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Construction workers are seen at a work site in Montreal in March.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Ian L. Edwards, president and CEO of SNC-Lavalin

As Canada enters the second COVID-19 wave, the focus for many is on how to keep the economy above water and generate jobs and investments that not only keep people employed in the short term, but ideally contribute to a stronger country and better quality of life in the long term.

Investment in much-needed infrastructure is considered the gold standard for stimulus spending during economic uncertainty, and we have seen a number of recent announcements from the provinces, as well as plans by the Canada Infrastructure Bank to spend $10-billion on public transit, clean power and agriculture infrastructure to create 60,000 jobs and combat climate change.

As the CEO of SNC-Lavalin, a company with a 100-year-old track record building infrastructure projects around the world, from master planning cities, to developing smart highways and energy megaprojects, through to light-rail transit such as the Dubai metro and Vancouver’s SkyTrain, and the Samuel de Champlain bridge in Montreal, I can attest to the impact modern infrastructure has on economic productivity, local employment and quality of life.

I can also tell you that for society to reap the full benefits of infrastructure investment, it is important that we consider all the factors that define a successful investment. Based on my experience, and what we are hearing matters to Canadians, there are four broad metrics of success: cost-effectiveness, speed to market, environmental and social sustainability, and impact.

It’s a tall order, and one as a society we have often failed to deliver on. The 2008 financial crisis is a case in point. A lot of infrastructure investments were not even approved until after the crisis was over, missing a valuable window of opportunity to stimulate a struggling economy when it was most needed.

This is partly due to the complex nature of large infrastructure projects. However, it is also because of the extremely fragmented and piecemeal way that projects are designed, planned, approved and constructed.

This time around we can’t afford to miss the window, nor should we have to.

We have the capabilities to deliver on all four metrics for success. Just as COVID-19 has accelerated pre-existing trends toward greater technology adoption, we see the same opportunity to leverage technology and data to transform the way infrastructure projects are designed, delivered, built and operated.

The use of virtual modelling – known as digital twinning – and modular construction techniques, are just two examples.

Digital twinning, which virtually replicates a physical structure in digital form, allows engineers to test the design, delivery and operation of large-scale projects remotely and from anywhere in the world. The opportunities for enhancing efficiencies, reducing costs and improving the sustainable operation of an asset over the course of its entire life cycle are significant.

Modular construction techniques also offer the potential to significantly reduce waste on site and speed up delivery times. Major components are manufactured in production hubs and assembled like Lego pieces on site. We used this method to build the Samuel de Champlain Bridge, with factories throughout Quebec producing the prefabricated components, allowing us to complete the bridge in four years instead of the original seven.

The engineering and construction industry is still in the early stages of adopting these new technologies, but the potential impact to cost, speed and sustainability cannot be overstated. We see with COVID-19 an increasing demand for green and sustainable infrastructure, and it is important to understand that it is not only what we build that defines what is green, but how we build it.

The key to unlocking that potential, however, lies with new forms of collaboration between the private sector and governments. The current model is not designed to harness the potential of digital, data and new technologies that allow us to take a more holistic, outcomes-based approach to the infrastructure we build.

For the most part, rather than rewarding productivity enhancements and reduced energy use, contracts are calculated based on traditional methodology, such as person hours, and basic material costs. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence is to discourage technology adoption, and undermines our sustainability objectives, reducing infrastructure to its lowest common denominator.

The good news is there is a way forward. Governments are rethinking what a more collaborative partnership could look like, and given everything we are facing as a society, there is certainly no time like the present when it comes to designing and building infrastructure that is cost-effective, timely, sustainable and impactful.

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