Infrastructure has become a major issue in Australia, with questions surrounding how to plan it, how to deliver it, and how to operate it.

While not front and centre in the current election campaign, transportation infrastructure is critical to Australia’s future, especially given that the population is forecast to grow in leaps and bounds over the next decade.

Australia is currently undergoing a major transport infrastructure boom. Sydney has its massive WestConnex road network, two new metro lines, a new airport, and a major expansion of its light rail network. Melbourne has its metro and road projects. Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth are all expanding their rail networks. Planning for the Inland Rail network from Melbourne to Brisbane has begun.

But infrastructure developments in Australia are beset with planning difficulties, delays and cost overruns. Some point to Australia’s adversarial political system as the cause, in which the two sides of the political divide seem to take delight in disagreeing with each other. Since that isn’t going to change any time soon, how can we get a better bang for our infrastructure buck?

There needs to be a change in the way that infrastructure is delivered in Australia. Once a world leader in the planning and management of infrastructure, Australia has fallen off the pace. We have not kept up with world’s best practice. So after 25 years of continued economic growth, have Australian infrastructure owners become complacent, taken their eye off the ball and delegated too much responsibility?

In 2016, do infrastructure owners really own? We’re not talking about the physical ownership of the infrastructure at commissioning so much as the ownership of policy, process, standards, formats, data and the ability to capture and reuse information created during design and construct later across the complete life of the asset. Ownership means coordinating the design and construct phases of infrastructure projects (five to 20 per cent of time and cost) with the much longer operate and maintain phases (80 to 95 per cent of time and cost). In Australia, the two phases are more often than not separated, with regularly publicised and disastrous consequences for the public purse.

If you build it, then you’ve got to operate and maintain it. That should focus the owners’ mind very early, to invest in the process of helping shape the construction of efficient and maintainable infrastructure. Value created in the design and build phases needs to be stored where it can be easily accessed and where ongoing changes can be maintained to retain value and relevance.

The way things currently work in Australia, the vast majority of infrastructure projects are designed and constructed without any significant input from those who will operate and maintain that infrastructure. Often, the whole project is simply handed across at completion without supporting data that is easy to reuse or available in a way that ensures efficient ongoing operation and maintenance.

If you don’t have the critical information from the design and construct phase, it is very difficult to make the best operational and maintenance decisions – and that is where the real costs are incurred, as infrastructure lasts a long time.

Many other industries, such as power generation and oil and gas, are well advanced in managing their total expenditure on assets across CAPEX and OPEX, perhaps because they have more of a long-term commercial focus than what is usually found in the public sector.

What we are really talking about is whole-of-life asset information management. A term that’s used broadly and often incorrectly around this capability in Australia is building information modelling or BIM. In other industries, this is called asset life cycle information modelling (ALIM), master data management (MDM), enterprise information management (EIM), or digital engineering (DE).

Whatever the name used, they refer to the same thing. The creation of a digital resource of reliable information supporting decisions from initial conception to final disposal of a facility or asset, founded on open standards for interoperability and integration.

Australia can reclaim its leadership, but we have to change. There are multiple reasons given on why changing how we deliver infrastructure projects is difficult – “it will cost more,” “we have always done it this way,” “we don’t use those tools,” “it’s not our IP,” “we can’t tell the market what to do.”

There is empirical evidence showing that, when it comes to infrastructure delivery, the existing system is broken; with an average cost overrun of 139 per cent and benefit under achievement of 10 per cent, what further incentive do we need to drive change?

By adapting BIM for the Australian market and creating a digital copy of the physical infrastructure for the operator at commissioning, every project’s construction and operation can be fully integrated in terms of its information management.

It’s true that connecting all the different disciplines is a challenge. The appetite in Australia among the engineering community to do this is huge, but it needs leadership. It boils down to the fact that the owners need to own. The owners and managers of our infrastructure need to demand ownership of all of the important information about their infrastructure. They shouldn’t delegate this responsibility.

We are not building infrastructure for the sake of building infrastructure – we are building it for an outcome for the people who use it and pay for it. The investment in infrastructure is huge, and so is the amount of money that can be saved by adopting an integrated management strategy, through whole of life BIM, not just Level 1.

It is a challenge, but made less so by the fact that the way forward is clear. Adopt, adapt, improve. Adopt what is working elsewhere, adapt it to the Australian market, and improve it by applying Australian expertise to the challenges that are unique to Australia.

By: Brian Middleton, Vice President ANZ for Bentley Systems