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How the Challenges of 2020 Will Shape the Infrastructure Industry

Theo Agelopoulos on December 3, 2020 - in Articles, Feature, Featured

The need to build and maintain U.S. infrastructure continues, and organizations continue to operate in a period of unprecedented disruption.


A global pandemic, economic downturn and necessary social change will ensure 2020 a place in the history books. The future of the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry will—and must—change in the context of these cumulative events.

This year is proving particularly transformational for the infrastructure sector. The need to build and maintain U.S. infrastructure continues, and organizations continue to operate in a period of unprecedented disruption.

A consequence of this year’s circumstances is the catalyzing of the continuing, rapid technological evolution of the sector, which resembles in some ways the outcome of the global economic downturn of 2008-2012. Technology is demonstrating its value to improve the resiliency of the infrastructure sector’s “soft” assets: people and data.

Adapting to Sudden Change

The events of 2020 have had a rapid and significant impact across the infrastructure industry. David Odeh, a principal at the structural engineering consulting firm Odeh Engineers Inc. and who also serves on the Board of Direction of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), believes the confluence of these events is driving significant change in the industry: “This year has certainly had a big impact on people in both their professional and personal lives. The way ASCE members are working, the types of projects they’re working on, and their ability to meet and gather and network especially has been severely constrained due to the pandemic.”

This was certainly the case at consulting and engineering firm Tetra Tech. The business supports government and commercial clients with capabilities across the entire project lifecycle, including infrastructure, water and environmental services. With more than 20,000 associates spread worldwide and projects across the United States, it became immediately obvious that the business would have to adapt to the new circumstances, as CAD Manager Mike Schumacher explains.

“Now that everyone is remote and in separate offices, we’re having to really do a lot more communicating than ever before,” he says. “But by using Autodesk InfraWorks, BIM 360 and Civil 3D now, we’re able to trade that information very quickly and keep teams and other project stakeholders updated. It has opened up communication in a way that’s probably better than we otherwise would have seen.”

On an operational level, the events of 2020 have also forced changes to the way state and local transportation operators work. Priscilla Benavides, Central Region design manager at New Mexico Department of Transportation (DOT), explains that her team has had to change core processes in response to the disruption.

“The greatest impact to our program has been to those projects in preliminary design,” notes Benavides. “For example, we’ve started moving forward with the Allison corridor in Gallup, N.M., with traffic data 10 years old. We need to update the traffic counts to justify our design, but, of course, it doesn’t make sense to do a traffic study during a pandemic when traffic patterns have changed significantly. Our state traffic engineers are working with other DOTs on national levels to find a new approach, such as using historical data and applying a growth factor to determine current and future volumes.”

Benavides believes the flexibility of the USDOT’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has been important for continuity of operations. “Normally we are obligated by the National Environmental Policy Act to hold public meetings in person to gain public input on projects. Fortunately, we found a way to host online forums to present and take questions. Although I don’t think it’s as effective as meeting in person, we have had participation from citizens we don’t typically see face to face, and it has allowed us to meet the requirements for federal funding.”

Building Resilience Through Technology

The resilience of the infrastructure industry has been tested by the events of 2020. But a common theme in many organizations is how quickly technology is being adopted, particularly due to the need to collaborate remotely. As Odeh highlights, “Technology has proven to be the underlying tool that has helped us to survive—and in some cases thrive and grow—despite the challenges we’ve faced.”

For the New Mexico DOT, remote working represented a significant change, and the organization’s resilience depended on the work of the IT team. “Prior to COVID-19, no one worked from home,” notes Benavides. “The IT team needed to get everyone set up and tied into our servers. It was a little bit bumpy, but the efforts of that group were phenomenal, and they got it done.”

Remote collaboration tools have proven vital in enabling businesses to remain operational, particularly on the design side. “The acceleration of the use and adoption of new online collaboration tools has made a fundamental change in the way we work and practice our profession,” says Odeh. “For example, a few years ago, shared integrated cloud-based modeling using BIM was a relatively new technology; now, it’s the standard on almost every project at our firm.”

For Tetra Tech, the events of 2020 accelerated a process already in motion. According to CAD Manager Bryan Thomasy, the business had been looking at remote collaboration for some time, but the pandemic spurred changes that will deliver long-term benefits.

“The main change is that—hallelujah!—we’re finally going more paperless,” explains Thomasy. “We’ve got to have different workflows to communicate and convey our ideas without being in person. That will support changes in the way we operate as a whole, which is very good in my eyes.”

According to his colleague, this holds significant potential from a resourcing perspective. “Using BIM 360 and other remote cloud-collaboration tools has really opened up the avenue of not only working remotely, but working with others inside and outside the company,” explains Mike Schumacher.

In addition to remote collaboration, the pandemic accelerated the use of technology in other environments. As Benavides highlights, many people on the operations side are unable to work from the safety of home. “They have no problem coming in and doing their jobs,” she notes. “They take their civic duty very personally, and they’re proud to do it. We appreciate their commitment to the communities we serve and the riders who depend on a reliable and safe system.”

In response, firms such as Odeh’s are making greater use of technologies to limit the number of people onsite and the interactions among them. “In my practice, we have a whole squad of engineers who are licensed drone pilots as well as civil and structural engineers,” he explains. “We use the technology to investigate existing structures without needing to enter them. We can observe ongoing construction to provide QA and inspection. We’ve also used drones to create digital models to drive design of repairs, alterations and additions.”

Although technology clearly improves organizations’ resilience, Benavides looks forward to a hybrid approach at the New Mexico DOT. “Project development is dependent upon collaboration, including design and construction personnel, all civic stakeholders and the public,” she notes. “In my view, the most successful partnerships are established face to face.

“Likewise, there are some processes that are much more difficult to accomplish remotely, including personnel training and online meetings. I want to see the best of both worlds, where we can enjoy a hybrid of working in the office and at home.”

 

The events of 2020 have had a rapid and significant impact across the infrastructure industry.

 

Impact on the Workforce

Of course, these changes to organizations’ operations not only impact their processes, but also their people. Throughout the infrastructure industry, people are adapting to new ways of working—and new tools—to maintain productivity.

For years, Schumacher and Thomasy worked remotely at Tetra Tech. But for many of their colleagues, working remotely represents a challenging transition. “The struggle is not so much the technology, but using it from home,” notes Schumacher. “People are adjusting; they’re not throwing their hands up, but we have definitely had some challenges. We are working through those.”

The move to online collaboration likewise impacts the team at the New Mexico Department of Transportation, and it has helped to shift people’s attitudes toward technology. “People are more open to embracing technology, even those who might have been reluctant to change before—like contractors who have been in the industry for many decades,” explains Benavides.

“People understand change is necessary, and if a silver lining of COVID-19 exists, this is one,” she adds. “While it has been a slow process to date, I’m hoping these experiences allow us to move more quickly going forward.”

 

This year’s economic downturn has impacted projects across the United States.

 

At Tetra Tech, digital skills in the business are growing, as people move from CAD to 3D models. And although there have been teething troubles, moving to cloud collaboration is completely changing how Tetra Tech utilizes resources. “Now we can grab talent from anywhere in Tetra Tech and virtually bring them into the project with little to no effort,” says Thomasy.

“Before, we used to have to get IT involved to give people access to the server, get their credentials and the rest; now we can just get them to follow a link to add them to a project. It will increase our general productivity—we won’t have people sitting idle just because they’re in a different operating unit.”

To Odeh, this period of change will underline the need for digital skills—and creativity—throughout the industry. “For engineers, digital skills are not a ‘nice to have’; they’re a ‘must have’ to function. Now, however, it’s not about just knowing how to use critical tools like BIM and 3D modeling but learning how to use those as a tool that helps us be more creative and innovative.

“We need to have an innovation toolkit, so engineers are able to help clients visualize new design ideas or solve large-scale challenges in infrastructure,” he adds. “As we face new challenges in the years ahead, civil engineers need to invest time in improving these skills.”

Changing Infrastructure Needs

The events of 2020 will have significant long-term consequences for U.S. infrastructure, beyond operational changes for organizations. Odeh highlights that macroeconomic factors such as the economic downturn have already impacted the projects taking place.

“There have been lots of challenges to state and local agencies that typically fund and operate civil engineering projects,” says Odeh. “For example, my firm works with colleges and universities, and their ability to progress with projects has been severely impacted by the pandemic.”

The New Mexico DOT is facing similar challenges. “Last year, we received an unprecedented level of state funding, but obviously since then priorities have changed, and budgets have shifted to other, more-immediate priorities,” explains Benavides. “As a result, we’ve been asked to return funds.

“Our Secretary of Transportation decided to hold tight to his commitments for existing projects by bonding the money we were asked to return to the state, which will solve the immediate problem, but we’ll then see the effects of that in the coming years,” she adds.

According to Odeh, continuing investment in U.S. infrastructure will be critical. Every four years, ASCE produces an Infrastructure Report Card that analyzes U.S. infrastructure, in addition to state infrastructure report cards. The most recent national rating ranked efforts at a D+.

“Year after year, we identify significant needs for maintenance, upgrade and expansion of infrastructure,” explains Odeh. “The events of 2020 will only emphasise those needs even more as we become yet more dependent on shared infrastructure.”

From an economic and social perspective, the changes happening across the country also will alter our national infrastructure needs. For example, in the retail sector, the move to online shopping is changing businesses’ operations, with national consequences.

“We will see fewer covered malls being constructed. But, at the same time, we’ll see more emphasis on retail companies moving to operate online,” explains Odeh. “Those delivery mechanisms rely extensively on the overall infrastructure of the country, such as rail, ports, public transit, highways and bridges. These are elements of civil infrastructure that are already in need of repair.”

“There is significant uncertainty in civil engineering,” he continues. “However, I hope we will have a renewed focus on building more-sustainable, resilient infrastructure, and making the important investments needed through hopefully a significant government stimulus. As civil engineers, our role as a profession will be to adapt to those needs quickly.”

Catalyzing Technology Adoption

There’s optimism that the innovation and flexibility required to remain operational during 2020 will spark longer-term technological change in the industry. “Events have absolutely been a catalyst for technological adoption already and will continue to be,” notes Odeh.

Similarly, Benavides suggests the pandemic will be a catalyst for further technology use. She participates in the Every Day Counts initiative with the FHWA to complete the first e-construction project in New Mexico, which in her view will support better relationships among clients and contractors.

“I believe in transparency and being in true partnership with the contracting industry,” says Benavides. “That is defined by sharing all design files to make it easier for our collaborators. We’re designing and modeling in 3D but have to convert files to 2D paper copies to share with contractors, which seems pointless. We had begun this pilot project specific to e-construction prior to COVID-19, and it required us to complete the project in a virtual environment. Completion of this project will hopefully allow all projects to move toward e-construction, which is really where I want to be.”

To Thomasy, the need to limit travel for the near future will prompt businesses to find new ways of communicating. “Virtual reality (VR) will play a substantial role in future design work, enabling us to collaborate more fluidly remotely,” he notes. “It would be great to be able to survey an area with a drone and see your design overlaid there.

“VR will also create opportunities to make interactions with clients and colleagues more fluent and personal. Online meeting tools like Zoom mean you lose lots of the insight from facial and body language, but more-realistic virtual environments could help address that. We want to understand what people’s objectives are with as few mistakes as possible, so tools like VR could help.”

According to Odeh, the events of 2020 will accelerate many technological trends that were already underway, such as prefabrication. “We’ve known for many years that prefabrication is the key to improving the efficiency and quality of the works we build,” he says. “It’s also a way to address another significant issue: the labor shortage in the skilled trades we need to construct and maintain our infrastructure.

“Developments this year mean we’re attempting to reduce the number of people onsite and ensure people in construction trades are required to undertake fewer risky tasks, like climbing ladders. As a result, prefabrication and the use of automated equipment will increase, and that will bring longer-term benefits for the industry.”

Odeh is personally excited about this aspect of the changes. “It has been a long time coming,” he adds. “We have been challenged and forced to adopt these technologies, but there is hopefully a silver lining that will help us grow as a profession moving forward as we recover.”

Creating Opportunity

If the pandemic and economic challenges aren’t enough, another key facet of 2020 has been accelerating long-overdue social change and demands for greater diversity and inclusion in all walks of life. As the AEC industry is transformed by technology, there are suggestions that could also bring an opportunity for more positive social change in the industry.

“I believe the events of this year have shined a light on the importance of inclusivity and diversity across our industry and profession,” adds Odeh. “There’s a very clear need to attract the best and brightest across the most-diverse bases of people and resources we have. It’s not just about diversity in hiring, but really empowering engineers who have great ideas to have a seat at the table and a voice.”

Many other industries, such as hospitality and entertainment, have been badly impacted by the pandemic. According to Benavides, encouraging workers to move from these sectors to infrastructure could help improve diversity.

“We have schemes like the disadvantaged business enterprise program here in New Mexico, which promotes businesses with a diverse ownership,” notes Benavides. “Given that the construction and transportation industries are resilient, it would be great to see people considering a new career in our sector, so we can benefit from a more-diverse workforce.”

For Schumacher, increasing access to the industry will be an important way to find more people with the unique skills needed to work in 3D design. “Not everyone has the ability to visualize and create 3D models that work in a 3D environment; in fact, it’s a skill that many people don’t know they have. With so many people losing their jobs, it would be great to tap into a more-diverse workforce. There are large groups of qualified individuals who traditionally have not been tapped, and we need them. Our message to them is: if you’ve got the skillset, we need you.”

According to Odeh, a more-diverse workforce also will ensure that infrastructure itself meets the needs of a diverse demographic. “Civil engineers have a great impact beyond the technical work we do,” he says. “People live and work and play in the infrastructure we build. Therefore, we have a very important role to play in building a society that allows for everyone to participate, to really live their best lives and enjoy the prosperity we all desire. It has become even more clear that we need to be leaders in improving the quality of life for everyone, across all perspectives. Diversity of people brings diversity of perspectives and values, and we want our work to become more reflective of them.”

A common theme among many organizations is how quickly technology is being adopted, particularly due to the need to collaborate remotely.

Looking to the Future

The changes experienced in 2020 have been both rapid and significant. But according to our industry, this is only the beginning of a transformative period. According to Odeh, “This has been a hard year, but we have big challenges still coming, and we need to be ready to face them. We can’t ignore them.”

To Thomasy, moving to the cloud during the next 12 months will help prepare his team for opportunities ahead. “My goal is to get every single project I possibly can up in the cloud, such that we can become a more close-knit, communicative company and draw on resources from around the world,” he states.

Benavides wants to see the industry retain the best of both technology and face-to-face interactions. “If we could return to a hybrid model—both for collaborating and working with members of the public—then I believe that will allow us to take the best of both worlds into the future.”

To Odeh, it’s critical that the infrastructure industry continues to move forward. “I would hope that by this time next year, we have a renewed energy in our profession and the understanding of the need for investment in infrastructure,” he says. “That we have done the hard work that needs to be done to improve the profession and advance our knowledge; to not stagnate over this time.

“That means continuing to learn, even though events and conferences are online this year. It’s also about investing in people now, so we have the skills needed in the industry to advance. I want to see the industry adapt, in a manner that in a year from now, we will be able to say we grew as a profession—not just in numbers, but in our knowledge and capabilities. That will mean we’re ready to take on the next set of challenges.” 

About Theo Agelopoulos

Theo Agelopoulos is the senior director of Infrastructure Strategy & Marketing, Autodesk; email: Theo.Agelopoulos@autodesk.com.

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