What if the last infrastructure in South Africa has already been built?

Does South Africa need more infrastructure? Francois Joubert shares how physical asset management can benefit SA

Some commentators argue that the best way to spend infrastructure budgets would be to better manage and repair existing assets rather than build new ones, based on the fact that much of the world’s infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life and therefore crumbling.

But is this also true for South Africa, where large numbers of citizens still suffer from poor availability of infrastructure? These backlogs were acknowledged in the medium-term budget speech delivered by South African Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in October 2018, which identified infrastructure delivery as a key enabler of economic growth for the country.

While there will be a need for new infrastructure assets, the Municipal Infrastructure Grant, established to assist municipalities with funding, also emphasises the need to replace and rehabilitate existing infrastructure instead of building more.

But it’s not just governments that rely on infrastructure assets to achieve their goals, so too does the private sector. As asset management consultants, we need to be rigorous when determining what needs to be built, and more concerned with how we care for what we already have.

Towering at 269 meters, The Hillbrow Tower is an important symbol of Johannesburg and once held the title of tallest structure in Africa for 45 years.   Gautrain is an 80-kilometre commuter rail system in Gauteng which links Johannesburg, Pretoria, Ekurhuleni, and O.R. Tambo International Airport.

The 269-metre tall Hillbrow Tower and 80-kilometre long commuter rail system Gautrain are two of SA's most important structures

Physical asset management has emerged as one of the most exciting careers over the past decade thanks to this paradigm shift in the built environment. There are several asset management best practice documents published globally, including PAS55 (Publicly Available Specification 55), the ISO55001 Standard and the Asset Management Landscape, published by the Global Forum on Maintenance and Asset Management.

It is also why National Treasury has released the Cities Infrastructure Delivery Management System (CIDMS), which is a guideline for South African cities to plan, deliver, better maintain, and prolong the life of existing infrastructure.

Maximising the utility of existing assets is also a global challenge. The World Economic Forum has identified this as one of the key levers to create sustainable value for asset owners.

As infrastructure advisory and engineering consultants, the question we need to keep debating and developing solutions for is how we can get more out of existing assets instead of building costly new ones.

Asset management best practices will provide many of the answers, but to keep developing and improving this area of expertise, asset owners and the organisations supporting them, such as consultants, will need to learn a new language.  A language that includes some of the concepts defined in the CIDMS, such as:

  • An asset management strategy
  • Remaining useful life
  • Reliability-centred maintenance
  • Optimised decision-making
  • Maintenance standards

Besides mastering a new language, sustainable asset management will also require organisational change. All asset-intensive organisations that depend on those assets to achieve their organisational goals will have to structure themselves around asset management principles. This will impact not only how these organisations manage the assets, but also on how they manage themselves.

All functional areas that form part of an organisation, from human resources and finance to information technology, ultimately exist to manage and preserve the core of the business, namely, the assets. It’s time now for organisations to focus attention on the assets that sustain their business and enable the achievement of the corporate goals.

Fortunately, many of the technologies that we see emerging in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will make this much easier, for example, smart assets that tell us when they need to be cared for. However, establishing ‘smart’ assets requires investment – of thinking, time, money, and technology. This is especially true for assets that already exist, when retrofitting tools such as Internet-of-Things devices that tell us about their condition and operational performance.

Digital tools also need to be calibrated, maintained, upgraded and replaced, consequently asset owners should carefully evaluate their information needs and prioritise devices that truly add value to their decision-making. The question is therefore not so much in “how we can analyse the big data” that is available, but rather in “how we get accurate operational data that will support and deliver value”.

At Aurecon, we have moved beyond just talking about how digital transformation is changing engineering, we are already harnessing technology to offer better solutions to the challenges faced by asset owners.

The value that clients derive from our solutions might be realised in many ways, for example:

  • Optimised capital expenditure
  • Minimising impact to the environment or surrounding communities
  • Improved service delivery
  • Improved returns to shareholders
  • Improved health and safety
  • Optimised maintenance
  • Statutory and other compliance

Maybe we haven’t built the last infrastructure asset yet, but we are closer to that point than we originally thought. In the meantime, let’s realise the full value from the asset portfolios through good asset management practice.

About the Author

Francois Joubert

Francois is an Asset Management Principal in Aurecon. He is a Certified Asset Management Assessor with the World Partners in Asset Management and he also serves as one of the councilors of the Southern African Asset Management Association.

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