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Infusing Innovation into Infrastructure

An interview with

The world needs $94 trillion in infrastructure investment by 2040, according to the G20-backed Global Infrastructure Hub. Such a massive undertaking provides a rich environment for infusing both entrepreneurship and innovation into the infrastructure sector.

The risks and challenges of such an environment clash immediately with the traditional construction sector, which has rarely been associated with first-adopter status when it comes to innovation: Too much is at stake for investors, funders and developers.

BRINK spoke with Fiona Murray, an internationally acclaimed expert on entrepreneurship and innovation in her current role as associate dean of MIT and co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative, about how to foster a culture of innovation in infrastructure.

BRINK: Innovation isn’t typically the first word that comes to my mind when talking about infrastructure. So first off, do we even need innovation in infrastructure?

Fiona Murray: Yes, we do. If you look at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, infrastructure and innovation are a singular goal, which I thought was quite interesting because you probably need innovation to reach every single one of the sustainable development goals, so it’s a little bit of an odd coupling. Consider all the activities that provide the backbone of our daily lives. A lot of that backbone in many places in the world is either crumbling or inadequate or often extremely expensive.

That means there are some big problems to solve and some big challenges. Typically when we see big problems and challenges, then we think innovation, which I think of as providing novel solutions to interesting problems. Innovation is going to be extremely important for infrastructure development. At MIT we call this a “problem rich environment.”

BRINK: How are we seeing innovation play into the infrastructure industry?

Murray: So I would say it can sometimes be slow, and I think there are a few reasons for that. When you think about solving problems, the problems that people typically solve are ones that they understand, and so you have to ask the question about whether or not innovators are also the people who understand infrastructure and some of its challenges.

It’s also the case that for a lot of our infrastructure solutions, the innovations are going happen at this interesting intersection of civil engineering and big data surrounding urban science, and instrumenting cities, and understanding how they work. I’m not sure there are a huge number of people who have those sets of skills. So I’m not sure we have all the people with the right knowledge in the right place at the right time.

The other problem that we probably have is profit. With infrastructure, because it’s often provided by the government and public organizations or very traditional organizations, none of us want to actually pay a premium for better infrastructure. We just want it. As a business, it can be really difficult to think about how you could actually get paid for any novel innovations … how you’d actually do something that’s profitable.

I deal with lots of entrepreneurial teams to deploy innovative solutions to big problems, and what I see that’s so striking is that you make more progress when the sales cycle is actually reasonable. Yet the sales cycles in infrastructure [are] incredibly slow because you’re often dealing with multiple stakeholders, some combination of government utilities, and other people.

So what would be the infrastructure sandbox that you would play in, in order to try and do minimum viable products, and pilots, and experiments? All of the kinds of things that we associate with entrepreneurship and innovation. It’s all much harder to do in infrastructure.

BRINK: Are there any innovation success stories?

Murray: Yes, if you think of it as a sort of a stack, where innovation can be a layer on top of existing infrastructure. So take the Hyperloop. That’s happening, but it requires a visionary and an audacious person with incredible amounts of wealth that can be put behind it. Another area is where you can put a layer of sensors and then data on top of existing infrastructure.

For example, there was a spin-out program in Singapore. It actually comes out of some joint work between MIT and several of the universities in Singapore, which deals with water security. Sensors allow you to detect when and where you have a water leak in your piping system. They are instrumenting existing pipes with sensors that can be deployed without actually having to dig up the roads. This allows you to save a huge amount of water by identifying leaks very, very rapidly.

There was another example […] something from the “Senseable City Lab” at MIT. It’s a sensor-based system that allows you to put sensors down the sewage system and identify things of interest. Say for example, you can identify the presence of narcotics. I know you may not think of that as an infrastructure problem. There, you’re kind of using infrastructure to understand a bigger city problem, but you could also use it to instrument and understand what’s happening in the sewage system and how you might improve your treatment facilities.

How can we best develop a culture of innovation for the infrastructure industry?

Things like massively distributed sensors are actually really powerful. There’s a lot of interesting work around urban science, which is taking a massively big data approach to understanding the city. So by taking all the existing data of things like traffic patterns, taxicab usage patterns, traffic light patterns, etc., you can understand the kind of living, breathing, infrastructure of the city, and then you can start to make interesting, adaptive changes.

The easy stuff is around sensing, and then big data that sort of layers on top of the existing infrastructure. We see a fair amount of that in water, the electric grid and public transportation. I would put autonomous vehicles in the category of infrastructure because it changes the way we use the backbone of urban, or even nonurban, living.

Where it gets more difficult is when you want to deploy solutions to actually change the infrastructure. So, I guess autonomous vehicles are probably a fairly big change. This Hyperloop would be bigger on some continuum, but there’s some interesting work happening in concrete. So understanding the nanostructure of concrete, which allows you to potentially make concrete much more energy efficient in its production. But how do you do that? You can’t get rid of everything that we have in concrete. You can only deploy the technology with new construction.

Material science around construction material is extraordinarily interesting, but really difficult to deploy because typical lead users—the people who probably use the most concrete—tend to be very large organizations, often public, who are probably risk averse and don’t want to take risk with new materials.

I’ve also seen a lot of interesting startups, for example, do things like create a new source of glass, where you could actually make transparent solar cells and transparent solar as a coating on glass that could deploy in huge buildings. There’s a company called Ubiquitous Energy that does that.

BRINK: When you are trying to reach risk-averse organizations or governments, companies, etc., how can we best develop a culture of innovation for the infrastructure industry?

Murray: One has to believe that there’s some competitive advantage to some organization to actually being first, and so persuading certain places and companies is a first step.

I think getting cities on board is important. Singapore is sort of a living laboratory of a city because it’s really a city-state. So it’s a small place, and they are very progressive. They have a government that’s really willing to experiment. So they’re saying, “Come with your new algorithms, try them out on our city infrastructure, try them out on our bus system or on our traffic lights.” Think of it as a sort of infrastructure sandbox, where you can try new things.

Getting governments on board is important, too. Cities are more nimble than federal governments because they’re much smaller. So if you think about it, you could imagine a city building its own innovation ecosystem. Boston’s trying to do that with autonomous vehicles, trying to make it reasonably straightforward for companies who are interested in autonomous vehicles to do testing on the roads in very particular places in the city. I think that’s the kind of change we need.

As a government, we probably need to say this is part of what will give us an advantage. So we will have to change the culture in some of these government agencies and utilities, and say we need to change how we reward innovators. If you want something different, if you want different behavior, you have to measure different things and reward people for different things. Somehow you have to find a way of saying, “We’ll reward you for trying new things in areas that we’ll designate jointly, where we can test things out, and we can try things, and we’ll try and develop new ways of trying things that don’t create reliability problems in places where it’s essential, but where we can also still be creative and trying new things.”

To give you an example, Copenhagen and probably Stockholm have very significant carbon-neutral goals, and one of the ways in which they’re trying to reach those goals is not just to tinker with existing infrastructure, but is to actually say “we need new sources of infrastructure” and then making their cities a test bed for startups. So they’re simultaneously trying to grow their startup ecosystem and meet some goals at the same time while saying, “We’ll only reach those goals through innovation, so we have to make it possible to test and innovate where we are.”

BRINK: What are the biggest risks and challenges to incorporating innovation into the infrastructure industry?

Murray: I think in challenges, it’s increasing the next generation of global innovators. The kids who are graduating from colleges today with a huge amount of technical skills and market understanding don’t typically see infrastructure as a sexy place for them to deploy their expertise. If I went and asked a whole bunch of MIT undergrads, “Would you like to go and work in the construction industry?” They’d probably look at me as if I was from Mars. So there’s a little bit of a perception problem and a lack of information and understanding.

A lot of the challenge is happening in government. With governments trying to couple their thinking about innovation in other arenas with their thinking about their work on infrastructure and utilities and really pay attention to that. I think cities are the places where that will happen. The mayors of major cities probably have sufficient vision and control of locations that are very place specific, but recognizing that there are lost opportunities.

We also need to move pieces of regulation that cause us to be focused solely on minimizing cost. We have to shift some of our metrics and our KPIs so that we actually have opportunities to test things and create these experimental test beds.

In a city such as Boston, I want to know what are all the things that prevent an entrepreneur with road sensing technology, or a water pipe sensing technology, or whatever infrastructure innovation, from actually doing a small scale deployment. And then list the 20,000 regulations that get in their way and figure out […] how to reduce the regulatory burden without risking the system. I think there are probably massive amounts of low hanging fruit, if you thought about it that way.

Fiona Murray

Associate Dean of Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management

Professor Fiona Murray is the associate dean of Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, William Porter Professor of Entrepreneurship and an associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research.  She is also the co-director of MIT’s Innovation Initiative. She serves on the British Prime Minister’s Council on Science and Technology and has been awarded a CBE for her services to innovation and entrepreneurship in the UK.

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