Climate change, digitisation and sustainability: the world is changing rapidly and so must our infrastructure maintenance. The research programme Mistra InfraMaint tries to illustrate this point by offering a glimpse of the future.
How will a Swedish municipality be maintaining its infrastructure 10 years from now – on what will it be basing its decisions and procurement? This is one of the fundamental questions that Mistra InfraMaint is attempting to answer; because one thing is certain: carrying on regardless is not an option.
“If we carry on as before, we will simply not be able to afford all of the things we would wish to and need to do, nor will be as sustainable as we need to be. So, continuing as before is not an option,” says Mistra InfraMaint programme director Lars Thell Marklund.
Major maintenance needs
Lars Thell Marklund points out the scale of maintenance needed, especially in municipal infrastructures such as water, sewerage and roads, a need that must be met in an efficient and sustainable manner without overly increased resources. Developing a model of tomorrow’s municipality was one way to widen the perspective and work proactively to address our current and future challenges.
One example of streamlining in tomorrow’s municipality is automatically generated decision-making documentation. When investigating which water pipes need to be replaced and which roads need resurfacing, a system will be in place that can compare various alternatives by retrieving data on the costs and consequences of carrying out work contra postponing it. This will provide both a basis on which a decision can much more easily be made and more exact data on the likely effects of that decision.
“If all of the relevant information can be prepared and presented digitally it will be much easier to compare the consequences of each alternative; for example, if we invest 30% more in replacing infrastructure over coming years, how much will we save in emergency maintenance and disruption?”
It will be easier in future and demand less emergency maintenance work
Greater focus on sustainability – less putting out fires
The Swedish infrastructure was built up during the 1950s, 60s and 70s and involved large investments from society. Although most of it still works very well, a maintenance debt grows, a future need to take care of and nurture what has been built up, in order to extend its lifespan.
“If we do not reduce the maintenance debt, we will have to devote ourselves to doing urgent repairs and lose the opportunity to work proactively, says Lars Thell Marklund. It will be both more expensive and more resource-intensive.”
Tomorrow’s municipality will have a different perspective on maintenance: “more farsighted and less putting out fires,” as Lars Thell Marklund puts it.
“It will be easier in future and demand less emergency maintenance work, as components that can fail will be able to tell us before they do so. Then, for example, you can send someone to a pumping station to replace a component that is about to fail instead of rushing out once it already has.”
“But to meet the challenges of the future, it is not enough to simply replace components that are breaking down. We also need to continuously develop the infrastructure so that it is ready for future conditions and requirements, such as ongoing climate change or technological advances.”
That said, tomorrow’s municipality will never become a reality unless we also look back.
“In my opinion, our most urgent task today is to ensure that the experience that already exists within all of our municipalities, in all of those who have worked there for many years, is documented so that new personnel can benefit from it. Then all of this data must be interpreted and analysed, something that will not be so easy without either the data or experience.”
New working methods make greater demands
Even based on this, it will be no easy process to adopt tomorrow’s working methods. Starting to work in new ways does of course take time and makes great demands on communication, competences and personnel.
“Clearly, rapid change always presents a challenge; however, I believe that there are tremendous opportunities and it will be enormously enjoyable,” says Lars Thell Marklund.