By Jim Lynch

It’s Infrastructure Week, where industry leaders and policymakers come together to renew momentum, share ideas, and forge partnerships in service of building more innovative, sustainable, and resilient infrastructure.  

Achieving these outcomes will require the industry to undergo a digital transformation, evolving its outdated, paper-based way of working into an approach where technology is deeply integrated into every process and decision. It will also require an investment in attracting new talent and empowering current workers to be confident using the latest digital tools. Moreover, with historic government funding around the world dedicated to infrastructure, decarbonization, and climate mitigation, the need for digitally skilled workers is now urgent. 

Research from Autodesk’s 2023 State of Design & Make annual report confirms that digital transformation is helping the industry manage uncertainty, attract and retain talent, and achieve sustainable outcomes – though key challenges must be overcome. For example, talent shortages are delaying projects and hampering innovation goals, with attracting and retaining talent cited as a top business challenge by the 2,500 executives surveyed for the report.  

I’m pleased that this year’s Infrastructure Week will highlight workforce issues, including ways in which workforce needs are evolving as a result of digital transformation. Sunil Dorairajan, Sr. Director, Construction Industry Strategy at Autodesk, shared his insights on an American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) panel discussion in Washington, DC. titled Growing the Pipeline for Digital Transformation. The takeaway is clear—and two-fold: digital transformation is an exciting opportunity to support current workers in developing skills that lead to better-paying jobs, as well as to attract the next generation of innovators to the infrastructure industry.  

We know that it’s not possible to bring in these talented young people with outdated, paper-based processes and workflows.  

Take for example, Ross Valley Sanitary District (RVSD), considered to be the oldest sanitary district in California. Today the agency is a shining example of technology adoption that other sewer agencies follow–with a modern, risk-based asset management program, comprehensive staff training, and seamless collaboration with regulators and other agencies. The agency wasn’t always this evolved, however. 

Previously, RVSD’s management processes consisted of paper maps, highlighter pens, color-coded stickers, and hand-written reports. In 2013, they experienced several major failures that led to a cease-and-desist order from the California Regional Water Quality Review Board. These consequences led them to rethink their approach and, as a result, they fully embraced digital transformation, taking into consideration the people, processes, and technology needed to modernize their asset management. 

Now their workforce is more efficient, they are able to attract new talent, and most importantly, they’ve nearly eliminated sewer overflows. RVSD is a guide for how digital transformation can improve quality of life in communities while increasing opportunities for skilled workers.   

Outside the United States, we’ve seen public agencies undergo digital transformation with a particular eye toward long-term facilities maintenance. For example, the subway system for the city of Copenhagen, Denmark has consistently been voted best in the world. It has driverless trains that carry about 360,000 passengers daily and provides a safe and sustainable way to move around the city. To expand its service, Copenhagen Metro is building five new stations over the next few years.  

When it previously constructed new stations, the Metro would print out 2D drawings and manually mark up changes or issues by hand. The agency was also relying solely on spreadsheets to manage projects. In transforming their construction process, the Metro put technology at the center by using a common data environment and digitizing its workflows to automate repetitive tasks and develop predictive maintenance schedules. In turn, the agency is increasing teamwork on the jobsite, improving communication through more collaborative working practices, and creating a more sustainable and efficient public service fit for the future. For the people of Copenhagen, a connected construction journey will deliver a more connected city for the future.  

As transportation agencies across the United States start investing new federal infrastructure dollars, examples like Copenhagen provide best practices for making sure this money is spent wisely. 

Importantly, Congress recognized the importance of digital design and construction technologies for the future of infrastructure by including a new program in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to accelerate digital tool adoption by state departments of transportation and transit agencies. I recently visited Washington, DC. where I met with policymakers to discuss how this program can be a gamechanger for transportation infrastructure.  

As we advocate for continued government and industry partnerships to support digital transformation, USDOT and other agencies should make digital skills training programs a key part of their workforce development initiatives. The need for digital skills also provides an opportunity to enhance diversity and subsequent programs should target diverse audiences.  

Autodesk itself has an expansive education program that provides free software and training to students, teachers, schools, and nonprofits. We also work closely with many building trade unions such as the United Association to stand up training programs on digital design and construction tools. We consider all these programs vital to empowering current and future innovators in our industries. 

It’s important we get this right–the future of our communities depends on sustainable, resilient, and reliable infrastructure systems. I am confident we can meet this moment with a focus on adopting 21st century tools to address 21st century challenges, and Autodesk stands ready to support the builders and makers who will do just that.