Business Irish

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Playing the short and the long game on infrastructure

Building a new Ireland: The enormity of the National Development Plan means focus and debate can be on a small number of projects. Stock photo
Building a new Ireland: The enormity of the National Development Plan means focus and debate can be on a small number of projects. Stock photo

Shane MacSweeney and Neil Gibson

Ireland's need to invest in infrastructure is widely accepted. There is little argument over the need to catch up forgone investment of the past, to invest in supporting the fast-growing economy, and to modernise ageing facilities to meet citizens' expectations. However, long lead times for major infrastructure projects can make the journey ahead seem daunting. Costs appear staggeringly high to the average citizen and it can feel that 'better' is a long way off. We can all be excited about transformative projects such as MetroLink, the National Broadband Plan and the M20 Motorway, but the excitement dulls when completion dates and estimated costs are published.

The enormity of the needs and the understandable focus on the big 'game-changing' investments that anchor the National Development Plan lead to a very narrow debate that focuses on a very small number of projects.

This can leave very little air time or thinking space for the myriad of smaller initiatives and innovations that could profoundly change the customer experience, and make a palpable difference to how people feel.

These need not necessarily be expensive, but they recognise a need to transform, and demonstrate an understanding of the constant evolution in customer expectations.

Citizens are now more used to instant gratification, driven by their online shopping experiences. So what can be done to augment citizens' experiences in the short term?

The long-term plan as set out in Ireland 2040, and the signature projects contained within, should be the backbone of Ireland's infrastructure vision.

Road to success: Quick wins could help cut congestion in cities
Road to success: Quick wins could help cut congestion in cities

Bringing forward timelines, seeking innovative funding methods, and finding new ways to manage costs are all laudable activities that are under way. But it is not only the large-scale projects that matter, nor is it solely the responsibility of the Government to transform Ireland's infrastructure. New ways of thinking, of working and of delivering are opening up potential 'quick wins' that can make a difference today.

This is important, as it not only has the potential to boost productivity and economic growth in the short term, but it can make citizens' lives better, and build confidence that bigger projects can and will be tackled.

The story of the past decade around the world has been that citizens measure their life satisfaction in a way that is very disconnected from headline economic measures such as GDP.

In fact, many of the observable outcomes of a fast-growing economy can be detrimental to the citizen experience.

Longer commutes, extended wait times in A&E, higher property prices, increased pollution or difficulties in finding school places are just a few examples.

Therefore, improving the citizen experience with relatively easy-to-implement tweaks or small investments could be hugely impactful.

The concept of lower-cost quick-wins should not be viewed as only being about citizen experience. There are very real economic and business benefits that can accrue. There are examples of traffic re-routing or better management of hospital waiting lists that not only have significant cost benefits but, in some cases, have reduced the need for expensive, large-scale capital infrastructure spending.

With the future of transport and energy the subject of intense debate, it is not always easy to be precise about the long-term benefits of major investments.

The futuristic imagery that is frequently published, showing cities of the future with airborne delivery of products, automated transport and alternative energy supply driving a carbon-neutral environment, demonstrates the uncertainty over what type of infrastructure will be needed.

This complexity further adds delay and debate over spending decisions, and adds an extra business rationale for the need to make more immediate changes - and embrace new ways of solving infrastructure puzzles.

Before looking at specific examples of the small-change/big-impact ideas, it is useful to think about who comes up with them. The days of sitting back and waiting for the Government, or even less helpfully, complaining about what is wrong with what the Government is doing, should be confined to history. Co-creation and co-production are the buzz words of 2019.

The private sector, academia, the citizen, school children, all of us, can be the source of great innovation, and bring a freshness of thinking that is unlikely to arise from the old model of looking at what was done last time and updating it. Looking at problems differently can yield very different answers.

Hackathons and civic competitions are two examples yielding results today across the world, engaging a new form of problem-solving in an inclusive and inspiring way.

Hackathons are condensed workshops where experts collaborate intensely to develop software solutions to specific problems.

In Australia recently, over 200 participants formed more than 30 teams, with the task of easing road congestion.

The winner was an adaptive mobility behavioural insights project which would display real-time prompts of traffic conditions across different modes of transport, to help people adjust their journey and maximise available transport options.

EY's own NextWave data competition saw 5,000 students across the globe work to use their modelling skills to figure out how data can drive the development of smart cities.

Analysing a real-life data-set taken from the city of Atlanta, Georgia, their findings enabled them to predict the density of population in the city centre at a specific moment, based on the activity detected during the early hours of the day. The four finalists were from Argentina, the US, Germany and Singapore, showing how global expertise can be brought to bear on infrastructure questions.

There is a need to play both the long and short game when considering Ireland's infrastructure. The potential of opening the solutions to more companies and individuals, and the rapidly evolving potential of new technology, offer the possibility of delivering real improvements over a shorter timeframe than many of the signature projects that form the backbone of Ireland's infrastructure plans.

Much like a sports team looking to build for success, it is important to plan carefully and aim to build a lasting dynasty, but it is equally important to have a 'win-now' mentality.

Fans, much like citizens, value today as much (if not more) than they do tomorrow. Making improvements to their lives today is both advantageous for them and for society as a whole.

The next time you are frustrated with an aspect of Ireland's infrastructure, it is good to pause for a moment and think, 'what could be done to make this better?'.

Thinking caps, or should that be virtual reality headsets, at the ready.

Shane MacSweeney is head of government and infrastructure at EY Ireland; Professor Neil Gibson is chief economist at EY Ireland

Small change, big impact – what could it look like?

There are examples of major impacts resulting from relatively small investments appearing all across the globe, and across all aspects of infrastructure delivery. From housing to transport, energy and healthcare, the ideas are both ingenious and sometimes elegantly simple. They include the following.

Learning from others

• Quick congestion wins: The city of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania deployed a smart system using artificial intelligence (AI) traffic signals that adapt to changing traffic conditions. Sophisticated AI algorithms use data to build a dynamic timing plan.

The computer also sends the data to traffic intersections downstream so they can plan ahead.

The AI network has so far reduced travel time for drivers by 25pc and time spent idling in traffic by 40pc. It is also estimated to reduce emissions by 21pc.

• Quick licence wins: Australian drivers will soon see their driving licences move from their wallets to their smartphones with the introduction of a digital licence.

More than 14,000 drivers in Dubbo, Albury and Sydney's eastern suburbs have already successfully trialled the system.

• Quick health wins: Since May 2017, the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and Victoria Hospital in Fife, Scotland, have provided patients with AI-driven health monitors. These devices can determine when a patient's health is deteriorating, and assess which patients are in need of further care.

The results have been impressive, reducing home visits by 22pc and reducing emergency room re-admissions.

• Quick wellbeing wins: Las Vegas is using a system to analyse tens of thousands of tweets in order to identify possible food poisoning.

The programme then connects those tweets to specific restaurants, and dispatches inspectors to check for any health violations.

There have been 9,000 fewer cases of food poisoning and over 500 less food poisoning related hospital admissions since the technology was introduced.

• Quick safety wins: The Netherlands recently trialled the installation of special pavement pedestrian lights, which glow red or green to replicate traffic signals.

The lights were designed to safeguard so-called pedestrian 'smartphone zombies' who, rather than looking up, are now looking down at their phones while walking.

Thinking creatively

Looking elsewhere is always a good start, but sometimes it is useful to think creatively and aim to lead, not follow. There are endless possibilities of how to change how we do things to deliver better outcomes. For example:

• Creating a 'one-stop-shop' for public services: The Government knows a lot about each of us and could proactively engage with citizens at key life events and milestones.

A 'MyLife' app encompassing all public sector interactions, and providing advice and guidance at the appropriate time, would streamline and personalise engagement between citizens and the public sector.

• Data-matching to improve the user experience: Viewing government interactions holistically through the perspective of the citizen could revolutionise how policy interventions are designed.

Matching data across agencies and understanding for whom interventions are working (or not), rather than reviewing each intervention or policy separately, could make a real difference to the citizen experience.

• Addressing waiting times: We all find ourselves having to wait for services at different times in our lives, whether that is to get a new passport, driving licence or access to A&E.

What if a dedicated website or app was created with the waiting times for all public services listed, and you could decide ahead of time, for example, whether to go to hospital X or hospital Y, depending on the wait time?

This would not only improve the citizen experience, but also help to ease some of the burden on our public services when they are under pressure.

• Smartphone alerts to warn of road accidents: Driving accidents unfortunately happen every day, and often our first warning sign is when we happen upon the accident, or through hearing the sound of an ambulance's siren. But what if we knew ahead of time?

Data could be used to analyse which smartphone users are in the vicinity of an accident, and send them alerts to divert their journey or move aside in anticipation of ambulance crews.

This would not only ease congestion, but it would also save valuable minutes when lives are at stake.

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