How is infrastructure design changing?

Infrastructure design Ellis Fox

Historically, most infrastructure development was based on demand and budget availability, and it was accepted that there would be trade-offs along the way. Unfortunately, those trade-offs primarily resulted in environmental damage, biodiversity loss and sometimes cultural loss too. And now as these factors accumulate the economic cost is being felt.

Climate change and sustainability considerations have become more of a priority and this is changing everything right down to how infrastructure is designed.

Infrastructure development has never been simple, but future projects now have even more factors to take into consideration. Urban population growth isn’t slowing down, nor are extreme climate events. Planning needs to mitigate for future urban development, increased demand and extreme weather events.

It has to take into account existing infrastructure and how and when that’ll be integrated or replaced. And then there are net zero considerations, what materials are being used, what are projected carbon emissions and if it requires an energy source to function, can that be achieved through renewables?

It may seem like an impossible task to tick all the boxes, but the interesting thing is that when all these factors are brought into consideration at the design stage, opportunities to achieve greater efficiencies emerge.

Take for example the proposed Centre Port UK. It’s planned as deepsea container terminal, but the design is not a simple harbour. It’s planned as an 18km tidal barrage across the bay which will act as a flood defence barrier and use underwater turbines to generate energy from tidal flows. Rail and road infrastructure will run on top of the barrage, creating a shortcut for transport, cutting down on freight distances and costs (as well as associated carbon emissions). Future plans also include green hydrogen generation. It’s an ambitious project with detailed engineering that highlights the possibilities that can arise from broader integrated design thinking.

This approach to design that looks at creating multiple solutions in a single structure could help accelerate infrastructure development and upgrades. With it comes an opportunity for greater collaboration between industry sectors as there’s certainly sufficient expertise to drive innovation.

Possible roadblocks? It would be tragic to lose out of opportunities as a result of delays in planning permissions, red tape and getting budget approvals. If these types of projects are to be the way of infrastructure development in the future, what can industry leaders do to create the type of momentum that will carry the projects through to successful completion?