Change Leader: New Technology Can Help Fix the Broken Infrastructure Design Process

This interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can watch a video of the full interview above or by visiting

Adam Tank is the co-founder and chief customer officer at Transcend Software.

Changing the Process

According to Tank, the way we plan, design and construct critical infrastructure is a fundamentally broken process.

“We focus too much on being reactive to what’s already been built, and we are oftentimes building the same stuff we have for the last 10, 20 or even 50 years,” he notes.

He believes key decision makers need to look at as many possible outcomes as early in the process as possible, which will allow them to design infrastructure that’s going to be resilient and sustainable for future generations. Adopting new technology is the only way to make that happen.

“We can’t accurately predict the future when it comes to what’s going to be expected of the infrastructure we’re building today—what we’ll need it to do in the future,” says Tank. “So to the extent that we can evaluate all those potential scenarios before we design and construct infrastructure, we can effectively de-risk the likelihood we build something that doesn’t function for us in a couple of decades.”

As an example, he notes that Transcend’s generative design tool allowed a U.S. water utility to evaluate 30 different future scenarios in the same time and budget as it had previously evaluated only three scenarios using traditional engineering design methods.

It Starts With the Design

“When I talk to people outside of the infrastructure industries, it blows their mind that we will spend $50 million or $100 million building an asset we can’t visualize before it’s constructed,” says Tank. “We spend huge sums of money on things like a water/wastewater treatment plant, and we only know what they look like when we can actually walk through the front door of the facility, and that’s a really big problem.”

To demonstrate this isn’t hyperbole, he relates a story from an engineer who spent his early career designing a wastewater treatment plant without 3D modeling or BIM tools. After the plan was constructed, the engineer went for a site visit.

“The first thing he noticed was that he had designed a pump that was 10 feet in the air,” says Tank. “All of the operators and the maintenance teams responsible for maintaining that pump, and ensuring that it was of sufficient operating condition, couldn’t even access it without getting on a ladder or having to climb over pipes.

“We put the people who are responsible for operating and maintaining systems in a really bad position when we aren’t using tools like BIM to model what a facility is going to look like when it’s finally built,” he adds. “We have technology that can build 3D models for us, but we choose not to use it.”

Advice for Engineers

A common criticism of engineers is that they’re averse to change and consider new technologies a “risk” that should be avoided until they’re proven successful. Tank understands their concern and is certain new technology is the only way forward and looks to find ways to change engineers’ outlook. As an example of previous change that’s now common and adopted, he cites the tools used for cost-estimation of projects.

“In many cases, they already incorporate AI or certainly sophisticated algorithms when it comes to things like material takeoffs and quantities,” he notes. “Look at other places where [new technology] has already been applied or you’re already using it, and understand that it’s just as applicable [with new tools].”

Tank also advises engineers take an approach that’s often uncomfortable for them: dive in and figure it out as you go.

“Yes, the application may be a bit newer or something you may not be as familiar with, but, in reality, the engineers who embrace these tools have a lot more fun in their day-to-day work, because it gives them the opportunity to assess more innovative options that, in many cases, they’ve wanted to look at in the past but haven’t had the time or budget to do,” he explains. “They look at it as a sidekick that can validate or invalidate some of the assumptions and ideas they have around a particular project and allow them to spend their time focused on the detailed work that’s actually going to move the needle for the client.”

He also notes that younger employees more familiar with new technologies may take longer to learn the complicated spreadsheets currently being used at the firm than it would for existing engineers to learn newer and better tools. Tank believes it would only take days or perhaps a week to learn how to use a new software tool, adding that they’re often not any more complex or sophisticated than the ones they’re already using—they just may look a little different.

“You might get into a user interface and realize it’s a bit cumbersome, or maybe certain buttons are not in places that you would expect,” he adds. “But ultimately, if you do it and sort of struggle through those first couple iterations, I think you’ll find that these tools, in many cases, are much easier to use than some of the ones you already are using.”

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About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for more than 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

The post Change Leader: New Technology Can Help Fix the Broken Infrastructure Design Process first appeared on Informed Infrastructure.

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