It found 83% of respondents believed innovative transport systems are a key feature of a smart city, and nearly half said a city cannot be considered world-class unless it has good digital connectivity.

Wood recently brought together a diverse group of professionals, including a number of transportation experts, for a sustainable – particularly urban – infrastructure scenario planning summit in Toronto. We looked at the mechanisms needed to drive revolutionary steps in energy infrastructure, urban transportation and the optimization of waste and water, and identified the challenges and uncertainties that would thwart these optimistic visions of smart cities the future needs.

Wood's scenario planning for sustainable urban infrastructure

In our scenarios there are two fundamental variables to progress in sustainable urban infrastructure; one, the response and societal adoption of rapidly advancing technology, and second the availability of infrastructure funding. Those with slow economies might adopt technology but lack funds to adapt infrastructure; others might have the necessary funding but resist technology over data privacy concerns; and, some might withdraw completely because of low acceptance of technology and no economic growth, possibly reversing the long-standing trend of global urbanisation and a retreat in globalization.

As global sector lead for infrastructure and transportation at Wood, I shared much of this in a panel discussion at GLOBE 2020 in Vancouver this week. Our future – and the future of urban infrastructure – will depend on how quickly people want to adapt to new technologies, and the availability of funding. Beyond that, I believe it’s essential we remain creative and, above all, open-minded.

Our technical experts at Wood are utilizing the latest technologies to plan, design, build and operate connected, sustainable and resilient city infrastructure that supports continued growth –whenever and wherever it’s needed:

  • In northern England, it’s about using cutting edge digital technology to helping an ancient city reduce congestion, travel time and emissions, while also improving safety
  • Heathrow Airport wants to expand capacity with a new runway and supporting facilities, while adhering to sustainability-focused planning and design that supports its commitment to zero carbon infrastructure
  • Ontario’s regional transit authority, Metrolinx, has sought efficient, long-term solutions for its expanding, interconnected regional transportation system for more than 40 years
  • Departments of transportation in more than three dozen US states are constantly pursuing critical infrastructure improvements for roads and bridges. One of the newest seeks improved speeds and reliability on one of the busiest interstate highways in the Pacific Northwest

Wood knows a more agile and flexible approach to infrastructure design will provide the resilience urban areas need to accommodate the changes that lie ahead. Working together with our customers and project partners, we can help cities adapt and evolve to become future ready now – because tomorrow will come soon enough.

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