The infrastructure industry is in the midst of some exciting innovations and changes, several of which are on track to define 2022. The last couple of years have seen some significant shifts in focus, technology, and public interest.
The COVID-19 pandemic drew attention to certain trends, such as sustainability, that have since become front-and-center in the industry. At the same time, sweeping infrastructure legislation is driving growth and innovation, bringing new technologies to the mainstream. These are the infrastructure trends that will have the greatest impact in the year ahead.
Arguably today’s most well-known trend in infrastructure, from design to construction, is sustainability. The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a surge in public interest in going green like nothing seen in recent years. This is affecting consumer expectations for new buildings and how they operate. More research is circulating on the effects of construction on the environment. This is generating even more public demand for more sustainable designs and practices.
Sustainability in infrastructure has several benefits beyond public sentiment. For example, one of the keys to sustainable design is making efficient use of resources, such as energy. Energy efficiency is good for the environment and saves significant amounts of money over time. This focus on making the most out of every resource has even led to some interesting tangential infrastructure trends, such as state and local laws requiring buildings to be disassembled for reusable materials rather than demolished.
Even more innovative ideas are on the horizon. For example, an inventor in Kenya has developed synthetic bricks made of plastic waste that are up to seven times stronger than concrete. Materials like this could revolutionize infrastructure. Plastic-enhanced concrete creates stronger, longer-lasting roads and also removes massive amounts of waste from landfills and oceans. The synthetic bricks are among a growing trend of construction materials that reuse trash.
There has also been more innovation and attention to resilient design. A similar mindset applies here as with sustainable infrastructure, both of which focus on creating quality over quantity. Resilience in infrastructure centers on everything from stable structures to tenacious systems like HVAC and electricity.
Interestingly, one of the driving forces behind the resilient infrastructure trend is climate change, which is creating more frequent intense weather worldwide. Durable structures and systems will be needed to stand up to this growing climate shift. The previously mentioned synthetic bricks are a great example of the kind of technology the industry will need to meet this challenge.
A similar approach is being utilized to create support beams stronger than concrete using 3D printed recycled plastic. Methods of securing structures with high-quality, cutting-edge materials will be key to the next era of infrastructure.
Resilient infrastructure can be designed and created in countless ways, such as including redundant systems and strong materials. For example, the heat treatment of the steel used in buildings is more important than ever. Heat treating can make metals even stronger, allowing them to better stand up to the elements and act as a reinforced skeleton for the structure.
Similarly, the infrastructure industry is likely to see more use of backup systems, including generators and computer and HVAC systems designed to stand the test of time.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought health and safety features to the forefront of the infrastructure industry. Most people have become significantly more concerned about things like quality ventilation, air cleanliness and access to fresh air. There is a growing desire to see more greenery in public spaces, as well as facilities and structures designed with cleanliness in mind. Several leading architects have weighed in on the issue, further elaborating on a broader public interest in innovations to infrastructure.
For example, contactless designs, especially in public facilities, are likely to become more common in an effort to reduce the spread of germs. Similarly, HVAC systems will need to be redesigned to help reduce the number of pathogens in air ducts. The CDC has already released thorough guidelines for accomplishing this.
Moving into 2022, some innovations in healthier air ventilation systems could appear, given the time that has passed since 2020 when new ideas were invented and tested.
3D printing is having a major impact on the future of construction and infrastructure. What was once a novel method of creating plastic models has evolved into one of the most significant innovations in the last several decades. Giant 3D printers have been developed that can extrude concrete, allowing for rapid and affordable building. This is a big deal for infrastructure in particular for a couple of reasons.
The development and creation of new infrastructure, such as described in the sprawling 2021 U.S. infrastructure bill, relies on the construction industry. Unfortunately, this sector is still experiencing a significant labor shortage, making it difficult to meet demand. However, 3D printing could provide a solution. A construction-grade 3D printer can autonomously create the basic structure of a building on its own, leaving only the roof and interior details for workers to cover. Additionally, the affordability makes it a great option for expanding infrastructure without driving up expenses with many workers and lengthy construction schedules.
3D-printed buildings are no longer a niche idea, either. There are some key indicators that it will go mainstream in 2022. For example, the world’s largest 3D printed neighborhood was announced in late 2021, set for development in Austin, Texas. Entire houses can be created in just 24 hours. Technology like this could prove extremely useful for things like road paving and repair, as well as the creation of new public housing.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing countless industries, including infrastructure. This is occurring on two fronts: in construction and infrastructure management. AI is excellent for automating tasks and filling in labor shortages by taking over basic, repetitive tasks. These are present in the office as well as the field.
For example, AI can easily automate schedules and payroll. At construction sites, it’s being used to help with certain physical tasks, such as bricklaying, and even improve site safety.
In fact, AI is even being used in the engineering and design process. Generative design is a unique approach that uses AI to generate innovative solutions in engineering and construction. The AI is given a set of data and constraints for design, such as its primary function and load. It uses this information to come up with new ideas that human designers might not have tried.
Automation is closely connected to 3D printing and AI. Infrastructure industry benefits are about more than convenience or speed. Automation can improve safety and project quality and even create new jobs, such as system designers and maintenance personnel. It’s also ideal for filling in staffing shortages when necessary. This versatility makes it a valuable solution for the unique challenges infrastructure faces going into 2022.
Digitization and digitalization are the processes of moving from analog methods and tools to digital ones. Millions of people and employers found themselves experiencing this during the rapid switch to remote work in 2020. In fact, working from home remains a key driver for digitalization in many industries.
Digitization is in many ways the first step to digitalization. While digitization describes moving analog data to digital, digitalization refers to utilizing that information through technology. Both are important rising infrastructure trends.
A great example of digitization at work is moving from paper to digital documents. These files are much easier to handle, store and share. This can make the design and planning process more collaborative and efficient by allowing easy access to documents, even when team members are apart. Similarly, managing personnel and project documentation is smoother when digital files can be rapidly located with a quick tap of the search button.
Digitization does not diminish security, though. If anything, digital files can be even more secure than physical ones through the use of encryption and antivirus software. They’re more difficult to damage or misplace, as well.
Digitalization includes things like hosting videoconferences rather than in-person meetings. This is a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it has stuck around even after the introduction of vaccines due to its convenience. Using digital conference platforms lets infrastructure teams reduce travel expenses and work more efficiently.
The same increased efficiency applies to things like digital platforms for interacting with employees and personnel. Additionally, digitalization makes the integration of new technologies like AI and 3D printing more natural, allowing infrastructure teams to take full advantage of what these innovations have to offer.
Infrastructure is at the heart of every community, bringing people together through the structures, roads and facilities they use every day. With innovative technologies and groundbreaking new construction materials, the future will be one full of durable, wellness-focused designs that stand the test of time. These trends will be key to creating the infrastructure of 2022 and beyond, leading to healthier, more sustainable communities.
Jane Marsh is passionate about the role of technology in helping the planet. She is a freelance environmental and green technology writer and the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co.
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