Preparing for the future

Todd Bridges
Todd Bridges

The projects that we will build in the next 25 to 100 years will be different than the projects that we build today, writes Todd Bridges, US Army Corps of Engineers

If you accept my proposition that the way we execute engineering projects will change in the future, it begs the question of how engineering and construction companies, and the government agencies responsible for infrastructure will prepare themselves to deliver these upcoming projects.
You might think that we will prepare ourselves the same way we always have; when the market demands something, then we adapt ourselves to fill it. While we can expect demand to operate in the future, I would suggest to you that because of the increasing speed of technological change, the marketplace is becoming less tolerant of slow adapters.

Therefore, organisations that can anticipate changes early will have an even greater advantage in the future than they do today. I would like to share three needs and opportunities that will be associated with the projects of the future and the successful organisations that will deliver them.

Multiple use
First, in the 21st century, there will be a shift from single-purpose projects to multipurpose projects. What do I mean by a single-purpose project? It is a project that delivers a single type of benefit. For example, a flood risk management project that only delivers economic benefits that are directly related to reduced flood damages. By contrast, a multipurpose flood risk management project would be designed to deliver additional benefits beyond reduced economic damages. In the US, during the 20th century, we built nearly 50,000 km of flood levee, almost none of which was built to include a purpose or benefit other than economic flood damage reduction. Such exclusive, single-benefit focus will become the exception in the 21st century.
Building multipurpose projects is going to require a different approach to planning, engineering, and construction. An approach consistent with what some of us described as working, building, and engineering with nature. The engineers that design and build these projects will be trained differently and have different capabilities than their 20th century engineering mothers and fathers.

Look around you
Second, successful project delivery in the 21st century will give more attention to social science and relevance. In the 20th century, infrastructure development was dominated, almost exclusively, by the engineering profession.
That will not be true in the 21st century. Engineers may mourn over this fact, but that will not change the reality. The prepared engineering companies of the future will employ psychologists, anthropologists, social workers, and other social science disciplines in their companies. Why? because they will be more successful in delivering projects to society, because society will increasingly demand that infrastructure projects possess social relevance and value. I am not saying that the economics will not matter anymore because of course, the economics will matter.
The social-relevance evolution that is currently under way is being fuelled by inclusive democracy, which empowers people to demand more value from projects.

Anticipating change
Third, successful organisations in the 21st century will integrate innovation as a part of routine business. I want to emphasise the word innovation in this statement because we sometimes use this word in a casual, almost trivial way. I am not using it in that sense. True innovation has a powerful effect on practice and markets. Innovation in this sense is not currently routine business in engineering and construction companies or government infrastructure agencies.
Today, discovery and invention are treated like commodities that are purchased from an external service provider, even when the invention provider is a unit within the same organisation.
In the future, I believe that successful companies and public organisations will be those that truly integrate research and development as a part of their routine business practice, project delivery, and project operations.

I might be wrong in my anticipations, but I do not think I am. Nevertheless, we all need to think more about the days and projects to come.