To close out last month’s Infrastructure Week, I wrote an opinion article published in Civil + Structural Engineer that summarizes my thoughts on how AI can play a role in designing and implementing infrastructure projects, managing timelines, team coordination, and incorporating sustainability goals, as well as how companies can partner with government institutions to get these projects off the ground.

Read on for the full op-ed below.

Placing AI Front and Center for Infrastructure Week

Critical investment in infrastructure is top of mind for governments and businesses; however, to be successful in building for the future, we need to unlock the potential of AI.

This past Monday marked the start of Infrastructure Week, which comes as investment in infrastructure is being prioritized for the first time in decades by both the government and the private sector.

Milestone U.S. legislation such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and Inflation Reduction Act have placed rebuilding our country’s aging infrastructure at the center of the government’s agenda, as much needed Federal funds will be dedicated to rebuilding our buildings, roads, bridges and cities.

At the same time, there is a rise in the private sector prioritizing infrastructure investment. Last year, the amount of funds raised by infrastructure investment firms surpassed $1 trillion for the first time ever (Infrastructure Investor).

While the influx of public and private investment is the right step forward in closing the infrastructure funding gap, it isn’t enough to meet our infrastructure needs as the world needs to invest an average of $3.7 trillion every year through 2035 to meet future demand (McKinsey).

Additionally, based on our current consumption, we simply don’t have the resources, labor and materials needed to build for a future population.

Spending more on infrastructure isn’t enough to overcome these challenges – we need to unleash the power of technology to enable us to do more with less.

Leaders in business and in government are working to address this as Autodesk recently participated in roundtable hosted by the U.S. House of Representatives to discuss the real-world applications of AI in the transportation sector.

AI can be a game changer in this effort, as it is already beginning to shift how we learn, work and live. By fully embracing this technology, we can make it an essential tool in realizing our infrastructure ambitions.  There are many ways in which AI can help us overcome capacity constraints when it comes to building for the future.

Firstly, AI can play a pivotal role in the decision process for mega-infrastructure projects, as it enables us to analyze vast amounts of data in ways that humans aren’t able to while identifying challenges and offering better solutions. This means that highly technical decisions can be made earlier and in a fraction of the time, which can lead to better project outcomes. Given that 95% of data captured goes unused in the engineering and construction industry, there is significant room for improvement.

AI can also reimagine how high-stakes projects are built on condensed timelines. Last March’s Baltimore bridge collapse was a terrible human tragedy and an unfortunate reminder of the vulnerability of much of America’s infrastructure. It’s estimated that we need to rebuild more than 230,000 bridges across the U.S., and, as decision makers decide how best to rebuild these bridges, AI can be used to generate primary ideas using new engineering techniques. For time-sensitive, high-pressure projects such as these, using the power of AI to completely reimagine building a bridge could be what makes the difference in developing safer and more resilient infrastructure.

AI can also play a key role in making projects more sustainable, a priority for landmark infrastructure legislation. For infrastructure to truly be sustainable we must cut down on the amount of waste that a project generates. Each year, we generate approximately 100 billion tons of waste in construction, renovation and demolition, which is about 9% of all energy-related CO2 emissions (UNEP). At present, the building and construction sector is not on track to achieve decarbonization by 2050 and the gap is widening. AI can help minimize waste-driven emissions by enabling us to use fewer materials and build more efficiently in ways that a conventional team of civil engineers couldn’t do on their own.

Lastly, AI can revolutionize how the government manages our most important projects. The public sector is taking the lead in addressing our most important infrastructure challenges. However, for the government to realize its ambitions, it must change its processes for managing major projects. One of the biggest areas in which AI can help is the permitting process, which still largely relies on obsolete 2D drawings for projects. Given the complexities of our infrastructure needs, switching to 3D for permitting can deliver richer, more understandable, information without the need for paper drawings and, in turn, enable the government to make more informed decisions on when and how it builds for tomorrow.

Read more from Andrew on the pivotal role AI can play in addressing global challenges.

It’s still early days, but we are already seeing positive steps in better integrating AI into infrastructure projects. The recent IIJA will see $85 million in Federal funding go to state and local departments of transportation to accelerate their adoption of digital construction for highway projects through the Advanced Digital Construction Management Systems (ADCMS) program. This is an important step in laying the foundation for using AI tools in infrastructure development. The government now can expand on the ADCMS framework and embrace digital tools for other critical projects such as airports, ports, water management and more.

We already have the technology to overcome the capacity constraints we face in rebuilding America. Now, we need the public and private sectors to come together and place AI at the heart of our infrastructure strategy. Otherwise, the investment boom we are seeing risks becoming a bust.