Just 20 years ago, space was the sole domain of governments. Nobody else had the capital or capability to take on such a mammoth task. But no longer. Today, it’s private companies like SpaceX and its competitors that are pushing the boundaries of space exploration and development. Who would have thought?

At a more terrestrial level, similar rapid technological disruption is upending the status quo across infrastructure sectors. Consider, for example, the rapid adoption of contactless ticketing on metros. Or the introduction of automated vehicles.

Technological progress (or, if you prefer, disruption) is happening in shorter cycles with greater impact. If you are responsible for planning, operating or owning an asset with a 50-plus year lifespan, this might be disconcerting. In a world of big technological leaps, it can be challenging to plan for the long-term with any degree of certainty.

The answer is flexibility. For example, infrastructure owners and designers should be thinking about how they might repurpose and adapt their assets to serve alternative purposes in the future. Are there design elements that you could include today that would allow the asset to be repurposed if and when it becomes tactically obsolete?

Technological flexibility will also be important. That might mean using open data and design principles to allow new technologies and tools to be bolted on in the future. Or perhaps contracting for services and outcomes rather than specific technologies or assets.

Governments will also need to be more flexible about ownership. One lesson from the emergence of the space industry is that the lines between public and private infrastructure provision are rapidly blurring. In this case, the US government saw the writing on the wall and was flexible enough to partner with the commercial space industry to advance national objectives including space exploration, national security, combating the climate crisis, and international partnerships, including building commercial space stations, in-space assembly and manufacturing, extracting and using resources on the Moon, addressing the hazard of space debris, and fueling stations in orbit.28 That gave them much greater flexibility to execute on their objectives using the best technologies available at any given time.

Now it seems there are no infrastructure areas too big or too risky for the private sector to take on, and no public agenda that the private sector can’t influence. Saving the world is as much a mission for the private sector as it is for the public sector (better yet, working together).

Over the next few years, expect to see governments and infrastructure planners place greater emphasis on creating flexibility in their infrastructure designs and assets. It won’t stop a new technology from disrupting your plans. But it will allow you to make better use of your existing investments for longer and give you the confidence that — when disruption does come — you will have options for dealing with it.

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28 White House, FACT SHEET, U.S. Novel Space Activities Authorization and Supervision Framework, 2023