Building on solid ground

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Por Sandrine Tranchard
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With expanding world economies and soaring demographics, the need for sustainable infrastructure is one of the great global challenges of our time. The subject was addressed head on during two ISO conferences on infrastructure, held recently in London and Singapore.

To serve our economies and lifestyles, we need better roads and railways, cleaner water, sustainable energy, bigger schools and hospitals – in short, better infrastructure. Infrastructure is being recognized as one of the key enablers of economic recovery and represents USD 4 trillion a year. Proof of this is that investment in this crucial area has been maintained despite the cuts imposed by austerity.

Regulating the sprawling sector are scores of industry-specific codes and regulations. But with as many standards as there are countries, this is cause for confusion, and there can be no better time to bring consistency to this frequently chaotic arena. Which is why, in October 2014, ISO hosted two conferences in London and Singapore, organized respectively by BSI and SPRING, its members in the regions.

Jacques Lair, Chair of technical committees for sustainable development in communities (ISO/TC 268) and sustainability in buildings and civil engineering works (ISO/TC 59/SC 17), was one of the experts who attended the events. He shares with us some interesting insights on a field that has been the mainstay of his career.


Jacques Lair, Chair of two ISO technical committees related to infrastructure.
ISOfocus: With half the world’s people now living in cities, what are some of the challenges for the infrastructure services sector? How did the recently held infrastructure events in both London and Singapore address these issues?

Jacques Lair: The events in London and Singapore shed some light through examples of major world cities that have developed planning projects centred on the theme of infrastructure. Yet, to my mind, the urban dimension wasn’t adequately represented. The approach taken was deliberately focused on big cities that have opted for urban densification rather than urban sprawl.

Is this a true reflection of reality? Can this be considered a universal choice? One only need look at North-American cities to see that residential districts ramble on for miles around the city centre into areas that are increasingly removed from those models described throughout the conference. Is this the correct response to citizens’ expectations? Is it a good approach to sustainable development?

Government policies aside, user expectations will need to be taken into account in one way or another, though without neglecting citizens’ cultural differences and lifestyle habits. I believe that intelligent infrastructures can be considered today at a sustainable cost if they are implemented in highly urbanized and densely populated areas.

The infrastructure & transportation services (I&TS) sector is a diverse global industry that is currently facing widely differing market conditions, pressures and opportunities in its various markets. Could you please elaborate on this?

For industrial companies, the sectors of infrastructure and transport (see below) constitute a business opportunity, and one which is all the more significant given the huge potential for innovation in the short, medium and long term, both on the domestic and international markets.

Arguably, the concepts of infrastructure and smart cities will need to be adapted to the specific social and economic contexts of each country or region. The needs of a city, and the way we accommodate the societal expectations of its citizens, will be fundamentally different depending on level of development, government practices, traditions, philosophical and religious beliefs, and cultural contexts. Future standards will therefore need to be drafted in such a way that users can adapt them to account for all these different parameters.

What are the emerging challenges for the future of infrastructure, and specifically for construction companies and infrastructure operators? How can International Standards help?

For a start, this shift can and must give renewed impetus to the construction and urban development sectors. The added value provided by these activities should bring great benefits to companies if they understand the full potential of this transition.

By their very nature, these markets have an international scope, and the larger companies will find themselves competing with their counterparts in other countries. International Standards will of course play a crucial role when it comes to setting the requirements, responding to enquiries and operating such infrastructures, but also when sharing experiences and identifying best practices. They should also open the doors to these markets, which are not simply limited to design and construction activities but also include the maintenance, operation and end-of-life of such networks.

Besides, the Building Information Model (BIM) will open up new opportunities for our businesses, designers and contractors as this rational approach should also allow the integration of the various success factors from the inception, thereby facilitating choices and decisions.

As the Chair of two ISO technical committees, ISO/TC 59/SC 17, Sustainability in buildings and civil engineering works, and ISO/TC 268, Sustainable development in communities, what for you are the main priorities?

There is no doubt in my mind that both technical committees are closely connected. Sustainable development in communities cannot be envisaged without sustainability in buildings and civil engineering works. How, then, could the content of their respective standards be so radically different?

So far, these two committees have used a similar approach and developed International Standards that are open enough to be easily implemented in all countries. A surefire sign of this is the growing and diverse number of countries, big and small, participating in these committees, hailing from a variety of socio-economic, political and cultural contexts.

Now, on to a more personal question: You have been involved in the building sector for many years. What is it about this field that interests you most? In retrospect, would you do anything differently – or not?

I have indeed been in the building sector for a very long time. I have dedicated my entire professional life to it. Now, retired from business, I try to bring my modest contribution to the most fascinating structure I know: international standardization.

What was it I found most interesting about my job? Although every construction process is identical, each constructed object – be it a building or a civil engineering work – is unique. Every day, we create prototypes based on different locations, techniques and periods, and while a significant number of these works may appear to be similar, to us constructors, they are entirely different.

Today, having led many a building project, both in France and abroad, I fully appreciate the importance of standardization, which enables us all to speak the same language and gives us a system of documents and consistent calculation methods to rely on – so we can enjoy fair business and industrial practices and equal opportunities for all.

Of course, if I were to start over, I would do the same again. But with the modern tools available today, this new life would certainly be even more fascinating.


Infographic: Under the infrastructure umbrella
Sandrine Tranchard
Sandrine Tranchard

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