Published 2021-01-27

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Sweden’s surprisingly large ‘maintenance debt’

Sweden’s large maintenance deficit, or ‘debt’, in the nation’s infrastructure has surprised Lars Marklund. As he sees it, a coherent research programme requires commitment and a modicum of nagging. Having taken over as Mistra InfraMaint’s new programme director in November, Marklund is now familiarising himself with a wide range of topics, from durable concrete pipes to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT).

In November, when Lars Marklund took on the roles of researcher at Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) and programme director of Mistra InfraMaint, he rapidly became aware of what he calls ‘Sweden’s large maintenance debt’.

Lars Marklund, programme director of Mistra InfraMaint.

‘I was surprised that maintenance work in Swedish infrastructure is so neglected. There have been some improvements, in the railways for instance, but we’re so far behind where all infrastructure is concerned that it’s liable to collapse any moment! Before, I didn’t grasp the scale of how urgent this issue is.’

For the past decade, Marklund has been working in community development, most recently as innovation coach at Tyréns. He was previously unacquainted with Mistra InfraMaint, but both the research programme and the director role instantly appealed to him.

‘The built environment accounts for a significant share of the world’s climate emissions; and there’s great potential to make key contributions in sustainability issues. Research work for a smarter and more resource-efficient society, with smaller footprints, attracted me. I think working on maintenance is the most resource-efficient way to address these issues.’

Burying one’s head in the sand

He recognises the problems of neglected maintenance in Swedish infrastructure from his personal involvement in development assistance. Marklund is a board member of WASSUP, which works to ensure access to clean water, as well as sustainable water and sanitation management. In this sector, it is clearly more appealing to support drilling for a new well, for example, than to repair an existing one.

The fact that maintenance issues remain a hidden problem makes it easy for people to bury their heads in the sand. This is the programme’s big challenge.

‘Mistra InfraMaint generates a lot of good decision support, technical solutions, strategies and planning tools. But without succeeding in changing people’s behaviour, providing the best tools isn’t enough: they get shelved and we keep working as we’ve always done. Getting people interested in the matter of maintenance is by far the biggest challenge.’

In particular, Marklund highlights the issue of drinking water. He says that as much as a third of our drinking water leaks out owing to substandard water pipes. At Mistra InfraMaint, several projects focusing on Sweden’s water and sanitation networks are under way, but finding solutions is difficult.

‘In Denmark, only about a tenth of drinking water leaks away. That’s partly due to different geology and it being a more densely populated country, of course. But another reason is that water producers are fined if the leakage is more than 10 per cent. That’s not just a deterrent. It generates interest in the issue, boosts knowledge about the situation and so improves scope for fixing the problems. A new EU directive, now under discussion, will presumably result in all countries having to report their water leakage to the EU. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the long run, Sweden gets laws like the ones in Denmark.’

One advantage Marklund mentions is that many municipalities and municipal companies have joined the programme. But it takes work from two sides to achieve a change: first, to get the municipalities and companies involved to absorb the research results and pave the way, and second, to get significant stakeholders outside the programme to take the knowledge on board and disseminate it further.

Far from ‘dusty old issues’

Marklund sees his new assignment as programme director as a fun and challenging role. Being the spider in the web and developing opportunities for collaboration among experts with various skills has always attracted him. He has a strong desire for a cohesive programme in which the projects — instead of leading their own lives, silo-fashion — afford synergies.

‘It’s already been firmly entrenched for some time, and it’s very much up to us in the programme management to ensure that we’re familiar with and engaged in all the projects, and to snap up various chances to collaborate. A bit of nagging is probably good, too.’

After almost three months in the role of programme director, Marklund is also pleasantly surprised to find that infrastructure maintenance is a broad area connecting organisational theory, politics, behavioural science, life-cycle assessment, technology and AI. All this is far from the ‘dusty old issues’ that many people think of when the word ‘maintenance’ is mentioned.

In December, the programme board approved three new research projects, one of which uses AI and the IoT to focus on identifying leaks in drinking-water networks.

‘There’s so much exciting and rewarding research to do in this area. Raising the scientific level is one aim; being at the cutting edge of innovation is another. And then there’s the most important thing: reaching out with our results and creating interest in the issue. The question is how we can reduce indifference about this area and demonstrate the gains from working more proactively.’

Read more about Mistra InfraMaint’s research here.