Nov 22, 2021

Read Time IconRead time: 3.22 mins

Technology’s Role in Sustainable Infrastructure

Technological innovation has always played an enormous role within the infrastructure industry. But now, in line with global trends and the need to incorporate sustainability in large-scale infrastructure projects, it’s vital to explore just how innovative design and technology can facilitate sustainable business practices.

Find out more about the role innovation plays in sustainable infrastructure projects with Peter Guthrie, Guest Lecturer on the Business Sustainability Management online short course from the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).



If you look back over the last 150 years, we’re living in the western world, at least, with, very largely, old infrastructure which has survived remarkably well. So ports, harbours, dams, railways have all greatly exceeded their anticipated design life at the time of construction. That’s a blessing and a curse of course because we are now left with having to duplicate some of that infrastructure so that we don’t abandon it when we increase the size of the network for example.

But the sustainability considerations around large-scale infrastructure projects is a hugely contested area. I think it’s true to say that the performance of a piece of infrastructure, the performance of, for example, a sewer tunnel or a railway or a dam, the technical considerations, the design, the engineering, are all considered in great detail. And it tends to be a subsequent issue that sustainability has taken into account. So there is a kind of defensive position taken that you look at when you have a piece of infrastructure: How will the sustainability aspects be addressed?

Technology plays a huge role, and the innovation is a very important part of large-scale infrastructure projects. Having said that, the infrastructure provision tends to be quite conservative because it has such a long lifetime. Very often, technological innovation has to have some sort of proving ground elsewhere before a large-scale infrastructure project, such as a railway or a new highway, will be prepared to adopt this kind of technology before it can understand the longevity, and because there are very big implications if you embark on a new technology and you find that it’s not serving the purpose. You have a piece of infrastructure very often which has a lifetime of 40, 60, 80, or 100 years, and if you make an error of judgment in the beginning with a technology that doesn’t have that kind of durability, it can be very expensive.

So there are some examples of very exciting technological innovation, for example in tunneling. The tunneling industry has come a hugely long way in terms of moving from manual excavation of tunnels, particularly in softer ground, to automatic tunnel boring machines where very high-tech machinery is used in a largely personnel-free environment. And instrumentation, optical fibres, and so on are used to monitor the progress of the tunnel and also the condition of buildings and infrastructure of the surface. So that’s a good example of where technological innovation has really changed the nature of an entire industry in the infrastructure sector.

Filed under: Sustainability