Local authorities throughout Sweden are facing significant maintenance debts when it comes to infrastructure and these debts are continuing to grow. But it is not yet too late. RISE is now set to lead a research programme on smart maintenance to help local authorities manage the problem.
A large part of local authority infrastructure, such as roads, water and sewage installations were constructed from the 50s to the 70s. This means that many of the installations are now coming towards the end of their service lives and have major maintenance requirements. Many local authorities also have to adjust capacity based on growing or shrinking populations. But despite the fact that most are aware of the problem, the efforts required to catch up are not being made.
“Since many of the problems are hidden underground and the systems are currently working well, there is no major interest from the public. And this means that the issue has low priority on the political agenda,” says Lars Marklund, RISE researcher and Head of the Mistra InfraMaint research programme, which has a focus on smart maintenance.
Billions needed to clear maintenance debt
SEK 16 billion is currently being invested annually in local authority water and sewage installations. But a report from Svenskt vatten has shown that a further SEK 7 billion will be needed annually in order to meet the needs. The same goes for roads. In order to eliminate maintenance debt by 2030, an annual road maintenance budget of SEK 7.4 billion would be required, which is more than twice the current budget.
“We need new, smart ways of working to catch up with maintenance requirements. Several of the 23 research projects that are part of the research programme are focusing on smart decision-making systems,” Marklund says.
There are also projects focusing on financing, organisational theory, sustainability, behaviours, scientific aspects related to drinking water supply and specific technical solutions.
“Many local authorities do not have enough money or staff to manage their infrastructure in an optimal manner. Staff shortages are often the biggest problem. Our programme therefore also addresses various ways in which to develop expertise,” Marklund explains.
We have already made major investments in the current infrastructure. Looking after it and maintaining it is more economically sustainable than buying new
Spreading knowledge through Youtube
The various ways of disseminating knowledge include seminars and micro-learning through Youtube videos containing various tips and tricks. A collaborative project between researchers from the programme and local authority representatives is also focusing on showcasing good examples.
“The slightly special thing about this programme is that we also have a number of doctoral fellows working out in the local authorities to help develop expertise,” Marklund says.
It must be possible to scale up solutions
The programme, which will run over eight years and includes around 20 local authorities, is now in its third year. The goal is that the solutions that are developed will later be scaled up and used in all local authorities.
“One of the greatest challenges is about changing behaviours. To achieve this, we have to lower the thresholds to make it easy to do the right thing. We are therefore conducting a lot of work on the basis for decision-making to make it easy to make decisions and see what you will gain from it,” Marklund says.
One such example is a study that looks at the societal costs associated with various types of problems, such as traffic or water disruptions, and how to procure in ways that will minimise the total cost.
“When we receive quotes to fix a water pipe, it is common to choose the one with the lowest price. But perhaps there is another solution where the work can be performed without having to break up the entire road. In this way, the societal costs associated with traffic delays may be avoided and a lower total cost for society can be achieved,” Marklund notes.
Good for the climate
In the long run, taking good care of infrastructure is also a matter that affects sustainability and the climate.
“We have already made major investments in the current infrastructure. Looking after it and maintaining it is more economically sustainable than buying new. This is also important from a climate perspective. Infrastructure includes large amounts of concrete, which has a large climate footprint if newbuilds are required,” Marklund concludes.