The infrastructure sector has moved quickly to adapt to COVID-19 changes and the country is now arguably more settled into this new way of living during a crisis, with new measures in place to manage worker safety and health.
The pandemic is still a significant threat, with many parts of the country still facing lockdown and restrictions, and it will continue to pose challenges for the foreseeable future.
However, attention has begun to turn to what’s ahead and what these recent disruptions could mean for the industry long term.
We’re starting to see the outline of new opportunities and trends in the sector that could shape planning moving forward, and it’s looking less like ‘a new normal’ and more of an ‘evolution’.
COVID accelerating the digital transition
The industry’s transformation towards digital is not new but has been a steady progression over many years. COVID has helped boost this as it has forced many companies and sectors to become much more connected and digital, in a shorter time frame.
NSW Government’s Chief Data Scientist Dr Ian Oppermann sums it up in a recent Infrastructure article when he said, “Our present, and future, are digital, hyper-connected and critically dependent on technology. We will never see the pace of change this slow again.”
Future trends and opportunities around digital lie in areas such as renewable energy (solar, battery technology); electromobility (electric vehicles); and smart cities (more connected infrastructure, use of sensors and data for decision-making, digital twins, and demand management/local grids).
This creates increased demand for skills in these areas. For many infrastructure sectors, the future workforce will require a different skill set to what’s required now. Increases in automation will mean workers who understand these technologies, or processes around data, will have an advantage.
Infrastructure funding: a strong pipeline is needed
The infrastructure industry has huge potential, and is uniquely placed, to help with Australia’s economic recovery. We’ve already seen a large amount of funding over the last few months go towards fast-tracking shovel-ready infrastructure projects, to not only help the economy, but keep workers employed.
Future opportunities will lie in civil construction with the ramping up of major projects, but the challenge will be in making sure the sector continues to develop a high-quality project pipeline to ensure growth. Infrastructure Australia has also noted that small-scale projects – things like road maintenance – are of high value to the industry. So while infrastructure asset managers are being faced with once-in-a-career challenges, there are also strong opportunities to lead and play a critical role in the recovery.
The port and freight sector is also seeing a lot of exciting developments in the works, for example, the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy, and projects such as the $125 million Port Rail Transformation Project at the Port of Melbourne, and Port Botany’s on-dock rail, among others.
We’re also already starting to see more construction firms and infrastructure businesses become more sustainable in their operations, including recycling materials and technologies. So the circular economy is another trend that is set to play a significant role in future infrastructure outlooks.
Overall, priority areas for the industry at the moment look to be focusing on projects funding, regulatory reform, and skills training, and while the impacts of COVID-19 still pose a risk to businesses in the construction and infrastructure sector, with solid management, we can start to look at the various opportunities ahead.