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Beca on the gold mine under our feet

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The economic and societal case for collecting, structuring, and centralising subsurface data and information.

Messi Khabazi and Tim Mumford

It’s busy and complex beneath our feet. The ground we stand on is made up of soil with a rich history. It is full of proverbial risks and challenges that materially impact the cost and feasibility of tomorrow’s infrastructure.

The real cost of subsurface risk in Australia is estimated at more than $50 billion. Solutions to reduce this taxpayer burden and reduce the societal impact from disruptions by more than 30 percent exist but must be championed by central governments. This article presents case to centralise subsurface data across Australia underpinned by international analogues which have demonstrated sizable economic benefits, reduced major disruptions, and eliminated untold political risks.

Soil is complex

Soils are vastly different: made up of various types of materials, such as sand, clay, organic materials, rock and everything in between. Some are strong and some are weak. Each soil type performs differently, especially when there is a building or road placed on top of it.

Not only are soils different but they are full of assets that underpin our modern way of life. There are millions of kilometres of pipes, conduits, and optical fibre beneath our feet which provide us with power, the internet and more.

It is possible for contamination to occur among the pipes and fibres. Heavy metals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and myriad other contaminants remain as a legacy from days past where we were, as a society, less scrupulous about the environment. The extent and location of soil contamination affect not only how we design and build infrastructure for the future but can also be one of the biggest problems if unearthed in the future.

Soils also contain water. Lots of it. Rivers flow under our feet, rising, falling, expanding, and contracting over time. Underground water, like contamination, needs to be critically understood prior to building. Dramatic examples of this are sinkholes, which can be caused by erosion or excessive draw-down from the water table.


Insight: A view of risk from Australia’s peak independent infrastructure body

Infrastructure Australia’s recent research into risk in major Australian project has concluded that 40 percent of the largest risks, as they relate to infrastructure that supports Australians, lie beneath our feet.

After evaluating the outcomes of many infrastructure projects across Australia, the independent infrastructure agency determined the third and fourth largest risk to major transport infrastructure projects are ‘inadequate scoping of utilities can lead to utility disruptions, schedule and cost overruns, and design changes’ and ‘unexpected geotechnical conditions can impact project milestones and increase project costs and schedules.’ [1]


Ground conditions are a source of significant risk and cost

The reality is that the soil we stand on is full of uncertainties. These uncertainties have a material impact on infrastructure – the roads, bridges, schools, poles and wires that sit on top of them. Uncertainties underneath our feet can account for 10-30 percent of all infrastructure costs – upwards of $50 billions of taxpayer’s money is dedicated to finding out what we, respectfully, understood at one point in time.[2]

While 30 percent may seem high it’s likely understated. The truth is that costs and impacts of ground or subsurface conditions have many significant secondary impacts. Examples of this include, but are not limited to, utility relocation, damages, traffic delays, business impacts, user impacts, environmental impacts, delays from information gathering and verification, legal and litigation, soil treatment, or sub-structure remediation. [3]

The 30 percent is also unlikely to consider tertiary impacts: community health impacts from unnecessary hauling PFAS, or economic sustainability of a sector that is already perilously close to failure.[4]

Not only do these organisations and individuals – the planners, architects, engineers, and constructors – make the incredible infrastructure that we need a reality, but they are an inseparable part of our economy. To prevent this from occurring, we must proactively avoid circumstances where these actors inevitably and institutionally ‘agree’ to ground condition risk without better knowledge (or any knowledge) of the conditions. Positively, governments are beginning to acknowledge these risks and navigate the commercial and legal context surrounding them.[1] [5] [6] [7]

But more can be done to minimise the risk entirely right now. It can also be achieved for less cost on balance; a proverbial ‘free lunch’ if you will. The key to this free lunch is harnessing the power of digital and innovation to peer through this subsurface uncertainty.


Case Study: Project ‘Alpha’

On one Australian transport Megaproject, the discovery of soil contaminants resulted in considerable disputes between government and the delivery partner.

The discovery led to project delays exceeding 20 months and has resulted in significant cost overruns to remove contaminants. Australian taxpayers have footed most of the cost, which has increased by more than 50 per cent from original estimates.


An Australian Terra Twin (AT2)

The economic case to act is overwhelming – far greater than the benefit-cost-ratio of most infrastructure investments. For every dollar spent on understanding subsurface and ground conditions prior to beginning a project, almost twelve dollars are returned. Moreover, the costs which should be invested prior to commencing a project are mere fractions of total spend. Approximately two percent of total infrastructure investment can almost entirely ameliorate subsurface risk on the average project. [8]

Its beggars’ belief that we do not spend two percent of any project’s budget ahead of time. Particularly if it avoids the unavoidable and predictable pain of paying an additional ~30 percent later. The proverbial ‘stitch in time’ has demonstrable and considerable value.

Extending the logic of spending two per cent to save 30 per cent later – wouldn’t it make sense to create a centralised repository that retains all this information which can be accessible to selected parties whenever they unearth or discover something that lies beneath our feet. A single source of truth of subsurface information for all projects and actors.

A central repository of subsurface information would significantly improve Australian infrastructure for Australians that use it and reduce the burden on taxpayers that economically support it.


Case Study – Project ‘Bravo’

Another Australian transport megaproject project faced considerable headwinds after ‘new information’ relating to utilities was issued to the constructor after contracts had been signed. The delays of receiving this information placed the constructor at great risk; with estimates upwards of more than $400 million and an additional 12 months to remediate issues.


This repository, an ‘Australian Terra Twin’, would house all information relevant to the risks that lie beneath our feet. As an example, it could contain information pertaining to the ground profile and geological structure, presence and characteristics of groundwater, the chemistry of the soil and groundwater, contamination, strength and stiffness, strength and deformability, rock mass properties, suitability of earthworks and fill, presence and type of utilities, ownership (i.e., titles), and current and historical land use.

It could extend to more detailed information, such as borehole logs or core samples pictures. There’s no reason why the ‘Terra Twin’ could be repeated in any other country globally, such as New Zealand, Indonesia, or Fiji.


Case Study – Victoria Unearthed

Victorian Government has developed a digital solution that integrates information about potential land and groundwater contamination, and historical business listings. The tool, Victoria Unearthed, is an invaluable resource for those looking to ‘peer back in time underground’.


Towards higher-value insights, the various subsurface data dimensions could be aggregated and summarised into a ‘net subsurface risk rating’. This rating would be a valuable driver of decision-making for many actors and would materially reduce costs of infrastructure, homes, and commercial space and delivering it quicker. These benefits would stem from avoiding construction in obviously risky locations. Adoption could also begin to abate the growing number of insolvencies in the construction and infrastructure sector. [9]

Being able to peer back in time to better understand what business may have been operating at an address would provide real insights into potential sources of contamination. Perhaps the site contained a glass factory or battery manufacturer’s facilities – both notoriously linked to heavy metals and ‘plume’ issues. Victoria Unearthed is a good analogue for this functionality.

But the repository should be not limited to one state, and one dimension of subsurface risk. The repository should also house the depth and location of underground assets – the spaghetti of pipes, conduits, and optical fibre. This information is critical as it guides the strategic design of footings, influences building orientation for optimal tie-ins, and reduces the likelihood of ‘strikes’ in the field – which can often shut down power to local businesses and homes.

In line with thinking about data like an asset, the Australian Terra Twin could be one of Australia’s real productivity-creating digital assets. Moreover, we could export this capability and intellectual property to other countries, bolstering our domestic product and employment prospects.

The role of the Commonwealth should not be overlooked in the establishment of an Australian Terra Twin. While states and territories are predominately responsible for infrastructure delivery, establishment and oversight of utilities and councils (who own a considerable amount of public infrastructure), environmental protection agencies, and relevant legislation pertaining to subsurface matters the challenges are common and national.

The Commonwealth, through entities such as the Department of Finance, who have historically driven value in the establishment of common-good government-based enterprises, could play a proactive leadership role in creating a value-creating entity such as this.


Case Study: Unified access to subsurface information across Scotland and the UK

Over a decade ago Scotland championed a similar service to the AT2: the Scottish Community Apparatus Data Vault. The ‘Vault’ is an environment to seamlessly share and access information on the location of underground pipes and cables and making it available to all. It stiches together 33 road authorities, 34 utility companies, 120,000 km of gas water and drainage pipes and 200,000 km of electricity and telecommunication cables. The service, now mandated, attracts thousands of users each day and has avoided untold major disruptions and costly construction overruns.

 

[Image Credit: Aurora Symology]
[Image Credit: Aurora Symology]
Following on from the successes to the Vault, the UK government has invested £21m to initiate the National Underground Assets Register (NUAR). The NUAR is expected to generate more than a 10x return on investment – more than £245m per annum [10]

Surmountable challenges to capture the value

It’s acknowledged that establishing the Australian Terra Twin wouldn’t be without challenges to overcome. Access, availability & accuracy of data, security, regulation, level of reliance, and linkages back to contracts, processes and procurement all need ironing out. It is recognised that understanding what lies beneath with some degree of confidence is inherently hard to achieve.

It’s appreciated that anyone providing access to his service may be concerned about the warranties and risk in providing this information – it’s very human to contemplate ‘what might happen’ if someone relied on this information and it turned out to be wrong or misleading.

The good news is that the AT2 service could be provided without these warranties on reliance and there’s good analogue. Millions of people use the wayfinding features of Google Maps every minute – but no one is suing Alphabet for giving an estimate of arrival time that was 10 minutes ahead of when they turned up to that job interview.

This ‘reliance’ issue, alongside other headwinds critics may raise, aren’t insurmountable and certainly not reason enough to keep the status quo. More to the point, we’ve got to be more pragmatic than this – wouldn’t the absence of an AT2 service create more net risk to society than its existence?

It’s important to recognise government efforts to centralise this information, such as ‘Before You Dig Australia’, are excellent precedents to the AT2. However, the data in these environments is often specific to one subset of ground or subsurface data.

Data can be misleading, often does not have a reliable feedback loop, and can be presented in a sub-optimal format leading to erosions in productivity. Recent initiatives to mitigate some of these challenges, such as the utilities workstream in Digital Twin Victoria, are highly commendable and should be celebrated. What’s really missing is a single environment – one environment to tie all these things together. One front door, one common language.

The establishment of the Australian Terra Twin is also likely to be opposed by companies that benefit from uncertainty beneath our feet. Companies may include surveyors who have made it their business to find underground assets, geotechnical loggers who are established to determine subsurface conditions, or lawyers who may benefit from expensive litigation afterwards.

However, the overwhelming reality is that ground or subsurface conditions create a net negative macro-economic condition for many actors – including, and most importantly, for society. Moreover, establishing the Australian Terra Twin would allow these (highly valuable) resources – scientists, engineers, lawyers, drillers – to work on higher value activities: ones that protect our collective future, such as climate change.


Insight: The precipitous drop in utilities damage in France.

Since 2013, France has championed the development and use of the Déclaration de travaux à proximité de réseaux (‘DT DICT’) – a ‘teleservice’ for all subsurface assets. The service federates subsurface data, utility operators and those wishing to conduct works to connect in a single source of truth. Since its launch in 2013, there has been a precipitous drop (35 precent) of utilities incidents and damage. This damage avoidance has created considerable societal value and untold benefits to the community that rely on the services across France.


Insight: The precipitous drop in utilities damage in France.
Insight: The precipitous drop in utilities damage in France.

Capturing value requires a bold, but predictable, series of first steps

A resource of this kind would effectively become a high-quality data-rich hub over time, offering enormous value to the economy by saving time and money, reducing risk, improving decision-making and much more. There’s a compelling case for centralisation of ground investigation data. This is not only in terms of economics, but in terms of improved efficiency, reduced political risk, and bolstering community confidence.

Where to start? The first step to capture this value is for the Commonwealth to establish an agreement with states and territories in working with operators, and within their agencies, to source, release, coordinate and share this information. Existing geospatial and asset information should be consolidated into a single platform and served to authorised users. Towards this goal and new functionality, entities such as Before You Dig Australia’s, could have expanded remits and services.

Analogues, such as the Scottish Government, could be followed. Particularly in the use and governance of the system – where it could be mandated and adopted works practitioners: prior to and post works. It would be important to ensure that the scope of the system is expanded beyond utilities – and includes other aspects of risk, such as ground conditions, contaminated land.

The use of the system could be tied with existing legislation, policies, and processes, such as the National Construction Code, National Partnerships Agreement, or Planning Act to strengthen adoption. It would also make sense to create targeted training and upskilling programs – which could be deployed through TAFE and Universities. Alternatively, there could be incentives for individuals to upload and submit data. It’s possible that critics will focus on the cost of these incentives; however, this focus will fail to consider the bigger picture – the cost of the current state, or a ‘do nothing’ scenario, which has been estimated at $50 billion.

Most importantly, we could learn from similar initiatives that have commenced and have added demonstrable value for more than a decade. Ultimately, getting there requires one government actor to take the first step.

Author’s note: We would like to thank Mr Geoff Zeiss for his valuable insights, alongside Melissa Harris, Michael Harrington, and Alex McGrath for their inputs and wisdom.

References

[1] Infrastructure Australia (2021) A National Study of Infrastructure Risk, Australian Government.

[2] Lieberman, J and Ryan, A (2017) Underground Infrastructure Concept Study Engineering Report, Open Geospatial Consortia, OGC 17-048.

[3] Fellner, C (2020) Landmark legal settlement as government pays $212m to victims of toxic contamination, Sydney Morning Herald

[4] Wiggins, J (2022) Clough collapse shows Australia’s infrastructure industry is at breaking point, Australian Financial Review.

[5] NSW Treasury (2015) Reducing procurement bid costs, Infrastructure & Structured Finance Unit NSW Government .

[6] Infrastructure New South Wales (2020) Managing unknown site conditions risks and utilities risks, NSW Government.

[7] Infrastructure Australia (2016) Inland Rail Project Business Case Evaluation¸ Australian Government.

[8] Jung, Y (2012) Evaluation of subsurface utility engineering for highway projects: Benefit–cost analysis, Tunnelling and Underground Space Technology, Volume 27, Issue 1.

[9] Kinsella, E (2022) In Australia there are more insolvencies in the construction sector than any other, and consumers are paying the price, Australian Broadcasting Commission.

[10] UK Regulators’ Network (2019) Infrastructure Data Sharing, September 2019.

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