If there’s one sector of the built environment that’s a source of more division among stakeholders than any other, it has to be social infrastructure. Caught between the urbane aspirations of voters and the cold hard reality of government budgets, getting the balance right has proven to be a difficult challenge for municipalities around the world.

Social infrastructure—or the schools, hospitals, parks, public housing and civic centers that uphold and enhance citizens’ quality of life—was hit particularly badly during the great recession. An era of austerity characterized by tightened public sector spending, asset-sweating and curtailment of programs was the sector’s defining story.

But, the great recession also sparked a wave of digitally enabled innovation by contractors, particularly through the use of BIM. The focus has been on standardizing building design and delivery while driving down cost and without compromising quality or design integrity.

Can the industry build on this digital momentum to help triangulate a more democratic, cost-efficient and robust model for delivery of social infrastructure—one that insulates it from economic, political and commercial crosswinds?

Helping the Dollars and Cents Flow
Uncertainty regarding the amount federal and state governments will spend on social infrastructure in the next three to five years results in an uncertain project pipeline—frustrating contractors and communities alike.

By contrast, defining that pipeline is becoming easier and more accurate, even as urban landscapes become more complex. Cloud computing and predictive analytics (i.e., analyzing massive data sets to predict future behavior) hold the prospect of a near future in which city planners, contractors and others can model the built environment “in context.” Simply put, that means not only accurately matching future infrastructure needs to population trends, but also understanding the impact the decision to pursue a particular project will have across multiple dimensions: socially, environmentally, financially or even politically.

For assets procured directly on the public balance sheet, the ability to simulate a project digitally, “in context,” is likely to result in better allocation of funds (i.e., identifying projects that will have the most impact). That means regardless of the vagaries of public sector budgets, at least those monies will be spent efficiently, with maximum benefit to the community.

But parlous government finances in many nations that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development means public sector budgets alone are never going to meet the infrastructure needs of their communities. Public private partnerships, which already have proven their worth in delivery of economic infrastructure, increasingly will be used to fund social assets.

Critical to attracting the type of long-term funding required is enabling potential investors to accurately determine a project’s  risks and rewards. It’s here that digital technology can help contractors step in, both in an advisory and delivery capacity. Consider being able to model an asset across its life cycle—to reduce the risk of underperformance by predicting usage patterns, and reduce cost and schedule blowouts during delivery by simulating all aspects of project execution. Need to establish the best time for vehicle movements to minimize impact on residents? The answer is in the data. Need to determine the right mix of onsite versus offsite construction? The answer is in the data. Need to mitigate the risk of input price volatility? Again, the answer is in the data. Improved predictability of project and asset performance should provide a lower risk environment for investors, making them more confident and willing to fund such projects.

Perhaps the ultimate answer to funding social infrasModel of L.A.tructure lies in direct procurement. Crowd-funding (i.e., raising project funds from a large number of small investors, typically via an Internet platform) has the potential to put communities in more direct control of their built environment. Granted, the sums of money involved in delivering a capital project are large, but early examples are starting to sprout. The notion of a platform for communities to express their opinions and expectations of social assets is likely to provide better guidance for where to place others’ dollars and cents—whether they are from the taxpayer’s purse or from private investors.

A New Era of Localism
“Big government” and its connotations of large-scale planning often is incongruent with the small-scale needs of communities. One only has to think of the failed, centrally planned housing projects of the 1960s and 1970s to see how stark that disconnect can be.

As the digital world brings everyone increasingly closer together, social computing—and in particular online communities and crowd-sourcing platforms—offer the potential for a truly democratic approach to how communities shape their built environments. Giving people the chance to be heard (should a civic center take priority over a new park); including them in the consultation process (which time of day would site traffic movements in the neighborhood cause the least disruption); or engaging them to help solve problems (would traffic-calming measures outside a school impact local businesses) are all examples of how such digital platforms can help communities become more connected and achieve a greater sense of ownership of their social assets. In essence, a wanted asset is more likely to be used and valued than one imposed by others.

The impact on contractors is a growing expectation for them to be more involved in the communities they serve. Rather than just fulfilling project execution, there’s a good chance they’ll add advisor and community consultant to their skills portfolio, stepping into positions vacated by over-stretched and under-funded government departments.

Whereas the 20th century business model relied on large contractors in this sector engaging with a small number of large clients, the 21st century model is likely to shift focus toward the end-user as the client. Ultimately, that means every user of a social asset will be a contractor’s client. Although that notion has been around for some time, what’s changing is a shortening of the distance between the two, enabled by digital technology.

How contractors will embrace this impending reality has yet to be seen; it is still very much a frontier environment. But of all the options that technology is opening up for them, the one with the greatest social impact is addressing who will be the boots on the ground. Between 2007 and 2009, the U.S. construction sector lost 2.3 million jobs. What better way to meet the aspiration of a community than creating not only assets, but also jobs that rely on cutting-edge digital tools.

Digital technology is not going to be a panacea to the many challenges of meeting communities’ infrastructure needs. The sector’s subtleties, complexities and inherent emotional quotient are likely to warrant a high degree of human input. But collectively, cloud computing, predictive analytics, social connectivity and the notion of being able to make decisions “in context” could help the contracting community build a bridge to a future where localism, low cost and a fair profit can coexist in a way they’ve struggled to in the past. Where value-for-money never means the triumph of function over form, and where the political football of public sector budgets might finally be displaced by new sources of funding and deeper community engagement.

Dominic Thasarathar manages strategic industry relations for construction and natural resources at Autodesk. For more information, visit www.autodesk.com.