The Environmental Impact of Meeting Increasing Demand for Urban Infrastructure Construction Projects
Andrew Wheeler posted on November 20, 2017 | 3497 views

The human species numbers at approximately 7.6 billion individuals. As many are aware, and according to Our World in Data, the human population exploded like hot popcorn in the 20th century, rising from 1.5 billion to 6.1 billion.

This explosion in population corresponded with an explosion in the movement of people to the cities of the world. This means city infrastructure needs to be examined and analyzed around the world. Much of it was built without the knowledge of this explosion in population growth.

Given the current state of global urban infrastructure, certain environmental concerns crop up for cities as the demand rises for construction companies to take on and fulfill these large infrastructure projects.

Between maintenance, repair, expansions and structural improvements, there’s a lot of work to be done. Constructing and reconstructing city infrastructure around the world will be a tremendous engineering challenge for the 21st century.

A convergence of crises exposes its contradictory nature: Meeting the demand for increasing numbers of people moving to the world’s cities while minimizing the ecological impact of construction is a massive challenge. Construction is one of the most wasteful industries on earth, which contributes enormously to climate change. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)
A convergence of crises exposes its contradictory nature: Meeting the demand for increasing numbers of people moving to the world’s cities while minimizing the ecological impact of construction is a massive challenge. Construction is one of the most wasteful industries on earth, which contributes enormously to climate change. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Large Scale Urban Construction Impacts Climate Change Negatively

Industrial construction happens to be a wasteful enterprise. As the demand continues to rise for infrastructure projects, one general concern is how traditional construction waste can be reduced using innovative new techniques and technology.

According to the Environmental Health Agency (EPA), common resources and tools of the trade are used by construction firms and their employees that “harm public health and the environment.” The construction industry in the United States generates 160 million tons of non-industrial waste every year. This accounts for 25 percent of the total 640 million tons of non-industrial waste created by the United States every year.

Separate research was done by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It calculated that the global construction industry is responsible for using 40 percent of the total energy used by the world every year.

The USGBC also shows that emissions from commercial buildings will rise 1.8 percent by 2030. The EPA has studied the effects of analogous geographical areas affected by construction activity, concluding that it can “significantly change the surface of a land” because many construction projects involve the “clearing of vegetation and excavating.”

The typical building material found at a construction site are concrete, steel, aluminum and CO2 generated from the production of concrete. Figures from research done by Kleiwerks, with sources including the United Nations Research Program, show that 9.8 million tons of CO2 is generated from the production of 76 million tons of finished concrete in the U.S. alone.

Construction as a global industry is a tremendous conglomerate of corporate “individuals” who consume a lot more of the planet’s resources than any biological-individual (not incorporated) human. According to Kleiwerks’ research, global construction activities account for one-sixth of global freshwater consumption, 25 percent of wood consumption and make up 25 percent of the world’s total waste.

How Do We Re-Engineer Construction Standard Practices to Impact the Environment Radically Less as the Demand for Urban Infrastructure Construction Projects Continues to Rise?

It can be hard to convince people who find fault with the conclusions of climate scientists around the world.

According to NASA, “multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals1 show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”

Currently, 54 percent of the total global population lives in the cities of the world, up from 34 percent in 1960. As the total human population goes up, the urban population will go up—even in less-developed nations.

People are moving to the world’s cities and will be increasing the population by 1.84 percent per year between now and 2020, coming down from a peak growth rate of 2.1 percent per year in 1960, according to the World Health Organization.

The bottom line is that more people are moving to cities, which requires massive infrastructure construction projects—the most destructive act to our environment. People won’t stop moving to cities because of this knowledge, whether they possess it or are unaware.

The State of Global Urban Infrastructure Under the Rising Tide of Digitization

Autodesk released a 26-page whitepaper entitled Strategic Industry Foresight: The Digitalization of Infrastructure.

The content of the whitepaper outlines a Business Information Modeling (BIM)-centric approach to both satisfying the demand for urban infrastructure construction projects while reducing the egregious wastefulness of traditional methodology. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
The content of the whitepaper outlines a Business Information Modeling (BIM)-centric approach to both satisfying the demand for urban infrastructure construction projects while reducing the egregious wastefulness of traditional methodology. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

The paper highlights figures from research done by the McKinsey Global Institute, including that approximately $49 trillion is needed to improve city infrastructure for impending urbanization occurring from 2017-2030. To meet this rising demand, global spending on infrastructure needs to increase by $800 billion per year, and current spending is at $2.6 trillion per year.

This claim is backed by other sources. According to a World Bank report called “What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management,” global solid waste generation is going to rise 70 percent by 2025. In 2010, cities produced 3.5 million tons of garbage per day, and by 2025, the report cites a figure of 6 million tons of solid waste per day.

The global cost of dealing with all that trash is rising too: from $205 billion a year in 2010 to $375 billion by 2025, with the sharpest cost increases in developing countries. Since construction activity contributes a significant percentage of air, ground and water pollution, the opportunity to cut waste is self-evident.

On page 21, a great question summarizes the mission of the whitepaper’s BIM-centric digitization solution:

“What’s the best combination of infrastructure to support increased economic growth in this part of our smart city, while minimizing construction risk, recycling capital, and delivering value of outcomes versus first/lowest cost assets?”

The first challenge is finding tools that can augment and transform current infrastructure for the incoming population.

Understanding how adjacent infrastructure are interdependent is as important as understanding the costs associated with their lifecycles. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
Understanding how adjacent infrastructure are interdependent is as important as understanding the costs associated with their lifecycles. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

So what tools could help twist and transform existing infrastructure at the right points in their lifecycles to perform functions they were never meant to do?

The paper suggests that we first examine available tools altering trends in the infrastructure industry. It focuses on BIM, saying it could cut cost anywhere from “10 to 25 percent in the engineering and construction phases, and 8 to 13 percent in the operations phase.”

BIM, cloud computing, analytics and big data are changing the ways infrastructure is designed, built and managed. There also are emerging technologies such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), that are being used to survey construction sites, capturing 3D data and monitoring progress at various stages of construction. Autonomous vehicles are emerging as a potential disruptor of public transportation, which could initially create more traffic as they replace public transportation, according to the paper.

There also are evolving technologies affecting the lifecycle of supply chains. Things like additive manufacturing, robotic digital fabrication, new material, advanced automation and renewable energy systems must be considered for cities planning, designing and executing infrastructure construction activities.

Making a “Smarter” City

Smarter cities can employ sensor technology to help predict when a complicated repair job might be necessary on a bridge, building or other structure. Making a city smarter means striking the right balance between connecting citizens with the places and information they need to be productive, and technology can serve as a platform to improve the operation of infrastructure assets while addressing privacy concerns head on.

Digital twins are software models of a structure or a system used for visualization, quality analysis (QA) and quality control (QC) in construction that are used to make decisions about managing assets.As augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) continue to become more popular, citizens of smarter cities with interconnected infrastructure will use these new tools for interactions that range from informative to casual and practical.

BIM is the platform at the center of planning, designing and executing upgrades to infrastructure assets by providing a new foundation for holistic planning that will reduce construction waste. This new interconnected infrastructure of digital twins in burgeoning smart cities has the potential to offer new levels of flexibility for city governments and their citizens to communicate and collect valuable input and feedback. The goal is for cities to minimize energy use while preparing infrastructure assets to become stronger, more flexible and less wasteful.

Cities are the ultimate product—the ultimate user experience. Cities are about the people who live in them. As more people move to cities, BIM as a platform for digitizing urban infrastructure will become increasingly vital.


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