Achieving net zero presents one of the biggest challenges for society, industry and business. Can you explore this issue in an infrastructure context?
Eric Peissel: Achieving net zero requires the decarbonization of infrastructure, which starts with planning. The biggest impact one can have is deciding not to build a new piece of infrastructure, but rather adapt, reuse or recycle existing infrastructure to minimize the amount of new build. The guidelines that WSP helped National Highways develop in the UK outline how planning is critical to reducing embodied carbon in our infrastructure.
With aging infrastructure and a growing population, new projects will inevitably be needed, but the biggest industrial contributors to greenhouse gases are concrete, steel and asphalt production. It is important to ensure that our designs are focused on minimizing embodied carbon by making the design as light as possible, which can be realized by reducing the amount of material required as well as being selective in the materials used. Natural solutions also play a key role, by creating new urban green spaces that can also help manage stormwater runoff and even increase resilience during major storm events. In Denmark, our teams have worked to incorporate green infrastructure, to build in flood resilience in cities like Copenhagen while also making the city greener, more liveable and reducing its carbon footprint.
All WSP regions are engaging to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions across our value chain by 2040—with accelerated pledges from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Finland and Denmark to halve the carbon footprint of our designs and advice by 2030. Our Future Ready®1 approach to projects prioritizes sustainable results for communities through consideration of the key trends that are impacting the world; the decarbonization of infrastructure is critical for sustainable outcomes and shapes all infrastructure project decision making.
This point brings us back to design. As digital technology is integrated into all areas of business, how can digital engineering help projects prioritize sustainability pillars?
Eric Peissel: The application of digital engineering is certainly one of the major trends affecting infrastructure design. Digital platforms and tools have evolved impressively over recent years—from computer-aided design, or CAD, to sophisticated building information modelling, or BIM, to today’s digital twins. Fully detailed 3D models and digital twin technology are transforming decision-making capabilities in terms of reducing embodied carbon, making sound investments and developing effective collaborative environments; digital twins make it possible to test ideas and bring the best solutions throughout project lifecycles. Overall, a digital twin is a highly useful project tool to inform a wide range of decisions meant to drive positive outcomes for a sustainable world, and it can become a key tool in asset management, allowing for the optimization of our infrastructure in the future. Already, water treatment plant projects WSP has developed in Canada are done fully in 3D, with the use of real-time sensor data to create true digital twins of this infrastructure—not only enabling the optimization of the design but also driving better results during operations and maintenance.
Generally speaking, what outcomes should all infrastructure projects aim to achieve?
Eric Peissel: Social equity is a pressing priority, and decision-makers around the world are seeing that infrastructure is not just an economic development tool but is also a social equity tool. We cannot have sustainable communities unless all people in those communities have access to the services they need—including ease of mobility and clean water. Some 75 percent of the infrastructure expected to be in place by 2050 has yet to be built.2 There is great opportunity to achieve sustainable outcomes for communities around the world. Multistakeholder collaboration that prioritizes ESG-conscious planning and design is essential in the process. In the United States social equity has become a key factor in investment decisions for the Federal government; our teams of advisors and planners help our clients analyze and determine how to maximize the benefits of new infrastructure projects, from looking at how to reconnect long-divided communities to increasing access to transit.
As advisors, planners and designers, we need to continuously prioritize accessibility, minimize environmental and climate-change impacts, safeguard natural ecosystems, and identify how to improve biodiversity; we need to apply innovative approaches to design resilience into new infrastructure and reinforce existing infrastructure to cope with climate-change impacts as well as cyber risks. In addition to the traditional infrastructure risks we are accustomed to addressing, how to address potential cyberattacks on critical infrastructure assets adds a new dimension of consideration for infrastructure projects.
Given these challenges, what overarching takeaway can guide the planning and design of future infrastructure?
Eric Peissel: We are facing the biggest shift in the way we plan, design and deliver projects since the post World War II era began. To achieve ambitions around ESG, decarbonization and social equity, all stakeholders have to become more comfortable with uncertainty as we make decisions for future infrastructure. The business-as-usual case is no longer an acceptable paradigm; it is essential to create flexible plans and designs that enable infrastructure, and society, to adapt, evolve and become more resilient—to develop truly sustainable infrastructure for communities.
1 Future Ready® is WSPs global innovation program that seeks to better understand the key trends in climate change, society, technology, and resources and how they are impacting our world, locally and globally. Future Ready® is a registered trademark of WSP Global Inc. in Canada and New Zealand. WSP Future Ready (logo)® is a registered trademark of WSP Global Inc. in Europe, Australia and in the United Kingdom.
2 World Resources Institute (WRI), Urban Efficiency & Climate, The CityFixLabs