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Digital Built America: Smarter, More Sustainable and Resilient

The Need for Rapid Change for the Responsible Asset Manager

by Katriona Lord-Levins and Michael Salvato

As the world has proven its need for rapid change, here in the U.S., the president is calling for a build back better framework. And the country’s communities, organizations and even its people can play an important role in building back better. Critical to the build back better effort is the integration of infrastructure, digital technologies and sustainable development. The vision for a digital built America is an America that is smarter, more sustainable and resilient.

As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the globe are relying on the U.S. to build back better. Its economic recovery must include investments and behavioral changes that will reduce the chance of future shocks while increasing its resilience to them when they do occur. So, what does building back better mean for the country’s infrastructure that underpins its social, economic and environmental security? What does building back better mean to responsible asset managers?

The infrastructure in the U.S. must become more resilient to disruption of all kinds, particularly against the extreme weather events that are frequently occurring. Building back better means transitioning the current infrastructure to smarter, more sustainable forms of development to safeguard the country’s future.

Digitalization: The Key to Future Economic Recovery and Resilience

As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, deploying digital technology is an important strategy for economic recovery and resilience. Digitalization, and the fourth industrial revolution, is transforming how physical assets in manufacturing and other industries deliver value. A similar digital transformation for the infrastructure assets in the U.S. is necessary, creating Infrastructure 4.0.

Infrastructure 4.0: The Heart of a Digital Built America

Infrastructure 4.0 is a radical vision for 21st century American infrastructure. It is an achievable vision, one that would not only add a digital dimension to the country’s infrastructure, but also connect it in new ways, enabling it to tackle immense challenges, such as energy transition, environmental regeneration, and social inclusion.

In the middle of the pandemic, the G20 world leaders created the Infrastructure Working Group. Its mission is to accelerate investment in innovation and the adoption of technology-enabled infrastructure. Similarly, the World Economic Forum launched its Infrastructure 4.0 project. Mott MacDonald, a leading global engineering, management and development consultant, chaired the World Economic Forum Panel on Infrastructure 4.0: Achieving Better Outcomes with Technology and Systems Thinking. Leaders from around the globe acknowledged that paving the way for infrastructure systems of the future requires a dramatic shift in how infrastructure is approached.1

Digital technology can help in making better decisions today, helping all to deliver a better tomorrow. However, technology is not enough. If one deploys these technologies in silos, the big picture will be missed. The world’s built environment, natural environment, and digital environment are deeply interconnected. Systems thinking is necessary to ensure a holistic understanding of the context in which one is instigating change.

When digital technology is combined with systems thinking, you gain real transformative power. Transformation requires change in how everyone thinks about infrastructure at the community, organizational and individual levels.

To reimagine infrastructure for the 21st century, one needs to leverage the full power of the fourth industrial revolution to tackle humanity’s challenges, especially climate change. Healthy people and a healthy planet should be at the heart of how to design, build, manage and use the built environment.

All of them need to work together.

Figure 1: A built environment, natural environment and digital environment are deeply interconnected (image courtesy of Bentley Systems, Incorporated)

Infrastructure Is a Platform for Human Flourishing

When building back better, it needs to be done with purpose. Infrastructure helps societies improve their quality of life, and a critical component of achieving that goal is the health of the environment. That’s why infrastructure should be viewed and managed as a system of systems that supports both the people and the planet. Purpose provides the “North Star” to help in making informed decisions and gives a reference point to keep everyone moving toward a smarter, more sustainable and resilient future.

What Is Infrastructure 4.0?

According to the World Economic Forum’s new report2, Infrastructure 4.0 is a “forward-looking infrastructure that leverages technology and information to provide high-quality environmental, economic and social outcomes, and functions as a system within broader human and natural systems.”

Infrastructure 4.0 uses information technology as an enabler, focused on improving outcomes for people and the planet. It can connect the built environment, the natural world and human lives in a way that allows all three to thrive. In practice, it means change needs to happen at all levels.

Community-Level Changes

In a digital built America, the way in which communities treat data needs to change. Data is a valuable public good, and is something that needs to be shared between infrastructure owners, stakeholders and the public. To enable getting value from data, mechanisms must be put in place to exchange information, such as open platforms, digital commons or trusted information sources and online marketplaces. The goal is to encourage and empower those who work in infrastructure to explore the data and use it to innovate, test their ideas, and develop new technologies. The development of new data platforms, such as digital twins, needs to happen from the bottom-up, not just the top-down. But you can’t have everybody doing their own thing. You need national and international standards to ensure interoperability between systems and the interchange of information between organizations.

There are many management standards for integrating complex infrastructure. Consider these:

  • ISO9000, 55000, 19650 and 15288, which are commonly used in the delivery, operations and maintenance of infrastructure systems;
  • ISO37101, a new international standard intended to help communities implement strategies for becoming smarter, more sustainable and resilient, as well as demonstrate their achievements.

The integration of asset lifecycle management, information management, and sustainability is fundamental to delivering Infrastructure 4.0.

Figure 2: Infrastructure 4.0 management standards (image courtesy of Mott MacDonald)

Organizational-Level Changes

Organizational-level changes required for Infrastructure 4.0 include:

  • A clear purpose for economic, environmental and social outcomes;
  • A strategy for managing information;
  • A culture of learning and continuous improvement.

If you are developing and managing infrastructure, what is it ultimately for? If you agree with the proposition that the purpose of infrastructure is human flourishing, that is, to benefit society as a whole, then your organizational purpose should be to create the economic, environmental and social outcomes that help communities thrive. These outcomes have implications on everything, from the cost-benefit analysis you apply when developing infrastructure to the modes of procurement you use, to how you promote value over the lifecycle of assets. Your organizational purpose also drives your digital strategy and the way you manage information.

Figure 3: Infrastructure 4.0 enterprise architecture (image courtesy of Mott MacDonald)

One way to visualize the flow of Infrastructure 4.0 activities is through a pyramid. At the base of the sustainable Infrastructure 4.0 enterprise architecture are the physical systems and assets. At the top are the organizational purpose, vision and strategies. In the middle is a digitally enhanced asset management system — essentially the operating system of Infrastructure 4.0.

One of the key characteristics of a 4.0 enterprise is the presence of better information management, which provides the computerized feedback loops that drive more sustainable outcomes. The 4.0 model relies on two things:

  1. The convergence of physical and digital systems to deliver more value than the physical alone;
  2. The value derived from the information is used to deliver more sustainable outcomes.In fact, you need an infrastructure enterprise that can leverage digital technology to plan, manage and deliver the transformation required by stakeholders and society to create value.

Infrastructure 4.0 Digital Twins

A digital twin is a digital replica of physical assets, processes, systems and devices, often in a common data environment, that uses the power of information technology to improve performance of the physical twin. This model is transforming the entire infrastructure industry in all its enormity and complexity.

Figure 4: Infrastructure 4.0 digital twins (image courtesy of Bentley Systems, Incorporated)

Digitalization of engineering and asset management is a global phenomenon driving major changes in the way public infrastructure is delivered, operated and maintained. This is enabling greater collaboration across asset lifecycles. Digital engineering largely uses existing information and communication technologies in new ways to unlock more efficient ways of working, from smart delivery to smart infrastructure.

Smarter infrastructure is the endpoint of the transformation. The cyber-physical systems required for smarter infrastructure are those that respond intelligently to changes in their environments. Building a smarter infrastructure enables the assets to influence and direct their use and maintenance while delivering better outcomes for the economy, society and the environment.

Figure 5: Infrastructure 4.0 digital engineering (image courtesy of Mott MacDonald)

Individual-Level Changes

Changes are also required at the individual level, including:

  • Digital education and training;
  • Adapting to new digital job roles;
  • Closing the skills gap;
  • Upskilling the boardrooms.

Everyone needs to upskill to play their part in the digital transformation, and they need the proper training and education that builds the right skills in society. The aim is to show students interested in engineering that data roles in infrastructure are promising career options, as well as instill in them the motivation, opportunities and incentives to pursue it.

A world of digital twins will create new roles and career opportunities for people who possess the correct skill sets. Governments, public authorities and the private sector are investing to close the skills gap. Also needed are technology-savvy leaders in the C-suites who can lead transformational change.

For those working in infrastructure, it is an evolution of the skills you use every day. Consider that in a little more than a lifetime, the world has moved from a paper-based one to a digital and virtual one.

Asset Managers in a Digitally Transformed Organization, How You Can Help

To work as an asset manager in a digitally transformed organization, you need both digital and business skills that might be new to many asset professionals. Familiarity with data and analytics is needed, along with the ability to adapt, collaborate and communicate effectively. You can play a part in transforming Infrastructure 4.0 to deliver smarter, more sustainable and resilient outcomes.

Use your influence to shape your organization’s strategies and in leading your communities toward a better future.

Digitalization gives you the opportunity and the power to transform America’s infrastructure in a way that will make this generation and future generations proud.

Together, it can be done.


1. World Economic Forum. “Infrastructure 4.0: Achieving Better Outcomes with Technology and Systems Thinking.” Cologny, Switzerland: World Economic Forum white paper, May 27, 2021.

2. Ibid.

Watch Digital Built America Keynote presentation at MaxmioWorld-2021: Click Here

Digital Built

Kat Lord-Levins is the Chief Success Officer, SVP at Bentley Systems, enabling proven, strategic business outcomes through people, process and technology. Kat leads User Success, Services & Education at Bentley with a relentless focus on creating loyal users by helping them realize their business value, making Bentley their solution of choice.

Michael A. Salvato is Vice President of Infrastructure Advisory at Mott MacDonald, a global engineering, management and development consultancy guiding our clients through many of the planet’s most intricate challenges.

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