29 APR 2020


As industry comes to terms with the coronavirus pandemic, there is opportunity to bring positive change. Didem Gürdür Broo and Jennifer Schooling from the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction ask: when would be a better time to start this shift than now?

While the coronavirus pandemic is at the core of our lives, it is very difficult not to remember American politician Rahm Emanuel’s famous quote from the 2008 financial crash: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before,” he said. 

Now, we face another crisis. It has been predicted that many private-sector markets will not return to growth due to the impacts of the Covid pandemic until at least 2022. Most of us are still coming to terms with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on our organisations. So, is it possible to consider this crisis from another perspective and identify opportunities for our industry to learn, to improve, and to better prepare for the future?

What if we applied future thinking, scenario building, and foresight activities to imagine and understand the future ahead of us? What if we proactively sought to adopt emerging technologies, and re-evaluate processes, organisational structures, and projects from a systematic perspective? Could this pandemic be a tipping point to a more sustainable future?

Future thinking

Future thinking is the systematic exploration of probable futures, including different factors from emerging technological and social changes. It uses a set of tools to track, analyse, imagine, decide and act on changes. It recognises opportunities and potential threats before they evolve and identifies future needs by revealing cognitive knowns and unknowns. Having the ability to imagine the future in a methodological way can prepare us by offering different perspectives on future phenomena years in advance. 

In times of uncertainty, using future thinking methods such as scenario planning can help organisations to prepare for the post-pandemic world. It enables us to craft scenarios that could be important elements of the future. Both scenario planning and resulting scenarios are useful analytical exercises for developing a better understanding of the change, as well as the production and distribution of knowledge on change. 

Future thinking brings the ability to look beyond one’s own disciplinary boundaries, follow changes in other domains, consider different outcomes of trends and uncertainties, imagine future scenarios and develop strategies for these different futures. This is extremely helpful for not only developing a common language among and across organisations to discuss the future and the potential effects of change, but also prepare for radical change. Shifting our mindset from today to the future enables us to consider time and uncertainty when strategising. When would be a better time to start this shift than now?

Smart infrastructure

Smart infrastructure has the potential to revolutionise how infrastructure is delivered, managed and automatically operated. Data, the Internet of Things, digital twins, artificial intelligence applications and robotics are opportunities that can help the industry to deliver smart infrastructure solutions faster and better. Organisations need to create environments to discuss change and enable their workforce to develop new skills. It is now time to adopt an agile and continuous learning mindset to ensure a future response that is (re-)calibrated to the circumstances at hand. When combined with future scenarios, these technology advancements can underpin organisational strategies and objectives. The industry needs to understand how data can improve productivity and increase the value and efficiency of our infrastructure and the services it delivers. 

Yes, we face uncertain times. However, after the pandemic, the industry will need to recover. The question is, will we take this opportunity to adopt new technologies, tools and methodologies to help us to overcome current and future challenges in the industry? It is time to learn, discuss, compare, understand and test.

Sustainable built environment

The 21st century is characterised by rapid change, uncertainty and increasing interconnectedness. The grand sustainability challenges of this century, including climate change, air pollution, deforestation and rising inequalities, are complex issues encompassing interdependent systems. This complexity results in a pluralism of values within societies, and understanding this complexity requires a holistic view secured by a multidisciplinary collaboration to develop a systems perspective beyond our individual profession and domain.

This pandemic is causing unprecedented changes. Just this week the price of a barrel of oil slipped below $20, its lowest level since 2002. There has been a global drop in air pollution due to reductions in traffic and industrial activity. This shows what environmental improvements could be achieved if we work towards sustainable low carbon solutions. But how do we do it? 

What if we use this time to understand different perspectives on sustainable development goals and engage all stakeholders, for instance, in net zero carbon discussions? To fully understand our new post-pandemic role, we should think in systems, shift from disconnections to interconnectedness, from linear to circular ways of thinking, from silos to emergence, from parts to wholes, and from isolation to relationships.

Let’s not forget, technology, new needs and urgency made it possible for organisations to work effectively remotely – what we all would have thought impossible just a matter of weeks ago. When we need to, we can overcome challenges and act fast. Post-pandemic future and climate change will require this action too. We’ve seen the possible and now we have to once again make the seemingly impossible possible.

Didem Gürdür Broo is a research associate at the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction and Laing O'Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK. Jennifer Schooling is the Director of CSIC.


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